The Shadow World by Andrew Feinstein

The Shadow WorldThe Shadow World by Andrew Feinstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In summer 2011, having become convinced that the machinations of what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” represents one of the most serious threats to peace and freedom everywhere, I set about trying to find a book on it. Nothing really seemed to deal with that subject directly, although there were books on particular weapons, wars, and companies. Then I found The Shadow World by Andrew Feinstein: it looked like a close fit. As for being up to date, it was not even yet published; I had to preorder it.

So I did. The book duly arrived in November, and I started reading it in December. One thing that impressed me off the bat was an endorsement on the back cover by Desmond Tutu. “How did he get that?” I wondered. Because I removed the dust jacket without reading the flap blurb, I had to wait until about 100 pages into the book to learn that Mr. Feinstein had been a member of the African National Congress and a Member of Parliament for South Africa. In that capacity he had had occasion to investigate improprieties in arms deals there, and became something of an expert on the topic, as well as a passionate critic of the arms trade generally.

Over the following 10 years or so Mr. Feinstein, with the help of a research team, dug into the arms business from multiple angles: its history, its leading suppliers, its personalities, specific arms deals large and small, government involvement, notable attempted prosecutions; and some of its key outputs: body counts, forced migrations, perpetual political instability, and widespread impoverishment.

Aristophanes satirized how the sword- and shield-makers of ancient Athens were militant and pro-war; and that phenomenon has not changed in any way except scale. The makers of weapons are now some of the world’s biggest corporations, like Lockheed Martin and BAE, and they want and need to sell their products. The best time to do this is when weapons are being consumed in armed conflict. And some of their key salespeople are their own governments.

It’s very hard to find anything good to say about the industry—and I shrink from using the word industry because to me this suggests some kind of legitimate competitive business that produces things for which there is a real public demand. But Mr. Feinstein shows how this is very far from being the case here. The industry as a whole is deeply corrupt, root and branch. Large weapons makers spend years bribing whole parliaments into buying their systems, one representative at a time. Senior ministers and heads of state are often on the payroll. For a multi-billion-dollar weapons deal to a developing country like Saudi Arabia, 30% of the total will be bribes. Maybe more. Most of these activities are, to be sure, illegal. But weapons makers operate under the special protection of their governments, and even in those rare cases when prosecutions are undertaken by zealous bureaucrats, they are generally scotched by the governing executive.

In the United States, the weapons capital of the universe, the military-industrial complex has expanded into what is known as the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC): an intricate, self-lubricating clockwork of congressional pork, “campaign contributions”, cost-plus noncompetitive contracts, and revolving-door career-switches between the Pentagon, the White House, and military contractors. The dollar figures involved are stupendous. It is a juggernaut.

The very complexity of this shadow world and its many effects make it difficult to organize an account of it, and in reading I felt a little bit as though I was being shown many sides of this business, but without a single overarching point being developed, other than, “this is bad.” I also felt I was at times being patronized by the author by his reliance on value-charged modifiers. Flipping the book open at random, on page 194 I see that in an account about payoffs to a Tanzanian government minister, the author says, “Displaying remarkable insensitivity, Chenge referred to the money in his account [$1.2 million] as ‘pocket change’.” This reader did not need his attention drawn to the minister’s “insensitivity.”

Another example from page 105: “None of the parties to the IBC agreement knew how to organize money transfers in a way that would obscure the origins of their ill-gotten gains.” Here again, the term ill-gotten felt like an effort to make sure I understood that what these guys were doing was wrong. There are many more examples throughout the book.

However, these reservations aside, I feel that this book is a great service to humanity, and we owe the author a great debt. There is a wealth of carefully documented evidence here of how the arms industry works at all levels and in almost all places. The ills that result are very many and very large. Mr. Feinstein’s passion and disgust are amply justified. We should bear in mind that when we hear people justifying these activities and these transactions, those doing the justifying are mostly receiving large—often extremely large—cash payments from those very transactions.

Think about it.

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