I once sat on a plane in front of two drunk arms traders, on a flight from Dallas to Washington. 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 this, 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 more than $40 million in the past two years on campaign contributions and lobbying.
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, Calif. 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 their struggles to engage some of the critical issues of our time. When students feel that the world is corrupt, 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, before it acquired Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas, had more staffers in its Washington, D.C., lobbying office than the entire D.C. 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 administration 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 more than $200 a year in taxes 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 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, 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 respond.
I'm not saying that all who embrace the national missile-defense proposals do so for venal reasons. Some do believe in them. Building an invincible technological shield has been a core dream of the political right since President 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 more than $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 (www.soulofacitizen.org) is the author of 'Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time' (St. Martin's Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor