The Business of War, 1


It can be an assault rifle, a machinegun, a handgun or any military weapon in the hands of one of our army personnel, a US soldier or a mercenary it doesn’t matter. The purpose of such guns is to kill or maim a human being.

The purpose of military aircraft and ships is the same.

A soldier’s first duty is to kill or disable the enemy with a gun or explosive of some kind or another. The enemy is designated by the State or the group in power; and the gun is provided by the soldier’s employer.

Amnesty International and Oxfam have calculated that over 500,000 people are killed each year by small arms and that there are over 600 million such arms in circulation. That death figure doesn’t include people killed by landmines, rockets, explosives or bombs.

In 2003 (the latest year I could find), global military spending and the arms trade exceeded $US 950 billion. The United States of America is, by any measure, the largest exporter of weapons in the world. Military sales account for about 18 per cent of its national budget, far and away the greatest proportion of any country in the world. It has been said that US governments cannot reduce arms sales because of the consequent fall in GDP. In other words, the American economy depends to a critical extent on arms manufacture and sales.

Much of the weaponry in the hands of Iraqi ‘insurgents’ and the Afghan Taliban the assault rifles and rocket launchers is manufactured in the US. The arms industry is largely if not totally uncontrolled. Whoever pays the most gets the weapon; political divisions are meaningless. The bullet that killed a US soldier in Iraq today could have been made by nice hard-working people in the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut. The owners and the shareholders are king.

High-income countries account for 75 per cent of world military expenditure, but only 16 per cent of the world population. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council the US, the UK, France, Russia and China are responsible for over 80 per cent of the world’s arms sales.

Meanwhile, Down Under, the Australian Defence Force website is a depressing labyrinth of committee reports and papers, written in Orwellian newspeak. I get the impression of a Department totally beyond government supervision, in the hands of powerful bureaucrats and senior military men. In 2004, the Auditor-General found that there were serious shortcomings in the Department’s record keeping, and that a total of AUD$8 billion in assets and liabilities was unaccounted for. (To put that into some perspective, the CIA Fact Book gives the estimated GDP of the Central American country of Belize as US$1 billion.)

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

In 1999, the Australian Defence Minister was John Moore he has long since retired. And the Minister for Defence Personnel was Bronwyn Bishop she has since been dumped and is now on the backbench. (I think after Defence Personnel, Bronwyn got Ageing perhaps Hairdressing is more her style. It could be said that because of her ineptitude, she was one of the most embarrassing of Howard’s Ministers. She is presently devoting her time to the protection of the Australian flag, and wants flag-burning made a criminal offence.)

Back in 1999, Moore announced that ‘Australia is on the way to becoming the arms supermarket to the world.’ The previous June, Bishop had announced ‘the wider integration of industry into defence by establishing new ways to involve Australian industry across the spectrum of defence business, and increasing Australian arms exports.’ A couple of months after Bishop’s announcement, the head of the military aircraft division of British Aerospace backed the policy announcements.

Seven years on, Moore and Bishop’s plans have largely been successful, and it should be remembered that they were formulated well before 9/11 after which, Australia adopted a far more aggressive foreign/military policy stance and has become an enthusiastic member of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. The role of private business in defence in Australia is now critical. An example might be the recruitment of former Defence Minister Peter Reith, to naval contractor, Tenix, in 2002.

And now after first Reith and then Robert Hill took over from Moore as Defence Ministers we have the arch-conservative and unpleasant Brendan Nelson (lately the Lord Castlereagh of Education) in charge.

Principal arms manufacturers in the world are: (US) AAI Corporation, Boeing, the Carlyle Group, Colt’s Manufacturing Company, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Lockheed-Martin; (UK) BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and British Aerospace; (Sweden) Saab Missiles; (France) the Thales Group.

Interestingly, the last-mentioned manufacturer owns 50 per cent of Australian Defence Industries formerly a government-owned monopoly of the Australian arms industry.

There is no doubt that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has changed considerably over the past 10 years as has Australian culture at large. It is now considered ‘un-Australian’ to criticise or even question the activities of our defence personnel. Soldierly values have become paramount. There are links between military values and the endless farewelling and welcoming home of our Boys and Girls from overseas missions, flag-flying, the singing of the National Anthem and sports competitions. Destruction, death and mutilation have been quietly pushed to one side in the orgasm of relaxed and comfortable xenophobia.

Currently, the ADF is conducting 10 operations, ranging from ‘Operation Slipper’ (our contribution to the War Against Terror) to ‘Operation Catalyst’ (our contribution to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq). We are, one supposes, doing our best to help multinational construction giants like Halliburton and Bechtel and other cowboys, while they feast on the dismembered and bloody body of Iraq.

It is virtually impossible to get up-to-date and meaningful figures of Australia’s arms export trade. In the financial year 1999/2000, Australia exported AUD$515.6 million worth of military products, of which New Zealand took $505.3 million. In 2000/2001, Australia exported only AUD$37.2 million worth, of which the USA took $25 million. No other figures seem to be available.

The few military export figures provided by the Department of Defence make little sense. Much depends on the particular deals concluded in a given year for example, in 1990, Pakistan’s military shopping list included 50 Mirage jet aircraft in mint condition, purchased from Australia at AUD$1 million a pop.

Currently, we spend about AUD$8 billion a year on defence; and in 2004, the top 40 defence contractors reported business of around AUD$5 billion. Again, as Moore and Bishop wanted in 1999, there is increasing privatisation of the defence industries.

There is a link, too, between the awarding of defence contracts and electoral prospects. This makes for pork-barrelling.

As noted, no fewer than 40 private companies supply the Department of Defence with products ranging from material for uniforms to electronic systems to ammunition for small arms. Supplying the military in Australia is big business. Lobbyists from the arms industry are powerful people; and include former ministers and Defence Department personnel.

Such is the expansion of the Department of Defence and this started under the Hawke Government Defence Minister, Kim Beazley that maybe we should call it the Department of Offence; and its minister, the Minister for War. (For an initially Tom Clancy-ish, but nevertheless thoughtful and informative piece on Australia’s new militarism, see John Birmingham: ‘A Time for War,’ Quarterly Essay, Issue 20, 2005.)

Just as important, is the militarisation of our culture. Every other day, we are treated to images of the Governor-General, General Michael Jeffery, in military uniform, praising the deeds of our gallant soldiers. And, of course, there’s the almost universal popularity of the former Chief of the Army, General Peter Cosgrove.

Here’s something from the Department of Defence website:


The ethos of the Army is that of a soldier serving the nation: mentally and physically tough, and with the courage to win. We fight as part of a team and are inspired by the ANZAC tradition of fairness and loyalty to our mates. We are respected for our professionalism, esprit de corps and initiative.

Such a pronouncement could easily have come from Lord Raglan at Balaclava or Douglas Haig before the Battle of the Somme. Or to soldiers of the German army before the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.