US Exports Fantasies and Weapons Systems

August 10th, 2006 - by admin

Frida Berrigan / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-08-10 23:28:51

What If We Marketed Guns like Movies?
Frida Berrigan / San Francisco Chronicle

(August 6, 2006) — America exported $10.5 billion worth of film and television in 2004. The world’s favorite TV show is a soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful. Every day, in almost every corner of the globe, people stream to movies made in the United States. They watch Halle Berry conjure up a storm with her eyes, Johnny Depp swashbuckle his way through the Caribbean, and Keanu Reeves swoon and mope in the company of Sandra Bullock.

But in Uzbekistan, those same movie fans are denied the rights of free speech and assembly, while President Islam Karimov tightens his grip on power with an array of arms made in the United States. In the Philippines, they watch the country’s debt skyrocket as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gobbles up American weaponry at startling prices and an alarming rate.

Like American entertainment, American arms are a multibillion-dollar industry that leans heavily on foreign sales. In fact, the United States exported $18.6 billion in fighter planes, attack helicopters, tanks, battleships and other weaponry in 2005. All signs point to 2006 being another banner year for exports.

Just as in the movie, TV and music businesses, we dwarf the competition. Russia is the next largest arms exporter with a measly $4 billion in yearly sales. In fact, US arms exports accounted for more than half of total global arms deliveries — $34.8 billion — in 2004, and we export more of them ourselves than the next six largest exporters combined.
Given the huge payoffs and even larger payloads delivered, isn’t it strange how little attention the American arms industry gets?

Maybe, in some small part, that’s because the industry’s magazines all have the word “Defense,” or some equivalent, prominently displayed on the cover — Defense Week, Defense News — instead of Glamour or Allure.

Maybe it’s because of the Pentagon’s predilection for less than magnetic PowerPoint presentations, unbearably unexpressive acronyms, and slightly paunchy, very pasty, older white men in business suits. Maybe the arms trade just doesn’t seek the plush of the red carpet or the jittery pulse of flashing paparazzi cameras. Or maybe, it’s a business that just loves to revel in profitable anonymity.

But don’t be fooled. Like Hollywood, the arms industry has sex to spare. After all, the weapons themselves are all gleaming golden curves and huge thrusting spikes; they move at breath-robbing speed, make ear-splitting noise and are capable of performing with awesome lethality.

It’s common to say that “You are what you eat”; but, at the level of nation-states, “You are what you export” may be no less true. We think of ourselves as trendsetters and style arbiters because of our best-known export — mass culture. But weapons are our most deadly and potent export; they help determine who controls key regions of the world and shape how those regions are governed; they create jobs, extinguish lives and sometimes obliterate whole neighborhoods.

In the mountains of Turkey, Kurdish kids may not have a chance to drink Coke, listen to American rap or play Street Fighter, but they do know two things from English, “Cobra” and “Black Hawk,” the names of the US-made attack helicopters the Turks have used to strafe their villages. We should at least know as much about the weapons our country sells as they do, and more about the arms industry as whole than we do about Lindsay Lohan’s brush with anorexia and addiction.

What if we did? What if American girls grew up reading Jane’s Defence Weekly instead of (or in addition to) Jane? What if Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell labored on their craft in virtual obscurity, while Cameron Diaz and Scarlett Johansson did their own laundry after a hard shift on the film set? What if the attention these stars now get went to the arms trade? Then, Jeffrey Kohler and Robert Joseph would be household names, their every move tracked by a voracious media.

Perhaps then we would watch A! (as in “A! Today in the Arms Trade”) instead of E! Of course, I wouldn’t even have to write this next sentence, because everyone would already know that Jeffery Kohler is the director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency within the Defense Department and Robert Joseph is undersecretary of state for arms control and international security — and that the arms business wouldn’t be its sexy self without them.

Even though we know that A! will never replace E!, nor will a magazine named Power replace People in those supermarket racks, there’s still plenty to talk about. It’s just that you have to read Aviation Week or Sea Power (or the Business pages of major newspapers) to know about it.

Take but one relatively modest example: In March 2003, the United States and Poland inked a Pentagon-brokered agreement worth $3.5 billion with US arms companies. The emerging power and new member of the European Union bought a whole new military in a box: including 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes, Raytheon advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles and Maverick air-to-ground missiles.

Putting aside what Poland actually needed all this firepower for, how about a Power magazine in-depth investigation on how the big US arms makers tempted Poland with $6.3 billion in investments. As one of Lockheed Martin’s directors explained, the deal wasn’t really about selling weapons to Poland. Nope, they were interested in “enhancing Poland competitively in the global economy, creating jobs and enhancing local labor market skills.” Kinda sweet, right?

So, to put this in a simple way, in order to sell Warsaw $3.5 billion in military hardware, we gave them $6.3 billion in goodies. Think about that for a moment. Isn’t it just a bit too much of a good thing — like the $100,000 gift-bags movie stars get at parties after their $100 million movie premieres? Poland gets a General Motors plant (wait, didn’t one just close in Muncie, Ind.?) and a Motorola communications system in addition to a Lockheed Martin factory and billions more in US investment.

As the American ambassador to Poland said, “It’s the deal of the century.” For Poland yes, for American workers — like the ones who don’t make Pontiacs and Caddies in Detroit and Muncie anymore — maybe not.

And you want sex, lies and videotape? OK, maybe not the sex part — and it was e-mail, not videotape, that provided the incriminating evidence — but there were plenty of lies in a 2003 domestic arms scandal that bilked taxpayers of millions of dollars. Boeing — the bomber behemoth — tried to sucker the Air Force into leasing 100 airborne refueling tankers at a cost of perhaps $6 billion dollars, more than it would have cost the government to buy the (unnecessary) planes outright.

The scheme landed Darleen Druyun, a former Air Force weapons buyer, in a Florida prison after she pled guilty to giving Boeing special treatment on a $23.5 billion government contract in exchange for a post as senior vice president at the company and perks for her family members. Talk about a cheap date! As a Boeing veep, Druyun pulled in a mere $250,000 a year, while the company would have taken in billions in revenue.

Any flak could warn you about how a reputation for late-night carousing can sully a star’s squeaky-clean reputation. You can’t act like Paris Hilton at night and land roles for Mandy Moore the next morning. The same goes for arms sales. But the United States keeps trying. While boasting about democracy, security and peace, we sell weapons to dictators, human rights abusers and countries at war or at the edge of war (sometimes with each other).

In fact, 20 of our top 25 arms clients in the developing world in 2003 were undemocratic regimes or governments with records as major human-rights abusers. All too often, US arms transfers fuel conflict, give weapons to human-rights abusers or fall into the hands of our adversaries. Far from serving as a force for security and stability, these sales frequently empower unstable, undemocratic regimes.

America’s arms trade won’t be spoon-fed to us the way model Naomi Campbell’s run-ins with the law are. Unfortunately, it takes work on our part to discover how our arms trade functions. But knowing where our weapons are going and what sort of havoc they are wreaking in our name seems worth the effort — even if it doesn’t offer the promise of the perfect tan or six-pack abs.

Frida Berrigan ( is a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. This piece appeared on Contact us at

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