Privatisation of war is returning to terrorise us

In the 14th century there were two pandemics. One was the Black Death, the other was the commercialisation of warfare.

Mercenaries had always existed, but under Edward III they became the mainstay of the English army for the first 20 years of what became the Hundred Years War.

Then, when Edward signed the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 and told his soldiers to stop fighting and go home, many of them did not have anywhere to go. They were used to fighting and that is how they made their money. So they simply formed themselves into freelance armies, aptly called “free companies”, which proceeded around France pillaging, killing and raping.

One of these armies was called the Great Company. It totalled, according to one estimate, 16 000 soldiers, larger than any existing national army at the time.

Eventually it descended on the pope, in Avignon, and held him to ransom. The pope made the mistake of paying off the mercenaries with huge amounts of cash, which only encouraged them to carry on marauding. He also suggested that they move on into Italy, where his arch enemies, the Visconti, ran Milan. This they did under the banner of the Marquis of Monferrato and subsidised by the pope.

The nightmare had begun. Huge armies of brigands rampaging through Europe were a disaster second only to the plague. It seemed as if the genie had been let out of the bottle and there was no way of putting him back in. Warfare had suddenly turned into a profitable business—the Italian city states became impoverished as taxpayers’ money was used to buy off the free companies. And because those who made money out of the business of war naturally wished to go on making their money, warfare had no foreseeable end.

Wind forward 650 years or so. The United States, under George W Bush, decided to privatise the invasion of Iraq by employing private “contractors” such as the Blackwater company, now renamed Xe Services. In 2003 Blackwater won a $27-million no-bid contract for guarding Paul Bremer, then head of the coalition provisional authority. By 2004 the company had received more than $320-million.

And this year the Barack Obama government contracted to pay Xe Services $250-million for security work in Afghanistan. This is just one of many companies making its profits out of war.

In 2000 the Project for the New American Century published a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”. Its declared aim was to increase the spending on defence from 3% to 3.5% or 3.8% of US gross domestic product (GDP). It is now running at 4.7%, whereas the United Kingdom spent about $57-billion a year on defence, or 2.5% of GDP.

Just like the taxpayers of medieval Italian city states we are having our money siphoned off into the business of war. Any responsible company needs to make profits for its shareholders.

In the 14th century the shareholders in the free companies were the soldiers themselves. If the company was not being employed by someone to make war on someone else, the shareholders had to forgo their dividends. So they looked around to create markets for themselves.

Sir John Hawkwood’s White Company would offer its services to the pope or to the city of Florence. If either turned his offer down, Hawkwood would simply make an offer to their enemies.

In 1989 I picked up an in-house magazine for the arms industry. Its editorial was headed “Thank God for Saddam”. It explained that, since the collapse of communism and end of the Cold War the order books of the arms industry had been empty. But now there was a new enemy; the industry could look forward to a bonanza.

The invasion of Iraq was built around a lie: Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, but the defence industry needed an enemy and the politicians duly supplied one.

And now the same war drums, encouraged by the storming of the British embassy two weeks ago, are beating for an attack on Iran. Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker: “All of the low enriched uranium now known to be produced inside Iran is accounted for.” The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report that provoked such an outcry against Iran’s nuclear ambitions contains nothing that proves that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

In the 14th century, it was the church that lived in symbiosis with the military. Nowadays it is the politicians. The US government spent a staggering $687-billion on “defence” in 2010. Think what could be done with that money if it were put into hospitals, schools or to pay off foreclosed mortgages.

Former US president Dwight D Eisenhower famously took the opportunity of his farewell to the nation address in 1961 to warn his fellow countrymen of the dangers of allowing too close a relationship between politicians and the defence industry. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” he said.

“In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”—

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