The Money Defense Shield

I once sat on a plane in front of two drunk arms traders, on a
flight from Dallas to Washington DC. They’d sold helicopters to
both sides during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. When the
helicopters got shot down, the countries bought more, then more
again, so the arms traders made more money each round. They laughed
wildly about the story, considering it a perfect deal.

This incident came to mind when I heard the Bush administration
talk of kindly sharing their proposed national missile defense
system with their allies. Why not? The more countries, the more
orders. And the more benefits to those truly protected and
benefited by this project-the weapons producers who’ve spent over
$40 million in the past two years on campaign contributions and

A group of Lockheed Martin employees essentially acknowledged
this, when I gave a talk, a few years ago, at their Missile &
Space Division, in Sunnyvale, California. The company had invited
me to discuss a book of mine on the values of current
students-their future employees. I hesitated, then decided to speak
as honestly as I could, even though it would mean raising
discomforting questions. Introduced by a former Air Force General
then serving as a Lockheed Martin Vice President, I talked about
the generation’s complex worldview and struggles to engage some of
the critical issues of our time. When students feel that the world
is corrupt and can’t change, I said, they often point to the
political clout of weapons companies, citing corporate bailouts,
pork barrel contracts, and military systems that are useless but
still make millions. I mentioned how Boeing, well before it
acquired Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas, had more staffers in its
Washington DC lobbying office than the entire DC staff of
Washington State’s Congressional and Senatorial delegations
combined. The students were beginning to believe, I said, that
political access comes only when you give at the door.

After mentioning some respected critics of military buildups,
such as former Reagan assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb,
I cited the famed Eisenhower quote: ‘Every gun that is made, every
warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a
theft from those who hunger and are not fed–those who are cold and
not clothed.’ Since the average American household now pays over
$200 each year to finance Lockheed Martin’s government contracts, I
challenged the audience to question their corporate culture and not
assume that just because a contract provided money and jobs, it
automatically served a greater common good. I specifically
questioned some of the company’s missile defense systems, which
critics were calling politically destabilizing and technologically
problematic. A man in the audience quickly jumped in to defend the
company’s role in developing them.

Then one of his colleagues spoke up. ‘Let’s get real,’ he said.
‘We all know that if anyone ever attacks America, the bomb is going
to be delivered by a suitcase, a car or a truck, or in a boat. It’s
not going to come from a missile, because you can track where a
missile comes from and retaliate. We all know that we’re lobbying
for these programs because they make us money. We don’t care
whether they’ll ever work, or even be useful. We care that the
dollars come our way.’

The room was silent. The original questioner answered briefly,
but no one else jumped in. The conversation moved on to my original
topic of the students. It was as if people were ashamed to

I’m not saying that all who embrace the National Missile Defense
proposals do so for venal reasons. Some do believe in it. Building
an invincible technological shield has been a core dream of the
political right since Reagan’s first Star Wars plans, albeit a
dream spearheaded by think tanks that companies like Boeing,
Raytheon, TRW, and Lockheed Martin have lavishly supported. The
engineers and designers who support it want the chance to take on
what J. Robert Oppenheimer (who directed the creation of the first
atomic bomb), once called the ‘technically sweet’ challenge of
building complex and challenging technological systems, whatever
their consequences. But we’ve spent $45 billion on Star Wars
systems and $95 billion on total missile defense efforts since
Reagan embraced the idea, with little beyond failed tests to show
for it.

Let’s leave aside the endless reasons why National Missile
Defense will never work. Leave aside all the ways that-even if it
did-it would only undermine hard-won arms control treaties,
destabilize global politics, move us back toward nuclear
confrontation, and squander over $200 billion of resources that
could otherwise provide health care, hire teachers, rebuild our
communities or protect our environment. Do we have the political
honesty, like the Lockheed Martin employee who spoke out, to
acknowledge that this entire proposal may be largely about
political payback? The true shield it’s designed to create would
not protect people and communities. But it would protect the
massive profits of the companies that build it-whatever the costs
to the rest of us.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a
Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin’s
Press This piece was printed
in the July 25th Christian Science Monitor.

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