The financial logic and human cost of the war on terror

The general frame of war on terror rhetoric is that no one is safe and secure unless politics is securitised in order to pave the way for growing investment in the military industry.

Lockheed Martin fighter jet in background with army personnel in foregroundMichael Davis/Flickr (some rights reserved)

We are living in an interesting time in human history. This is a time when the most powerful governments in the world are fighting a war on terror (WoT). Like every war, the WoT is not without human cost, as many have commented, but I shall focus on the financial logic upon which this war stands.

I argue that the WoT narrative has destabilised social cohesion by spreading hate and fear. It has constrained human freedoms and privacies; and contributed to increasing economic inequality around the world by diverting public attention from it through sophisticated and multifaceted propaganda machineries.

The general frame of WoT rhetoric is that no one is safe and secure unless politics is securitised in order to pave the way for growing investment in the military industry. One implication of securitised politics is that in order to ensure our safety, a handful of people, through various surveillance programs, are now able to act as gods, with the ability to watch or hear anyone; read their emails and text messages; arrest or torture them, and in extreme cases, kill them, whilst under little or no scrutiny.

In short, our freedom and privacy now depend upon the decisions, choice and mercy of terrorists and security agents. Why are we not more concerned about this? Perhaps because we have been convinced that we have only one choice: to come to terms with these new living conditions, or surrender our lives to the possibility of a terrorist attack. So, in matters of life and death, as a life-loving species wanting to complete our life cycle peacefully, it is a rational choice for us to readjust to our living conditions with little or no objection. The securitisation of politics, as an implication of the WoT, promises us this peace.

There is enough scope, however, to raise a suspicion that our decision to support curtailed freedom and privacy is heavily influenced by various components of the sophisticated propaganda machineries used by the beneficiaries of the WoT, beginning with the media, adn continuing with popular writers, films and TV shows like Homeland, and many conservative ‘liberal’ scholars. Stirling University professor Dr. Timothy Ftizgerald in Religion and Politics in International Relations: the Modern Myth provides a fine illustration of how these four components of the sophisticated propaganda machine justifiy the WoT logic and generate its public support.

With the recent rise of ISIS, the narrative of the WoT has pushed the boundary of public debate to a new level of banality, with questions like ‘do you support beheading?’ being posed to guests on national television. Not everyone is impressed with this trend, however. British comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand rightly deconstructed this senseless media ambush, “We’re not idiots. We don’t need to have a conversation ‘is beheading bad? Yes/No. We’ve had that conversation. Beheading is bad.”

On a wider scale, the WoT narrative is taking its toll on social cohesion especially in the west, where, against a backdrop of fear of terrorism, frustration manifests itself in the form of hate crimes directed at Muslims. Cynthia Lee from George Washington University’s law school and Michael Weltch of Rutger University offer empirical back-up for this claim. Ironically, the perpetrators of these hate crimes, who position themselves as the defenders of liberal societies by attacking mosques and women who wear the hijab, begin to look more like the Islamist fanatics they themselves despise: a key WoT narrative theme is the perception that the liberal West is better than the conservative and backward Muslim world, where minorities do not have religious freedom and women are routinely oppressed.

Elsewhere, western states too are falling into the trap by constructing a reverse image of the perceived other; France is a case in point. Its laicist decision to ban the burqa forced Rainer Ebert, a Rice university philosophy PhD student to reach this conclusion: ‘France now finds itself in the undesirable company of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries that force women to dress in a particular way.’

Meanwhile, the financial cost of this war is increasing at a staggering rate. In order to combat and contain terror at home and abroad, governments in the west have pumped substantial sums of money into the military industry. A 2011 report by the “cost of war” project at Brown University found that the US had spent $4 trillion on the WoT, whereas a 2013 British study found that the country spent about £37bn, costing every UK household an average £2000.

This is taking place at a time when worldwide poverty has deepened and inequality between rich and poor has widened to an obscene level. Due to the financial crisis and increased spending on the military industry, governments too are readjusting their spending priorities by imposing a series of austerity measures including, according to a Guardian analysis quoting an OECD report, cutting wages; removing subsidies; reforming social programmes and pensions, and raising consumption taxes on basic goods.

The key WoT beneficiary is the military industry. According to a recent study by Morgan Stanley, shares of major US arms manufacturers have risen 27,699% over the past fifty years, compared to 6,777% for the broader market. US-based private defense companies had evidenced this in the past three years alone: Raytheon has returned 124% to their investors, Northrup Grumman 114% and Lockheed Martin 149%.

Professor James Petras of the Centre for Research on Globalization contends, “no peaceful economic activity can match the immense profits enjoyed by the military-industrial complex in war. This powerful lobby continues to press for new wars… as it promotes even deeper direct US military involvement in Syria, Iraq and Iran.”

This WoT financial logic suggests that ending it is not a key priority for its beneficiaries; indeed, as we have seen, the face of the enemy shifts from Bin Laden to Baghdadi, and prolonging the war may better suit western financial interests.

So when will this war end? Since 9/11, evidence suggests that dynamics of terror and the strategy of war have changed, yet we are nowhere near the end of the war. By forming new terrorist groups, producing new enemies, and with more profits being reaped by private defence companies at the expense of human life, equality and freedom, the vicious cycle of the WoT continues.

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