The Business of War - A Primer
Who profits? Why is the U.S. government the greatest purveyor of violence?
The United States of America is a class society. The working class is everyone who puts in a day’s labor for a wage (e.g., nurse, truck driver, teacher, farmworker, electrician). The ruling class is comprised of the capitalists in charge. Known as the “1%”, they are the executives at the largest corporations; financial tycoons, including private equity magnates and Wall Street barons; the top bureaucrats and political appointees leading the Pentagon and intelligence agencies; and the elected officials who legislatively facilitate warfare and espionage.
The U.S. ruling class uses different tools (e.g., economic sanctions, the Armed Forces, intelligence agencies) to bully and harm defiant governments and peoples, protect and promote capitalism, and forcibly create new markets. The U.S. ruling class profits from war as it implements this belligerent foreign policy. Trillions of dollars have been made in just the past two decades. There is nothing defensive about the military-industrial complex, the bundling of government authority and big business.
They are not “defense companies.” They are war corporations. They sell goods and services to the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and allied governments. Their goal is to maximize profit. Most war corporations are public, i.e. they issue shares of stock, which people—mostly very rich people—buy. Some corporations, such as Sierra Nevada Corporation and General Atomics, are private. (The owners of those two corporations have become billionaires.) Private equity firms regularly buy and sell war corporations. Though the war industry is present in all fifty of the United States, a few locations are industry hotspots: greater Boston, Massachusetts; Tampa and Orlando, Florida; Huntsville, Alabama; the Dallas-Fort Worth region of Texas; southern California; and the D.C.-Baltimore corridor (home to some of the wealthiest counties).
The financial industry provides loans and lines of credit to war corporations and advises in mergers and acquisitions. Investment banks and “asset management firms” (e.g., BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard) hold substantial shares of public corporations (e.g., RTX, LMT, GD). Some university endowments and state retirement funds (e.g., Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio, New York State Common Retirement Fund) also hold shares. To find out more, type in a search engine the corporation’s stock symbol and the words institutional stockholders.
The U.S. Supreme Court helped big business gain authority. In recent decades, it ruled that limits on election spending are unconstitutional, gave corporations a First Amendment right to put money toward ballot initiatives, allowed corporations to utilize nonprofits when influencing politics, allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political contributions, and got rid of limits on the total number of political contributions one can give over a two-year period. Large corporations excel at profiting off human need (e.g., healthcare, shelter, food) and war.
Massive corporations influence the U.S. government via campaign finance, lobbying, and rotating capitalists through the halls of authority, such as the Pentagon’s top offices. Corporations also encroach upon military policymaking and strategy. Examples include SAIC strategic plans and policy support for the Air Force, Deloitte policy assessment and management for the Navy, and CACI policies and practices for military acquisition. Several corporations contracted in March 2023 for technical and analytical services to support and improve policy development and decision making with regard to U.S. military activity overseas. The foxes run the golden henhouse.
Congress and the White House allocate most discretionary spending to militarism, not beneficial programs (e.g., infrastructure, education, transportation, employment, agriculture, affordable housing). The military budget is $877 billion for fiscal 2023, and expected to be $886 billion in fiscal 2024. Over half of the military budget goes to corporations. Therefore, roughly 1/4 of the entire federal discretionary budget goes to corporations in the business of war.
Members of U.S. Congress regularly invest in war-industry stock. Members also invest in complementary industries, such as fossil fuel. (The U.S. military is a top consumer of fossil fuels. U.S. military activity accelerates the climate crisis.) Lobbying firms work with Congress to pack the annual National Defense Authorization (NDAA) with sections that guarantee a belligerent foreign policy (e.g., the 2023 NDAA vis-à-vis China) and giveaways to the war industry. Congress does not exercise effective oversight of the war industry. Members of Congress (quite wealthy) can demonstrate ignorance about war (e.g., where U.S. troops are deployed, an official enemy’s capability and intent, an official enemy’s economic system).
The U.S. government pays for military and war by collecting taxes and by selling Treasury securities. Many corporations—including those in the business of war, such as Accenture, Amazon, Booz Allen Hamilton, Textron—reportedly go to great lengths to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. (RTX’s recent 10-K report—see page 150—to the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates that it owns a subsidiary, Commonwealth Luxembourg Holdings, which has reportedly been implicated in tax dodging.) Individual members of the ruling class also dodge taxes. The tax burden in the United States falls mostly on the working class.
The war industry doesn’t just sell bombs, missiles, ships, and aircraft. It also sells base operations, espionage software, physical security, artificial intelligence, nuclear weaponry, border sensors, ways to knock drones out of the sky, cloud computing, satellites, satellite launch, office administration, construction, missile defense systems, tanks and other land vehicles, consulting, warehousing and distribution, ordnance disposal, information technology, radar, maintenance and cataloguing of prepositioned stock, logistics, clothing and gear, small arms, training and simulation, and more. Corporations (e.g., BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman) even run the government’s arsenals and ammunition plants. D.C.’s wars kill people, mostly civilians overseas. (The U.S. troops and corporate "contractors" deployed around the world also die. Sometimes they die when locals use violence against them, the foreign military. Sometimes they die in accidents, such as aircraft crashes and vehicle rollovers.) Bombs and missiles are made in such locations as Radford, Virginia, and Kingsport, Tennessee (BAE Systems), Orlando, Florida (Lockheed Martin), greater St. Louis, Missouri (Boeing), Plymouth, Minnesota (Northrop Grumman), Garland, Texas (General Dynamics), and Tucson, Arizona (RTX).
Corporations don’t just sell products. They fabricate, test, evaluate, qualify, assemble, inspect, package, deliver, maintain, upgrade, monitor, and redesign them—all billable activities. Additionally, corporations regularly charge their military customer for such services as configuration management, data, documentation, engineering, integration, logistics, “obsolescence management”, operational security, technical order updates, and additional training, contracting announcements indicate. The Pentagon doesn’t know how many parts and spares it possesses, yet it continues to purchase parts and spares from industry.
U.S. academic institutions research and develop technology for war and espionage. Prominent participants include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University, the University of Dayton, Georgia Tech, and Pennsylvania State University, contracting announcements indicate. The University of California and Texas A&M are heavily involved in the Energy Department’s labs that develop nuclear warheads.
Big tech—including your smartphone carrier, the corporation whose workers bring packages to your door, and the one whose search engine you likely use—contract with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Among the telecoms, for example, AT&T has supported the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and run cyber defense for Space Force. AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are essential to military communication networks. And telecoms are reportedly essential to the U.S. government’s spying on the U.S. public, as documented by James Bamford in 2009 and Edward Snowden in 2013.
The war industry regularly produces overbudget, underperforming weapons. The F-35 aircraft is the most famous example. Other struggling systems have reportedly included the KC-46 tanker, the Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the Ford-class aircraft carrier, and the amphibious combat vehicle (ACV). The Pentagon could address this problem by no longer allowing corporations to develop and test products as they produce them (a process called “concurrency”), but that would cut down on corporate profits and upset the very corporations where top military officers profit in retirement.
Conforming as they ascended to the top, U.S. generals and admirals support a global military presence and reiterate pretexts and mimic jargon coming from industry’s think tanks and 501(c) pressure groups (e.g., NDIA, AIA, PSC). Admirals and generals judge military activity in terms of numbers (dollars spent, weapons purchased, bases active, troops deployed) instead of clear soldierly goals. They are unwilling to distinguish between the needs of a corporation and the needs of a professional military. In retirement, most profit from war. For example, McRaven joined Palantir and ConocoPhillips, Dunford Lockheed Martin, and Votel Business Executives for National Security. Some, such as Petraeus, Odierno, Stavridis, and Goldfein, make a beeline to financial firms. Corporate America uses retirees’ connections and knowledge for profit.
Different genders and skin colors are permitted in the top ranks of military, intel, and the war industry. The Pentagon with a black leader still used drones to kill Africans; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a female director still pursued regime change abroad; and a massive corporation with a female CEO still made record profits in the business of war. Representation does not change the structural necessity: nonstop war. Diverse ideology—i.e. anti-capitalist and/or acknowledging that the business of war must end in order for the species to have a chance at survival—is not permitted in the top ranks.
Leaders dodge accountability. Former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms received a $2,000 fine and a suspended sentence in 1977 after lying to the Senate about CIA activities in Latin America. The bankers—remember, the financial industry sits atop the business of war—who engaged in illegal activity and crashed the global economy in 2008-9 never went to jail. (They gave themselves lavish bonuses after the U.S. government bailed out the banks.) Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress in 2013 and was not punished for that perjury. Air Force Lieutenant General Sami Said (who determined that the military’s domestic use of RC-26 spy planes during the summer 2020 protests was legal and not aimed at protestors) held no one responsible for the August 2021 drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and his children. Said then retired and became a top executive at RTX. David Petraeus, the general who gave his biographer highly-classified material for which she did not have clearance, spent no time behind bars. He’s now retired, chilling at a financial firm, and appearing regularly on CNN.
The average soldier, sailor, airman, guardian, or Marine enlists in the U.S. Armed Forces largely for economic reasons, though it can be comfortable for many to embrace the lies that the ruling class tells (e.g., fight for freedom, spread democracy). Military recruiters use loan repayment programs, tuition assistance, healthcare, and other benefits to lure potential recruits. Enlisting in the U.S. military provides a stable job in a brutal economy. (Enlisted troops nonetheless struggle with hunger, like much of the U.S. working class.) Most military recruits don’t become cannon fodder. They are, however, vessels for corporate goods and services.
Military and industry classify information (CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TOP SECRET) in order to keep activity and weapons systems hidden and in order to keep the public ignorant about the scope of the corporate run surveillance state, the full costs of war, and fraud, waste and abuse. A public that does not understand the structure will not effectively rise against that structure. Classified budgets violate the Constitution’s requirement that Congress publish an accounting of the receipts and expenditures of all public money.
Secrecy also harms science. Effective science is based on free, open discussion. The closed nature (compartmentation, classification, near-term deadlines, narrow application) of military-industrial science goes against free, open discussion. Funneling the best and brightest into developing war and espionage technology delays all the work these people could be doing to create a better world, including work on infrastructure, disaster response, transportation, public health, energy generation and storage, and the international scientific cooperation needed for human survival.
The executives in charge of U.S. industry automate jobs (e.g., RTX, Lockheed Martin), send jobs abroad (e.g., Mexico, India) where labor is cheaper, and regularly cut jobs (e.g., “cost-saving actions”, “assessment of resources against business requirements”). The war industry employs far fewer people today than during the first Cold War. Nonetheless, corporate executives and their public relations teams are very good at playing the “jobs” card when coordinating with officials at the federal, state, and local levels. For example, in testimony to the California legislature regarding massive tax breaks, corporate representatives emphasized that building new bombers in California would create hundreds of high-paying jobs and help small businesses. These claims are nothing new. “We’re committed to growing our economic impact through the expansion of our… operations and the continued investment in high-technology jobs that support vital national security programs,” affirms the vice president of one corporation, talking about New Jersey. “This [facility] expansion will bring hundreds of new jobs to the area and increase our supplier base significantly,” vows another, talking about Utah.
Federal spending on other parts of the economy (e.g., infrastructure, healthcare, sustainable energy, public education) creates more jobs than military spending. Employment is not the industry’s priority. Profit (for the ruling class) is.
Workers within the war industry are diligent. They do manual labor (e.g., electrician, machinist, pipefitter, painter, welder) and white-collar work (e.g., computer programmer, engineer, physicist, mathematician). Whatever the workers produce is not theirs to use or sell. Executives determine what to produce, how to produce it, and to whom to sell. Executives direct the profit (that the workers create) toward executive compensation, stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, and building new facilities in which more profit is created.
What keeps people in line? Group think, chain of command, nondisclosure agreements, compartmentation, and financial incentive enforce the status quo across military, intelligence, and industry. (Many people also find their own identity in being part of military, intelligence, or industry.) Social isolation and the threat of violence deter the few who consider pushing back against the machinery of war. Advertising, public relations, and propaganda keep the workers (who greatly outnumber the capitalists) disorganized and compliant.
Big donations (“philanthropy”) whitewash the business. A former CEO of Lockheed Martin gave millions of dollars to the University of Alabama. The owners of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) gave $1 million to the University of Nevada-Reno. The Carlyle Group co-founder gave $5 million to Harvard University. The ruling class, which hoards wealth and exploits the working class, looks generous and gets a tax write-off.
Industry is adept at citing the civilian benefits that have come from the U.S. government’s immense investment in war. The jet engine and radar came from military research, for example. These occasional “benefits” do not outweigh the death and destruction inherent to war. Furthermore, unlike products from other industries, the public cannot eat, consume, play with, learn from, or interact with most of the war industry’s products. Imagine what benefits society could achieve if the bloated military budget was redirected toward human wellbeing, not elective war. What benefits would the world have if the United States’ number one technological project since 1945 was something other than war?
The U.S. military has never passed an audit. The audit is ongoing. Corporations (e.g., Ernst & Young, Kearney & Co., KPMG, PwC) have made a lot of money conducting this audit. These accounting firms can simultaneously contract elsewhere within the military. For example, Kearney & Co. helped the Air Force analyze its mission and advised the Air Force regarding public relations, classified programs, and strategy. Corporations auditing the U.S. military also audit the corporations that are in the business of war. PwC, for example, has audited RTX. The conflicts of interest are immense.
War corporations often break the law. Reported infractions have included bribery, overcharging the government, false claims, and violation of export control laws. The U.S. government then fines these corporations—those it catches, at least. The fines are not large enough to deter illegal behavior. The corporations pay the fine and do not admit guilt. They continue to contract with the government and profit.
The military-industrial complex is a huge polluter, poisoning air, soil, and water. This pollution comes in many forms, including fossil fuel combustion, leaky petroleum storage tanks, byproducts of manufacturing processes, testing and use of munitions, burn pits, radioactive waste, nuclear fallout, corporate dumping, chemical solvents and coatings (such as hexavalent chromium, used to protect weaponry from corrosion), and depleted uranium (DU). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” are widespread in war equipment. The substances used to put out aircraft fires, for example, contain PFAS and are highly toxic. The Pentagon claims that plans to regulate PFAS would hurt “national security.”
Most pollution is not addressed. How does the U.S. military clean up some pollution? By contracting with Corporate America. Contracting announcements indicate that Corporate America conducts studies and environmental assessments; prepares plans and issues reports; surveys sites, oversees wetlands, and supervises land use; drafts Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“Superfund”) documentation; monitors environmental compliance; plots basing patterns; reviews the National Environmental Policy Act; removes contaminated soil; excavates, characterizes, separates, and transports waste; studies socio-economic issues and demographics; relocates radioactive material; and runs community outreach and public engagement.
The Pentagon has programs to bring small corporations into the business of war, further militarizing the U.S. economy. Some large corporations reportedly contract as small businesses in order to obtain the advantages of such a classification. Comparable legal tricks were reportedly used by Corporate America to obtain small business loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A handful of big business interests owns most media in the United States. Corporate media, such as CNN, NBC, and FoxNews, follow one business model: Offer what attracts high ratings and many clicks in order to generate advertising revenue. Information, which educates the public about the profit-over-people economic system, is avoided. Big business runs other media through which people learn about war. For example, Regent Equity Partners owns Sightline Media Group, whose products include such periodicals as Air Force Times, Army Times, C4ISRNET, and Defense News. Relying on funding from wealthy donors and large corporate interests, National Public Radio is similarly confined. Section 1078 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitted the use of certain propaganda—the kind that the U.S. Agency for Global Media issues—against U.S. audiences. War corporations purchase advertisements on news shows; pundits and newscasters typically do not speak out against advertisers. Corporate media also hire retired military officers and intel bureaucrats who further confine the debate. Pundits rarely disclose their professional ties to war corporations and/or financial investments in the industry.
The Pentagon runs its own massive media empire, much of which is coordinated by the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Hollywood cooperates. The film industry gets matériel and technical assistance from the Pentagon, and, in exchange, allows the U.S. government to alter movie scripts. Hollywood also regularly demonizes official enemies, priming the public to hate or fear the people on the receiving end of U.S. military operations, covert action, and economic sanctions. Hollywood also functions as a recruiter when it offers alluring portrayals of military and intelligence, seducing new generations into believing in the thrill or decency of such activity.
Military and industry use euphemisms. A euphemism is a word that sounds nice and takes the place of an accurate—often unpleasant—word. Words About War can help people recognize euphemisms. A list of euphemisms is available at War Industry Muster (pdf).
Think tanks issue information advantageous to their funders. And it is military and industry that fund major D.C. think tanks. In turn, the think tanks invent, inflate, and promote new threats and rationalizations for why the United States must maintain a global military presence, bully countries, and initiate and sustain war. Such an environment reliably and loudly produces report after report, panel after panel, testimony after testimony, and interview after interview, about Iran’s “malign activities,” China’s “destabilizing influence,” Russian “meddling,” and Arab “terrorism.” This threat inflation sustains the racket. Think tanks also swarm presidential and congressional candidates when they are assembling their teams, ensuring foreign policy options remain within familiar, profitable confines. Lastly, there is no need for you, a member of Congress, to go to the Congressional Budget Office when a think tank promptly provides you with a fine-tuned, pro-war report. Many think tanks also draft legislation for congresspeople. Reality—for example, the Chinese military is no threat to the U.S., and you have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning in the U.S. than getting attacked by a Muslim—does not penetrate the discourse. The war industry benefits from threat inflation, as threats can sell any good or service imaginable. Threats justify sky-high military and intel budgets and invasive legal authorities.
The two main ways that the U.S. war industry sells to foreign governments are foreign military sales (FMS) and direct commercial sales (DCS). In FMS, the U.S. government acts as the intermediary between the corporation and the foreign government, while DCS are negotiated privately between foreign governments and U.S. corporations. The State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs issues the export licenses. The Arms Export Control Act requires recipients of U.S. war industry goods and services to use them only in self-defense, and the Leahy Law states that such goods and services can’t go to militaries that seriously violate human rights. What happens when the U.S. ruling class’ top allies, which wage war and violate human rights, want to purchase from the U.S. war industry? The State Department merely certifies that the weapons sold are used defensively and that the foreign government is not substantially violating human rights, ignores these laws altogether, or waives them using emergency “national security” claims.
The U.S. war industry leads the world in the export of weaponry and war technology.
The war industry comes before the wars. The military-industrial complex—the bundling of government authority and an immense industry—needs enemies and thrives on conflicts hot and cold. The state of permanent global warfare has been with us since 1945: the first Cold War through 1990; the bundle’s legislative fortification, the expansion of the drug war, and U.S. attacks on the Middle East, the Balkans, and Sudan during the 1990s; the “war on terror”; and now “great power competition” against Moscow and Beijing. “Homeland security,” the domestic surveillance state, censorship disguised as fighting disinformation, and the digitized border (pdf) are all expressions of the military-industrial complex. When war is your business, peace is your enemy.
Economic conversion involves changing the output of existing industrial capacity. A federal job guarantee can protect the workers during conversion of the war industry. Workers know their facilities best, so they—not corporate executives—should be in charge of conversion. Numerous fields stand to benefit from these workers (e.g., engineer, physicist, computer programmer, machinist, electrician) who are currently in the war industry. Fields include public infrastructure, international scientific cooperation, transportation, disaster relief, and energy generation and storage. Many war-industry facilities already produce goods and services—including satellites, rockets, telemetry, avionics, aircraft, information technology, propulsion, cameras and imaging systems, ships, land vehicles, logistics programs, and communications equipment—that could be used for peaceful civilian purposes. A united working class can generate the political will to take on big business interests and initiate conversion—war to peace.
Christian Sorensen is a researcher focused on the business of war. He is an authority on the bundling of military and big business. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he is the author of Understanding the War Industry (Clarity Press, 2020). His research is available at warindustrymuster.com. Sorensen is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN).