Risking Apocalypse for the Spoils of War - Andrew Cockburn Pt 1/2

More than effective weapons, geopolitics or national defense, profit and massive budgets drive U.S. military and nuclear weapons spending. Andrew Cockburn joins Paul Jay to discuss his new book “Spoils of War”.


Paul Jay

So welcome to theAnalysis.news. I’m Paul Jay.

There’s a document from the year 2000; it’s known to many as the Project for New American Century. It was signed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and many other neo-cons that made up President Bush’s cabinet and defence department. People usually focus on the fact that the document advocates regime change in Syria, Iraq and eventually in Iran. And it’s all about asserting American dominance, asserting its role as a single superpower after the demise of the Soviet Union.

But one should pay attention to what the actual title of that document is. It’s Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which is all about a massive increase in military spending. Of course, it should be called Rebuilding America’s Offense, but the key point is about the supposed need for creating trillions of dollars to modernize the U.S. armed forces. This is the document that’s often cited in reference to the 9/11 attacks, as it out and out says that Americans won’t support such spending or another major war without another Pearl Harbor type attack on the United States. Of course, in 2001, they got what they wished for, perhaps what some of them planned for. According to Senator Bob Graham, who led the Joint Congressional 9/11 investigation, Bush/Cheney actually facilitated the attacks in collaboration with Saudi Arabia. More on that another time, but why is Bob Graham’s position on this being ignored? 

The objective we are told was rebuilding America’s armed forces, but rebuilding them for what? Well, to defend America’s freedom, of course, and it doesn’t take a lot of scrutiny to find out that there’s actually no threat to America’s “freedom”, at least not externally. There might be quite a few threats internally, domestically, but what exactly is that freedom to begin with? There is certainly a lot more freedom for people who have wealth than people who do not have wealth. At any rate, there’s no real external threat to America’s freedom, and there never has been, at least not since the end of WWII, in spite of decades and decades of propaganda otherwise.

So the classical analysis, whether it is from the Left or from the libertarian Right, is that the military buildup is really about securing foreign control, domination, global hegemony for the sake of markets and raw materials. Except when you actually look at post-WWII history, where exactly did this global American military might actually accomplish any of that? Maybe in Grenada, but they weren’t successful in Cuba. They weren’t successful in securing North Korea. They lost the Vietnam War. They lost in Afghanistan. In Iraq, yes, they overthrew Saddam. But China gets even more of Iraq’s oil than the United States does, and the Iraqi government is at least as friendly to Iran as they are to the United States. But while these adventures ended in military and geopolitical failure, trillions of dollars flowed into the arms industries. Perhaps U.S. military power has discouraged China from reunifying Taiwan, but that’s not sustainable. They haven’t been able to invade Venezuela to topple [Nicolas] Maduro, not because the U.S. has some moral objections to such intervention, but they know they will face endless resistance from the Venezuelan people and the wrath of all of Latin America. 

So, this use of this massive global military might actually hasn’t even been all that successful in terms of securing raw materials and markets and asserting its hegemony. The real power of the U.S. empire is its financial sector and the power of its markets. And yes, the CIA and its covert activities, but primarily the United States is the manager of global capitalism, and so far, that’s an indispensable role. None of what I’m saying is meant to minimize the very real control the U.S. has over most of the globe. And certainly, its ability to project military power plays a role in certain situations. But that said, in spite of this massive military might, China is now the leading trading partner for almost all of Latin America, Africa, Australia, and most of Asia. China doesn’t have any global military power, to speak of, and still dominates many markets and sources of raw materials.  

So what exactly is at least a trillion dollars a year of military spending accomplishing? What is the point of this enormous military power?  

There’s a new book out by Andrew Cockburn called Spoils of War, which makes the argument quite persuasively, I think, that the primary objective of all the military spending is the spending itself. It’s the money-making—the profits made by the military-industrial complex. Even to the extent, it doesn’t much matter if the weapons produced work or are effective in carrying out actual military missions. 

Now joining us to talk about his book is Andrew Cockburn. Andrew is the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor’s Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books and many others.

Andrew, thanks very much for joining me. 

Andrew Cockburn

Great, Paul. Good to be with you.

 Paul Jay

So am I missing something here? What the hell is the point of this obscene military budget?

 Andrew Cockburn

Well, It’s a very important point. I think you mentioned it in your introduction. It’s a trillion dollars worth of a point. If you dangle a trillion dollars in front of people, or person, or an institution, a system, they’re going to grab at it. That is the point. Very evidently, the point is not what we’re told it is, which is the defence of the United States based on a very carefully considered strategy, plans, and so forth. The point is to garner money, money and power. Or the power to get more money.

And at that, this system is incredibly successful. I mean, people who deride the U.S. military complex, the military-industrial complex, whatever you want to call it, I think really do it an injustice when they say it can’t shoot straight, it’s incompetent. No, it can shoot very straight. And it hits the target very effectively and has done for years, and years in the face of really some quite significant obstacles, like the occasional outbreak of peace.

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended, and a very significant effort they’ve been putting into that: half a million men, vast expenditures over a huge distance. The war is over. You’d expect there to be a matter of cost-saving. Well, the budget went down briefly for a year or so and then started to climb again. So peace is not a big obstacle.

Again, even more significantly in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The enemy that it had all been based on confronting the Soviet threat, that’s why we were up and running in the Cold War and the arms race in the late 1940s. Suddenly that goes away. What do we do? Things go latent for a few years, not to a great extent. I can explain why or how.

But within a few short years, the budget is zooming up again. And now we spend more than we spent during the Cold War on average. I mean, it’s quite extraordinary and quite a testament to the human resourcefulness or the resourcefulness of our defence complex.

Paul Jay

Andrew, you talked to some of the insiders, both in the military and then, I’m guessing, in the military-industrial complex. To what extent are they themselves conscious of the fact that most of this spending is for the sake of profit-making and has next to nothing to do with national security?

Andrew Cockburn

Well, if you catch them in moments of honesty, they do. I mean, really, deep down, they do. To a certain extent, they believe in their own propaganda. Their careers, their fortunes, their children’s college education or whatever is vested in believing in whatever it is they happen to be pushing: the wonders of precision-guided global strike, remote warfare, drone warfare. So I wondered if I could sort of inject them with truth drugs would they start committing it? Committing truth? I’m not sure they would. I think they internalize it to such a degree.

Someone once told me, he said until he went to work for the Air Force, he’d never understood the communist system idea of the party line. When [Joseph] Stalin would give a new instruction, which contradicted what he was saying yesterday, everyone in the global communist movement would fall into line immediately. You had to follow the party line. Then he said he went to work for the U.S. Air Force, and he saw it in action, that the groupthink and the discipline of believing in the ideology was so firmly entrenched that they would follow it.

That being said, I do find, usually, when you catch them when they’re retired or mellowing into old age, they’ll admit that what a crock it all is. But you’ll see, for example, recently, they crept out of or hurried out of Kabul after being defeated in the Afghan war, and their biggest complaint is that it’s been called a defeat. People like H.R. McMaster [Herbert Raymond McMaster] considered for a long time the bright hope of the U.S. Army, then he was [Donald] Trump’s National Security Adviser. He had a piece last week basically complaining that people are saying we’re defeated and how bad that is.

So they don’t like to be called out on their failures. But because it interrupts the money flow, that’s the demand now, is for God’s sake, even though we lost that war, and then one before that, and the one before that; we did conquer Grenada, as you said. They don’t want the money flow interrupted, so now we have the China threat to justify it.

Paul Jay

It’s one thing to sort of buy-in and rationalize somehow, troops all over the world, bases, aircraft carriers, but it’s all over there. And I’m pretty sure; they think for themselves, my kids aren’t going to get killed over there. So that’s one thing to somehow get your head around all that.

But the fact that they allow such expenditure on nuclear weapons. And what is it now? Maybe $2 trillion over the next 10-20 years rebuilding America’s nuclear might. If a nuclear war breaks out, there is no “over there” there.  

Andrew Cockburn

Well, it really comes back to the profit-making move or to institutional power. I can give you the need to maintain positions of power and influence. The nuclear weapons industry or effort provides a very good example of this, which is we have the so-called triad. We have missiles that are based on land, the ICBMs [Intercontinental ballistic missile], which they’re about to build a new one, or they are building a new one. We have nuclear weapons on bombers, and we have nuclear missiles on submarines.

Now, a long time ago, we had nuclear weapons on bombers because that was our strike force. And that’s how we could; if the Russians tried to attack us with nuclear weapons, we would strike back with bombers. And then we invented these missiles, so they were our retaliatory force, and we had a huge air defence network to stop the Russian bombers from getting through and radars to detect the Russian missiles. Then they figured out how to put missiles, fire a missile from a submerged submarine.

Well, now who needs the rest of it? We can deter. This is completely invulnerable. The Russians could never find these submarines, or they could never find them, period. But even in the worst case, they could never be sure of finding them. So the Russians or whoever, the Chinese, anyone would never dare launch a nuclear attack on us because we could quite certainly retaliate from our submarines and blend them all to pieces.

So they had to think up new reasons to keep the ICBMs, particularly, and the bombers. The original rationale had gone away completely. So they put their best minds to work to think of an excuse for having the land-based missiles.

And Daniel Ellsberg can tell you more about this than I could. But that was purely because the Air Force wanted to keep that budget and all their attendant contractors. There was no other earthly reason, no rational— if you call anything to do with nuclear weapons, rational— reason for maintaining this enormous and enormously expensive force in being, but keeping the money flow. That’s the only reason.

Paul Jay

To replace them while they’re talking about essentially a whole other modernization of exactly those missiles.

Andrew Cockburn

That’s right. Now, having to sort of refresh and dust off some of the old arguments for having these useless things in the first place. And interestingly, there’s a sort of nuclear industrial, political congressional complex. Look at the Senators from the missile States in Montana and Wyoming. Whenever there’s a threat to the land-based ICBM, you see those Senators rising up in righteous anger because it’s jobs. It’s considered important to the economy of their States to keep these missiles and be. And by the way, I mean to keep their population of Montana or Wyoming at risk of nuclear emulation because they’re there they would obviously be targeted by an enemy: by the Russians, or whoever, the Chinese, it doesn’t matter.

And so they never say to the people of Montana, by the way, we’re holding you up. We’re enhancing your role as a nuclear target because we think the jobs it generates make it worth it, and the campaign contributions I get from Lockheed or the Northrop Corporation or so forth. It’s never put that way, of course, but it just shows the appalling, the sort of risks and the denial. Level of denial that happens when in terms of the pursuit of, as I say, profit, money, power, and influence.

Paul Jay

I assume their defence of these missiles is that, well, the Russians still have a lot of them. And now they’re saying the Chinese are building more of them. So if they have, we got to have it. Although, that’s the argument they are using in Russia and China.

Andrew Cockburn 

Well, yeah, they do say that. But presumably, the people in Russia and China are saying the same thing. I want to stress how incredibly dangerous this is because on the presumption that you have to be able to fire them more or less on an instance notice because the Russians have them targeted, and therefore if the radar and the satellites pick up signs of incoming Russian missiles, the President has to be woken up immediately and give the order to launch the land-based missiles in particular because they’re so vulnerable.

Which means that everything’s on hair-trigger alert. Which means that a slip-up, and we’ve had near disasters in the past, can blow us all to kingdom-come because it happened in 1979. If I remember the date, right. When Zbigniew Brzezinski, President [Jimmy] Carter’s National Security Adviser, was woken up, they said we’ve detected Russian missiles taking off and heading our way. And then, a minute later, he gets another call confirming that. And he’s just about to wake up the President, who would then very likely would have been steered to say, okay, launch ours.

We’ve would have been off to the races when Brzezinski got another call saying, oops, sorry, we fed the wrong tape. We fed the tape of a simulated attack into the computer. Sorry about that. No, the Russian missiles aren’t on their way. We came that close to nuclear catastrophe, and that’s not the only time and certainly won’t be the only time. Hopefully, we’ll come out of it unscathed.

Paul Jay

How do they get their own heads around the danger of this? Why do they seem so sure there won’t be a nuclear war?

Andrew Cockburn

Well, look what happens at the fringes. As an example, I often cite as part of President [Barack] Obama’s nuclear modernization program that he, I think, very reprehensibly signed off on back in 2010. There was a part of what was slid in there was to increase our production of plutonium or produce more plutonium pits. A plutonium pit is the core of a nuclear weapon. And these pits were to be made or are made at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory in New Mexico.

Now, as it so happened, there was no earthly need for these pits. I mean, even in the context of having building nuclear weapons, because we already had a surplus of pits. We had more than enough to keep us going for hundreds of years. We could fight not just World War III but World Wars IV, V, IV and IIV with what we have in the locker.

Paul Jay

Let me just interject. If there is a WWIII, there ain’t going to be a four, five, six or seven. But I get your point.

Andrew Cockburn

There were objections raised on this basis that we didn’t really need to do it. Among those who fought like a tiger to keep that appropriation in there was Tom Udall, then the U.S. Senator, one of the U.S. Senators for New Mexico. Now, Tom Udall was a very decent, Liberal, progressive Senator. One of the best we had. Very sad he resigned. But because Los Alamos was part of the New Mexico economy, a major employer in the area, he felt it behooved him to dive in and fight for the money to build more of these useless or unneeded nuclear weapons components.

So that’s what happens on the fringe, someone who certainly doesn’t believe in any of this. So imagine what it’s like for someone of determinedly Conservative attitudes much more of whose sort of prosperity and power depends on the nuclear weapons thing. I think they have no trouble at all.

Paul Jay

The Air Force is one of the centers of religious extremism. I guess you could say Christian nationalism. It’s in all the branches of the military, apparently, but most powerfully in the Air Force and Air Force’s Stratcom. And that’s the primary control over nuclear weapons, if I understand it correctly. It’s a pretty dangerous cocktail there, and people that are cynical enough just to want to make money out of all this. And a lot of people, including, apparently, people at very senior levels, might actually welcome the apocalypse.

Andrew Cockburn

Well, yeah, that’s something else to worry about. I mean, I do remember years ago, I was addressing a meeting where I was talking about this sort of thing, and there was an Air Force Colonel in uniform in the audience. This was in Texas. And he said he’d come a long way to hear me. And he said, but we were chatting away, and he said you do know, he was complaining about science education in the U.S., which is a thing anyone could complain about.

And he said you do know that there are footprints, human footprints, contemporaneous with dinosaurs. He said it’s all nonsense what they tell you about evolution and all that. He said, really creationism shows, if you study creationist research, you’ll find out that human beings and dinosaurs were, more or less, were indeed contemporary on the earth’s surface.

I thought, oh, my God. I said to him, by the way, Colonel, what’s your job in the Air Force? Hoping he’d say maintenance or something. And he said, oh, I command a Titan Missile Squadron. Now, the Titan missile at that time, it’s been phased out now, but it was a missile that carried a nine-megaton warhead. I think it’s the biggest warhead we’ve ever had on a missile. So this lunatic was in charge of, down to his direct command, he had enough to blow up half the world. So I don’t know how many people like that there are around, but I suspect a few.

Paul Jay

The Dr. Strangelove’s scenario says Daniel Ellsberg is not outlandish, that a rogue general could launch nuclear weapons. This idea that only the President with his little briefcase can actually launch is actually not true. The ability to launch has certainly been divested at various levels. In your book, you talk about what it would take for just a few people in those missile silos to figure this out.

Andrew Cockburn

Well, right, my unfortunately late good friend Bruce Blair, who was very, he was a great American who really cared about this stuff and really worked for much of his life trying to change it and make this threat go away. He told me the story, which I report in the book, how in the early ’70s, he was a Launch Control Officer in a minuteman silo deep under Montana. And he would sit down there for days at a time when they were on duty. And I’d say it was pretty boring.

So he figured out what it would take— now you know, he got to know the system very well— what it would take to bypass the entire chain of command and launch. And he worked out how if he had to suborn one other, well, he’d have to either disable or enlist his fellow control officer in the silo with him. But having done that, all he would need was someone of like mind in another silo to cooperate. And together, they could launch the entire wing. I forget about 50 missiles or so. If they got, in particular, if it was in the silo, the sort of command silo for the entire wing, then if they suborn that one, then they could launch the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal.

They could send a signal. It was called Red Dot Emergency Signal; it overrode everything else and just launched everything except the bombers, I believe. So that was well over 1,000 missiles. So I said to Bruce, so God, you figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few million people. And he said a few million? He said a few hundred million, maybe a billion. Once Bruce Blair had figured out how easy the system was to subvert and how easy it was for someone— he’d been a Captain in the Air Force at that point, how a U.S. Air Force Captain or a couple of Captains or Lieutenants could actually blow up the world.

Once he’d left the Air Force, he went to the Congress and explained the situation, and the Congress, the Committee, went to the Air Force and tried to say what’s your explanation? Can you comment on this? And the Air Force did an investigation which they classified at a level so that even the Congressional Committee that had asked for the investigation couldn’t see it. And Furthermore, they kept the system in place.

So they claim now, and Bruce thought that maybe they’d improve things in the succeeding decades, but he wasn’t sure. And I’m certainly not sure. I think the situation is still hellaciously dangerous because if we’re going back to the point we’re discussing, because the object of the exercise is not to have an efficient military that does the task assigned to it as efficiently and, in this case, as safely as possible. No, it’s to enhance the power of the Air Force. Enhance in this case the Air Force budget and the bottom lines of the very many interested individuals and contractors who live off it.

Paul Jay

Thanks for joining us, Andrew. And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news. And please join us again for Part two of Andrew Cockburn; it will be coming soon. Don’t forget to find his book Spoils of War. And please, if you haven’t donated yet to theAnalysis.news, we certainly can’t do this without you. If you live in the United States, once again, we are are a 501 C3, so your donation will be tax-deductible. Thanks again for watching. 


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  1. Consider the idiocy of Stoltenberg. Psychopaths are in charge. We have emptied the asylums and now give voice and credence to those who hear voices–have absolutely no contact with reality.

  2. Richard Rhodes made about the same argument in 1987 in Dark Sun —The Making of the Hydrogen. I can’t be repeated and expanded often enough:
    “If real political leaders understood from one end of the Cold War to the other that even one hydrogen bomb was sufficient deterrence, why did they allow the arms race to devour the wealth of the nation while it increased the risk of an accidental Armageddon? In 1982, political scientist Miroslav Nincic examined the economics of the arms race and discovered that it was hardly a race at all; US and Soviet levels of defense spending were only weakly coupled at best. Far more influential on the US side were such domestic political phenomena as competition among the military services, coalitions of scientific and industrial organizations promoting new technologies, the pressure of as a political issue and defense spending to prime the economic pump, particularly in election years.”

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