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Winners and losers

Stephen Gowans

i once irritated a group of peace activists by claiming that war has big winners.

"No, no," they protested. "War has no winners. Everyone loses!"

Most everyone. But not everyone.

To be sure, war victimizes. That's easy to see.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead, because the people who call themselves leaders of "the free world" and profess to hate war and to desire peace decided to drop bombs on them. Other victims carry on, paralyzed, limbless, blind, mute, deaf, dumb, insane.

Close to 300 Americans have died in combat in Iraq. Almost 2,000 have been wounded. At the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., 47 have had limbs removed. Eleven have had multiple amputations.

Army Specialist Robert Acosta lost his hand and part of a leg when he stooped to pick up a grenade...too late. Acosta will be called a hero, a brave young man who served his country. And perhaps he is, both brave and a hero.

But he's something else too: one of the war's losers.

Carol Johnston is a loser, too. Not in the same way Acosta is. But she's a loser, all the same.

A single mother, Johnston lost her job in May. She gets $1,028 per month in unemployment insurance benefits, less than what her rent, utilities, phone and car payments cost every month. The price tag for health insurance is $214 a month, more than she can afford. So, like 43 million other Americans, she does without. And prays that she, and her son, don't get sick.

Johnston points out that "they have $87 billion for folks over there [in Iraq]," the new money Congress recently approved for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. She wonders whether she'll "have to move to Iraq to get help?"

She'd stand a better chance of getting help if she were a multimillionaire with dozens of board appointments.

George Shultz is a multimillionaire. And he has a very important board appointment -- at Bechtel, the giant construction firm. If wars don't have winners, how do you explain Shultz? Or Bechtel?

Shultz was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, for a time. Not too long ago he surfaced as chairman of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

The committee is one of dozens, if not hundreds, that pop up every now and then, trumpeting high-faulting mandates, behind which lurk so many private economic interests. They're usually made up of high fliers who are as at home on Wall Street as they are in Washington.

Shultz's committee, zealously pro-war, was committed to seeing to it that Washington did more than simply oust Saddam Hussein. It also wanted "to work beyond the liberation of Iraq to the reconstruction of its economy." And so it lobbied Washington, while Acosta was enlisting, because the army guaranteed a paycheck every two weeks.

Funny, isn't it, that Shultz's Bechtel, has landed a $1 billion contract to rebuild Iraq?

Funny too that retired General Jack Sheehan, a member of the influential Defense Policy Board, is a Bechtel vice-president. Of 30 board members, nine are connected to corporations that have been awarded $76 billion in defense contracts over the last two years.

Ultra-hawk, Richard Perle, also a board member, and a key architect of war on Iraq, has long standing links to Boeing, manufacturer of the Apache helicopter, a firm with an interest in war through its connections as supplier to the Pentagon.

Perle proves that not only are there winners in war, there are people who can tell you how wars they've had a hand in starting can help you invest your surplus win. Before the war, Perle offered advice to Goldman Sachs' clients on investment opportunities, delivering a talk titled 'Implications of an Imminent War: Iraq Now. North Korea Next?'"

There are more winners. Plenty. The fiercely pro-war vice-president Dick Cheney stood to profit from an attack on Iraq. Cheney was CEO of Halliburton. Halliburton "secured a $2.3 billion no-bid, cost-plus contract...the largest single contract awarded so far." He's still receiving up to $1 million per year in deferred payments from the company.

Neither Bechtel nor Halliburton lucked into huge reconstruction contracts. Their luck was created.

But then America's corporate class has always benefited from war. US Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, who said he'd "helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street," declared war a racket, because "it is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many."


"In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War.

"How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

"Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few - the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

"And what is this bill?

"This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

"For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it."

It has always been ordinary people who've paid the price. They march to war, and they bankroll the manufacture of guns, tanks, warplanes, and battleships (and reconstruction) through their taxes.

The historian Jacques Pauwels writes of WW II, that

"the American state used its general revenue to pay the hefty bills presented by the large corporations that virtually monopolized...war production...These bills were thus mostly paid by means of direct and indirect taxes, which during the war...would be paid increasingly by ordinary US citizens, rather than by the wealthy Americans and big corporations. Enormous private profits were thus financed by the American public."

And so too today. Who will pay the $87 billion to occupy Iraq and rebuild the country? Ordinary Americans -- through their taxes. Enormous private profits of Bechtel, Halliburton and other giants of corporate America will be financed by the American public.

This was clear as early as last January, when the authors of a Business Week article, titled "It's not 'all about oil,' but..." wrote, "outfits such as Halliburton and Baker Hughes, as well as construction giant Bechtel Group, could feel just as victorious as the US Special Forces troops."


And Robert Acosta, who wears prostheses where his hand and leg used to be; Carol Johnston, who wonders why there's no money for heathcare, but plenty for military operations overseas; and the millions of Americans who are footing the bill for the war, the occupation, and Bechtel's and Halliburton's reconstruction contracts -- are they victorious?

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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