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Mea Culpa, That’s My Gun

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Posted on Nov 11, 2011

By John Tirman

“The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”

A book by Andrew Feinstein

That the world is awash in weapons is not news. But the way weapons large and small flow from the United States, Britain and other producers to the world’s villains is ever astonishing. In “The Shadow World,” Andrew Feinstein gives us a sweeping and troubling story of how this happens, who benefits, and what consequences follow.

It is troubling because we have been at it for so long—the United States has been easily the largest arms exporter in the post-Cold War era—and still can’t seem to learn the ABCs of the arms trade: (A) the weapons we produce and sell or give away very often fall into the hands of people who want to use them to shoot at us; (B) the networks of arms merchants are also attracted to other forms of illicit commerce, like nuclear materials, drugs and human trafficking; and (C) the purported benefits of sustaining the “defense industrial base” by exporting weapons are grossly exaggerated. Yet none of these sturdy facts deters policymakers of all political persuasions from pushing lethal technologies onto petty tyrants and intermittent allies in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and indeed just about everywhere else.

Feinstein, a South African politician who helped expose an infamous arms scandal involving $100 million in bribes allegedly paid to ANC politicians, writes with a crusading spirit and a depth of detail that lend “The Shadow World” urgency and authority. Many of the sensational stories he tells have earned attention before, but he adds depth and shows how often patterns repeat. The essential method of arms dealing is bribery, payoffs on a grand scale that enrich both the elites in the buying country and the arms makers in the selling country. While political agendas at times play a role in who gets what, the reigning ideology in the shadow world is greed.


book cover


The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade


By Andrew Feinstein


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pages


Buy the book


The Saudis come in for a thrashing on this, the corrupters par excellence. Feinstein draws scathing portraits of Prince Bandar and Prince Turki, among other familiar figures in Washington, whose thirst for extravagance was matched only by their sheer brazenness in the arts of exploitation. For example, when quashing a British inquiry into bribery in the largest-ever arms deal, the so-called Al-Yamanah (“The Dove”) sale of British fighter jets to the Saudis, Bandar threatened to stop further purchases and intelligence cooperation if the inquiry went forward, a threat he delivered to Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street, saying that the cessation of Saudi intelligence cooperation would lead to “blood on the streets of London.” Blair buckled.

Less spectacular but just as consequential is the exploitation at work in antiterrorism. The meteoric growth of the homeland security state provides fresh opportunities for military contractors, who, like Lockheed, have diversified nimbly into the antiterrorism business. No one really knows how much has been spent on homeland security, but it surely approaches $1 trillion in the United States alone. For the arms merchants, the post-9/11 wars have also been, in the words of an army official quoted by Feinstein, “a feeding frenzy.” Iraq and Afghanistan have been good business not only for the usual giants of the military industry, but for many others in the darker recesses of the business.

Feinstein reminds us briefly that the victims of the arms trade and the violence it enables are not just soldiers, but also civilians in large numbers—hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same or more in Angola’s civil war, Darfur and elsewhere. Contemporary warfare is more than ever about killing the innocent.

To see long excerpts from “The Shadow World” at Google Books, click here.

Regaling the reader with these misdeeds and horrid consequences, “The Shadow World” becomes a tirade, one that goes down in the weeds of dozens of deals. Feinstein has the problem that all serious nonfiction writers face, making complex and at times tedious issues understandable and compelling. For the most part, he succeeds by conveying them as stories. But it does require some work from the reader, who must navigate a jungle of actors and acronyms to follow these tales. This may be inevitable for such a comprehensive treatment of the arms trade, possibly the most complete account that has ever been written.

Feinstein makes a convincing argument that, particularly in Africa, the supply of weaponry made conflicts more lethal. It’s a powerful and sad case. Those who dismiss the notion that the arms trade is a cause of violence often point to the use of machetes in Rwanda as their example. Feinstein counters, “The popularized images of the Rwandan genocide suggest a primal orgy of slaughter, a frenzy of bloodlust and carnage. The exact opposite, however, was true. The genocide was meticulously organized in order to kill as many people as efficiently as possible. The mountains of weapons that had been imported into the country were crucial to achieving this aim”—weapons such as grenades and firearms that were used “to achieve the highest kill-rate possible.”

What he does less well is provide some hope in this stew of corruption and mayhem. A rather sophisticated if small community of experts, NGO activists and a few sympathetic governments has taken up the cause of limiting arms exports, and they met with some success with the 1997 treaty to ban land mines, a global pact (but never signed by the United States). But that was more than a decade ago, and these activists haven’t regained the traction needed to go up against the major powers—states and corporations—which cannot see past the bottom line. It may be that there’s less violence than once beset the world, as Stephen Pinker argues in his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” but there’s still plenty of carnage to go around—good news for the arms makers, tragic news for everyone else.

John Tirman is the author of “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars” and is the executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies.

© 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/ Washington Post Writers Group

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By diamond, November 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

You’re not a battery charger, you’re a battery hen. Buk, buk, buk.

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By diamond, November 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment

“And therein lies the rub. For many countries, especially of the ex Soviet Union and its satellites, arms are one of the most successful of national industries.”

Maybe so. But America is the number one arms dealer in the world - by a mile. There is no one that even comes close and Russia’s arms industry is much smaller. America has cornered the market on arms and on invasions and occupations too.

In fact, it’s bigger than just arms. What happens is that arms are exported and drugs are then imported. It’s a global network of crime which globalization has only assisted to grow and flourish. The situation on the America/Mexico border is a good example:

“Unlike their Italian counterparts, the Mexican cartels, cannot trace their origins to the eighteenth century, they they were dealing before the Italians. The smuggling syndicate based in Ciudad Ju?rez was not only the first narco syndicate run by a woman…but among the first to trade in heroin to the USA, after the market for supplying America with alcohol, during the Prohibition, came to an end in 1933. The Mexican heroin-growing and opium market in Sinaloa gained impetus during the Second World War, when the United States signed an agreement to buy opium to meet its wartime medical needs. The Mexican narco smugglers did start dealing in drugs on a major scale at the same time as the Italians, towards the end of the 1960s, when it became clear that the demand from the United States and Europe was insatiable. ‘The narco economy,’ wrote Guilermo Ibarra, an economist at Sinaloa State University, ‘and family remittances from the United States actually keep our state on its feet.’

…Second, Washington embarked on its covert backing of right –wing Contra rebels against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras would be armed with weapons secretly transported from the US, with the criminal underworld acting as supplier and mediator. But the arms had to be paid for in ‘currency’ that would not call attention to itself, and they were: in cocaine from Columbia. Luckily for all involved, narcotic science and narcotic fashion both coincided with Washington’s interests, as well as those of the cartels in Columbia and Mexico. Just as the US needed Columbia’s natural currency to procure and pay for arms to the Contras, cocaine was becoming the drug of choice in powdered form for American entertainment and other smart circles, and in its chemical derivative form, crack, on the street and in the ghetto. According to a fictionalized account in ‘The Power of the Dog’ by Don Winslow, the Mexicans became the courier service for arms in one direction and cocaine in the other – a service that became known as the ‘Mexican Trampoline’. Mexico’s cartels combined three things to act as a conduit in flooding America with crack and cocaine: their knowledge of smuggling routes as old as the border itself, the unofficial acquiescence of the Reagan administration, and their conviviality with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled since 1917. In so doing, they realized, as Winslow put it: ‘that their real product isn’t drugs, it’s the two-thousand mile border they share with the United States. Land can be burned, crops can be poisoned, people can be displaced, but that border isn’t going anywhere.’

from ‘Amexica: War Along the Borderline’ , Ed Vulliamy.

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By Lafayette, November 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm Link to this comment

Fienstien should also have noticed that when there are any pictures/videos of insurgents, they are most often carrying AK-47s - which are manufactured in a good number of countries.

Which is not intended to disculpate American manufacturers of arms. But it does indicate that any real solution must be international in nature.

And therein lies the rub. For many countries, especially of the ex Soviet Union and its satellites, arms are one of the most successful of national industries.

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By Leefeller, November 12, 2011 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

For some reason, I find the credibility of the shadow world much more likely then the the usual tinfoil conspiracies sponsored by business as abnormal imbeciles.

Transparency is an illusion as it is all part of the cache of manipulated deceptions. I do not claim to know the validity of any, but I do surmise the potential of their existence!

As the street punks say about innocent people shot in their daily drive by. “They are just mushrooms”.  So I guess we are all potential mushrooms now!

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By Raphael Cruz, November 11, 2011 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“(A) the weapons we produce and sell or give away very often fall into the hands of people who want to use them to shoot at us.”

Oh, I profoundly disagree that we have failed to learn THAT particular element of the arms trade. We are very, very clear that weapons of whatever type WILL be used. That’s what they’re for and that’s why we’re selling them. Keeping war, death and destruction alive, whether it’s something we’re involved in directly, indirectly or not at all, keeps the defense and armaments industry humming along at full capacity and only serves to keep the rivers of cash and political power flowing into the hands of the profiteers. It’s not rocket science or, as my friend would say, it’s not rocket surgery.

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