The phrase Merchants of Death takes center stage in the movie Iron Man, which is a spectacular expose of a subject that dominates the American economic landscape but about which Americans have very little knowledge. The phrase and the movie deal with the odd juxtaposition of capitalism and war as found in the weapons industry. Here we have innovations and efficiency of the type we associate with the private commercial sector but serving ends that are the very opposite of capitalism. The industry serves war, not peace, depends on coercion, not human volition, and profits from destruction, not creation.
The movie itself follows the career of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a billionaire engineering genius who inherited his father’s weapons company and took it to new heights. Touring Afghanistan, he is captured by a guerilla army and here he experiences an epiphany. It is his weapons that they are using to solidify their control over the population. He had long consoled himself that his bombs were being used to defend freedom but now he sees that they are used by anyone who seeks to control others — the very opposite of his propaganda. He makes an escape and sets out on a new course to build a high-powered exoskeleton to beat back the very thugs he had inadvertently empowered with his own weapons.
Now, in the film, the bad guys get his guns because a rival in the corporate structure had been double dealing behind the scenes. In real life, the scenario is a bit different. Traditional merchants of death sell to anyone. The more they use the weapons, the more war that results, the higher the profits. Now, with controls in place on weapons contractors, it’s not that simple. What happens is that the state simply changes its mind on who are its friends and enemies. It sells guns to friends (freedom fighters) until times change and the same people become enemies (terrorists).
It seems incredible until you realize that short-term memory loss that Americans have toward U.S. foreign policy. The 1980s are not exactly ancient history but in those days, the Reaganites had as a core doctrine of U.S. policy that Islam constituted a valiant ally in the struggle against communism. The Mujahideen in Afghanistan were leading the struggle against Soviet control, and the leaders of this army were courted and celebrated in Washington, particularly by conservatives. We were told that they shared our struggle because they believed in traditional values, freedom, and a strong defense. They were given vast weapons and the CIA assisted in their ultimately successful effort to oust the Soviets.
Once the Mujahideen had the Soviets out of the way, they seized control of the country and imposed a dictatorship that imposed an anti-drug theocracy, with a government that became known as the Taliban. The Taliban must have been shocked when Washington suddenly turned on them since they were merely carrying out the “traditional values” for which they had been previously celebrated. Now, suddenly, they were being called a dictatorial band of thugs that had to go. Once overthrown by Washington, they moved the mountains and became an essential part of what is today collectively known as Al-Qaeda.
So the labels changed: from freedom fighter to terrorist in one decade. But the weapons remained the same: their equipment and resources and bombs were almost entirely provided by the same folks who backed them to the hilt the previous decade.
So Iron Man telescopes events somewhat but the core of the truth is there, though hardly ever spoken about in American public life. Nor is this something new. The problem of the Merchants of Death has been around for at least a century.
The existence of such an industry scandalized Americans in the interwar period, and there was one treatise that led the way in helping to foment the ourage. In fact, it was a bestseller book in 1934 with the title Merchants of Death. (Here is the PDF and here it is in hard copy.)
We are justified in calling it the first mega-selling conservative book of the 20th century. Why conservative? The lead author was H.C. Engelbrecht, and, most importantly, its co-author was Frank C. Hanighen, who would later become the founder of Human Events, which was the most important weekly publication on the right in the 1940s and 1950s. In other words, the phrase Merchants of Death did not originate on the left but on the right, during the New Deal period when the people later called conservatives became alarmed about the union between big corporations and big government.
This book is not a typical left-wing style attacks on commerce as the essence of war. In fact, it argues the opposite. “The arms industry did not create the war system. On the contrary, the war system created the arms industry.”
The blame, then, lies not with the private sector that makes the weapons. “All constitutions in the world vest the war-making power in the government or in the representatives of the people. The root of the trouble, therefore, goes far deeper than the arms industry. It lies in the prevailing temper of peoples toward nationalism, militarism, and war, in the civilization which forms this temper and prevents any drastic and radical change. Only when this underlying basis of the war system is altered, will war and its concomitant, the arms industry, pass out of existence.”
The book holds up as a marvelous analysis of how the merchants of death profited from World War I, a fact that the public found riveting and help solidify a strong antiwar temperament in the electorate during those years. This raised consciousness led to a broader insight about the nature of the warfare state: namely, that they only way to restrain it was to keep centralized power of all sorts at bay. The leading spokesmen for the ideal here was later called the Old Right by Murray Rothbard.
How it came to be that the Old Right cause would later be taken up by the New Left, while the New Right came to embrace the warmongering creed of the Old Left — well, let’s just say it was a complicated maneuver accomplished in a brief period of time in the late 1950s. Murray Rothbard was there and he chronicled the transition blow by blow. His book is called The Betrayal of the American Right. Sure enough, checking the book, on page 58, we find a nice discussion of Human Events, Frank Hanighen, and the problem of the Merchants of Death.
So there were have the connection between Rothbardian political analytics and the hottest movie in theatres today. The real Iron Man is Rothbard, whose influence on the way we view the world seems to rise with every day.