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Book Review A ‘giant, malignant virus’

A withering exposé reveals the insatiable and squalid profit motive that drives the US military apparatus - the largest in modern history, writes GAVIN O’TOOLE

The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine
by Andrew Cockburn
Verso £15.96

WHEN the Financial Times recently reported that China had successfully launched an untraceable, nuclear-capable “hypersonic” missile, the news spread across Western media like a virus.

It was great timing for the US Air Force, coming as the Biden administration undertakes the Nuclear Posture Review, which will now almost certainly slosh even more arms dollars on modernising their bloated ballistic arsenal.

But the timing was also great for Andrew Cockburn, who devotes an entire chapter of this book to the largely spurious hypersonic “threat.”

Putting aside gaping holes in the FT’s report, Cockburn’s work should be required reading for puppet journalists whose strings are apparently pulled so easily by the Pentagon.

China denies everything, but that hardly seems to matter in a world where threat narratives of this kind spread across copycat media with the ease of a loose stool.

The episode illustrates a key thesis of  Cockburn’s argument: a growing gulf between a detached military and an uninformed public means the latter “relies for insight on a press that is all too often either ignorant or compromised” and suffers “an aversion to challenging military claims regarding technology.”

His premise is that behind persistent threat-mongering lies a bitter truth about the endless US military misadventures that have wreaked such havoc on humanity: even when objectives are camouflaged as policy or strategy, these are invariably driven by naked interest.   

Eloquently forceful, Cockburn deploys encyclopaedic knowledge to expose the roots of those interests, from the cold war to Afghanistan — be they in the staggeringly corrupt relationship between the USAF and aerospace industry, in the ambitions of venal politicians happy to sacrifice Iraqi children for votes, in pissing contests between generals, or simply in criminal conspiracies to steal tax dollars.

At every turn, the vector driving ostensibly disinterested policy-making is profit.

The author makes a critically important observation that cuts to the heart of US democracy: the defence budget is not propelled by foreign wars, but foreign wars are propelled by the budget.

The consequences have been warfare without end, waste, wilful disregard for rational policy — and, ironically, weaker defence.

The largely vacuous hypersonic threat, which first evinced a credulous response years before when raised in relation to Russia, is just one of many examples of how easily the military manipulates civilian society.  

Given the systemic nature this manipulation, Cockburn’s subsequent description of the military-industrial complex as a “giant, malignant virus” is, frankly, an understatement.


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