Bullets & Bucks ' R ' Us

PRIVATE WARRIORS By Ken Silverstein Verso Books 224 pp., $25

Gunrunners make great copy. Though the purpose of "Private Warriors" is to warn, Ken Silverstein must have had great fun writing it, since the cast of characters is so entertainingly sinister. His arms dealers scurry like rats in the dark corners of the world, selling weapons to countries that don't need and can't afford them. Retired generals and redundant cold warriors hoodwink politicians in order to further the causes of the countries or businesses who now employ them. There's no shortage of shady scoundrels to keep the pages turning. It's great stuff, a non-fiction book that reads like a Tom Clancy novel.

Silverstein blames his "private warriors" - gunrunners, lobbyists, retired generals, and former national security staffers - for the bloated American defense budget which, despite the supposed "peace dividend," now stands at nearly $280 billion. These characters have an interest in perpetuating the cold-war mentality, even if the former enemy - the Soviet Union - no longer poses a threat. By exaggerating the danger of countries like Iraq, China, and North Korea, they serve their masters, the arms manufacturers.

There's nothing particularly new in the idea that Boeing, Lockheed, and Bell Helicopters might be exercising a sinister influence upon the formation of American foreign policy. Arms manufacturers have always acted in this way.

The influence that Krupp exercised in pre-1914 Germany was so great that some scholars blame the arms firm for the outbreak of World War I.

In the 1950s, American helicopter firms were instrumental in encouraging the military and then the government to adopt a new strategy based on air mobility. The Vietnam War then provided a handy context in which to try out that strategy, a coincidence that some conspiracy theorists find interesting.

Silverstein deserves attention, even if his warnings are not particularly new. The relationship between the government and the arms industry is too cozy. Powerful lobbyists, many of them former members of the political establishment, are exercising undue influence on the formation of foreign policy and the purchase of new weapons systems.

In addition, American weapons firms act irresponsibly in peddling their goods. A devil-may-care attitude allows them to sell lethal arms to shady regimes, all in the interest of private enterprise.

But, rather like the villains he seeks to expose, Silverstein has a tendency to stretch a point. This is unfortunate, since this is a worthy book on an important topic that deserves serious attention. The author does not need to exaggerate to increase the dramatic impact of his argument. For instance, he suggests that the threat of Russia is now virtually nonexistent and that there are no other credible enemies of America in the field. He uses this assertion to argue that new weapons systems are a waste of taxpayer money. That seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The world remains an uncertain place. Since dangers lurk, weapons are necessary. What is needed is a sense of proportion and an ability on the part of politicians to assess the threats that exist free from the obfuscating influence of private interests. The military needs weapons suited to the sorts of tasks it will be called upon to perform in the decades ahead. It would not do well to repeat the experience of the two world wars, in which the US paid dearly for its dire lack of military preparedness.

In his farewell address in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower sounded a note of caution. "In the councils of government," he warned, "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."

As "Private Warriors" demonstrates, the dangers of which Eisenhower warned are still worthy of vigilant attention. Leaving aside the ersatz drama and occasionally overblown assertions, this is a frightening book.

*Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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