The National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque is the scariest showroom I've ever visited: Its display cases burst with air-delivered destruction, from Fat Man and Little Boy to the streamlined cruise missiles of more recent vintage. (These newer versions come accessorized with sprightly trim that points all too clearly to their dual status as weapon and totemic trade commodity.) Why this merger of commerce and megadeath should surprise, I don't know. As progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne observed amid the jingoistic fury that spurred this nation into World War I, war is the health of the state. Still, after a half-century that afforded endless opportunities for offhand global destruction, one might expect a throttling down of the military-industrial engines.
Although he's a regular contributor to such lefty bastions as The Nation and Mother Jones, journalist Ken Silverstein nevertheless lured some of the people in the driver's seat into explaining why that won't happen anytime soon. The exploits of this group, chronicled in Silverstein's new Private Warriors (Verso), make for unsettling reading: A dedicated cadre devoted to high budgets and endless R&D--ex-Nazi arms brokers, military men now working the other side of the fence, weapons contractors in bed with seamy U.S. government offices and friendly dictators--this crew has kept the fiscal pedal to the metal. (Unreformed National Socialist Ernst Glatt did about half a billion dollars' worth of business with the Pentagon between 1983 and 1993.) Regardless of whether an enemy looms, no military procurement budget is going to sink even a little on the watch of these warmongers, a term they wear with pride. Need to move last year's model off the shelves? Sell "obsolete" weaponry to allies (or dump it, if necessary), then stick up Congress for even bigger budgets on account of the advanced technology everyone else now possesses.
Silverstein makes an appropriately acerbic guide through the corridors of this underworld. In each chapter he visits one of the perpetrators of destruction, introducing us to faces as familiar as Al Haig, now a Unification ("Moonie") Temple stooge and all-purpose militarist, and spooks as unknown as shadowy defense intellectual Andy Marshall, a "pork-seeking missile" and still-hawkish cold warrior who heads the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. Following a chain of revolving doors into and out of government service, these men variously slaver for new wars, help arm the globe, and prop up friendly military pseudo-states. Often Silverstein can only marvel at the ingenuity with which government and business collude to evade humanitarian restrictions. The U.S., for instance, now avoids the stigma attached to its torturer-training School of the Americas by outsourcing aid to right-wing regimes. Today's bad lieutenants can learn their trade at mercenary firms staffed by former military personnel who instruct police and counterinsurgency "administrators" in Saudi Arabia, Croatia, and Angola, where they are subject to no public oversight.
The result of such a journalistic journey might sound unstintingly grim, but Silverstein leavens the bleakness with mockery of the weirdos at the margins. At a 1998 fascist-fest hosted by Soldier of Fortune magazine, he notes,
[T]he culmination...came at a shooting range on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where a dozen men armed with machine guns and explosives blew to smithereens a white van....The affair was emceed by Peter Kokalis, an SOF editor, who lovingly described the machine guns used in the assault...
between telling jokes...and berating reporters in attendance for being a bunch of pansy-assed liberals.
Yet the author also notes that among those in attendance, "bullshit artists outnumbered combat vets by a wide margin." And in fact, Silverstein never quite plumbs the bottom of the murky hints all these men drop. How many flew relief to the Contras or hacked through African jungles in support of the tyrant du jour? How many merely stoked tall tales with history glommed from too many viewings of Rambo? Two-thirds of these people sound almost laughably ineffectual--weekend warriors stomping around in army-surplus camo. The remainder appear so insulated by think tanks, industry backing, and inscrutable government posts, as to be all but unknowable. Andy Marshall, for instance, almost never speaks in public, but he was instrumental in pushing through the staggeringly expensive Revolution in Military Affairs doctrine, which holds that a defense budget dwarfing that of the rest of the world somehow mandates an immediate increase in spending.
Good muckraking will stir up a reader, but Silverstein seems less outraged than simply bemused by the byzantine weapons deals and secret missions his subjects conspire to inflict on the world. Though he tracks their doings doggedly, Silverstein leaves the reader with a dispiriting sense of vertigo: Despite all we learn about what these men are up to, we end up mostly boggled by their sheer warped devotion, and unclear as to what, if anything, the public can do to rein them in. So it is that Silverstein's book can be said to have won the battle while losing the war.
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