Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2007  



How Do They Sleep At Night?


by Charles H. Pearson





(Swans - December 3, 2007)   On Sunday, November 11, we had Remembrance services to honour those killed in two world wars and indeed in other wars since. In the UK, the biggest and best known service is of course the ceremony at the Cenotaph in London. For the first time I was unable to bring myself to watch the televised proceedings. I have always had mixed feelings about this ceremony, because it seems inextricably tied in with militarism, which tragically only serves as a foundation for further wars. In this sense I do not think such a ceremony honours those who perished in military conflicts that could, and should, have been avoided. But now it is the sheer hypocrisy of the political leaders who lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph with due solemnity that I find completely nauseating. Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, would have laid the wreath on behalf of the government this time, but the man who told the most lies on this side of the Atlantic to drag our armed forces into the attack on Iraq wouldn't be far away. Brown himself is almost equally culpable. Some say he was lukewarm or even opposed to the invasion. If true, then as Chancellor of the Exchequer he could have refused the necessary funding or resigned if Blair had persisted. The resignation of half the recognised dual leadership of New Labour might have produced a big enough furore to stymie this county's war plans, especially as it has recently been claimed that Bush had told Blair that it would be O.K. if he withdrew to avoid the risk of his government falling.

Other politicians with blood on their hands were at the Cenotaph, I am sure, including some like former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who have since tried to distance themselves from the decision to join in the illegal invasion, ignoring the UN and its arms inspectors and the millions of citizens protesting in our streets. Never mind, weeks before November 11 they pinned their paper poppies to their lapels for every TV appearance (that seems to be mandatory for all in the public eye; God knows what abuse they would get if they simply forgot to do that) and carried on mouthing their platitudes about democracy and freedom, while demonising the Iranians at every opportunity. We can be trusted with the Bomb of course, even if no one believes we have anywhere near complete control over it and it's debatable whether we can afford it, but not the dusky-skinned, oil-rich Iranians, who haven't invaded any country recently.

The politicians who manufacture animosities to engender wars are only the most visible agents of destruction. Some years ago there was a British TV programme in which powerful, but not always well-known people, were questioned about their activities by a mock jury, consisting mainly of young people. In one programme the man in the hot seat was an arms manufacturer and a young woman on the panel had only one question for him, "How do you sleep at night?" I forgot his reply to that, but about the only defence he had to all the questioning was what you might expect. If we don't do it someone else will. What a wonderful illustration of the upsurge of civilization brought on by The New World Order following the end of the Cold War! The profit motive was of course downplayed. This was before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which I am sure have filled the coffers of that man's arms company, like so many others.

There is often confusion about the legality of the arms trade, with the impression given that it is the illegal trade that is damaging while the legal trade is tightly controlled and acceptable. Nothing could be further from the truth. (1) Britain is usually vying with France and Russia to occupy second place to the USA in arms exports, its lethal activities justified always by lies. I well remember one glaring hypocrisy when the late Robin Cook challenged the claim of the Conservatives, who were then in power, that war planes sold to Indonesia were only used for training purposes (as if that was perfectly acceptable) rather than helping directly in the slaughter still occurring in East Timor. Only months later when New Labour took power, proudly proclaiming their ethical foreign policy, the new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, completely reversed his position on those war planes. To his credit, he did resign from his later position as Leader of the House of Commons over Iraq, but many arms sales and deals were approved during his time at the top, with far too many of the wares ending up in areas of conflict and in the hands of human rights abusers, in direct contravention of the declared ethical policy. These instruments of death (and torture) are regularly put on show in what are called, by a perversion of language as obscene as "collateral damage," arms fairs. Fairs used to be an expression of joy and a celebration of Life, not of killing and dismemberment. London has regularly been the venue for one of the biggest arms fairs, organised by Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), which is formally owned by Reed Elsevier (who publish medical textbooks!) but it is promoted with the full political and financial support of the UK government. So the British taxpayer subsidises this "fair" in the London Docklands. Amongst other things, this contributes to the easy availability of firearms and the tragic, escalating deaths of teenagers shot in the streets not far away from the Docklands. Londoners also pay a £4 million police bill to protect the arms dealers from peace protesters. They even protect them from the possibility of reading anything unwelcome. Somebody was arrested for simply handing out leaflets to this year's DSEi arms fair "delegates" (read merchants of death).

Protests against the fairs and the arms trade in general have been persistent, particularly by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and there have been three possibly significant victories recently. Reed Elsevier announced in June that it is to sell its five international arms fairs, including DSEi. Even more encouraging was the news that the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), the government department that promotes sales for private arms companies and is heavily involved in the organisation of the British arms fairs, is to be closed by the end of the year. Campaigners urge caution, however, because the functions of DESO might well continue, but spread between departments, which would be harder to campaign against. Prime Minister Brown may well have thought of that.

The third victory, the result of which is hard to predict, was won by CAAT and another campaigning organisation, The Corner House, when two High Court judges reversed an earlier resolution and ruled in favour of a judicial review of the government's decision to halt the investigation into allegations of bribery in arms deals. This scandal concerned deals between BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms company, and Saudi Arabia. Investigations by the Serious Frauds Office were well advanced when the Attorney General, backed up by Blair, then still Prime Minister, commanded they should cease, in the interests of National Security. You would think they would come up with a different excuse sometimes, but I don't have to convince readers of Swans how useful that one is. Anyway, these judges were not taken in by it and we can only hope that at least one corruption is publicly acknowledged, although we cannot expect anyone high up in the arms company's management to suffer and certainly not a Saudi Arabian Prince! Incidentally, there is clear proof that BAE have been unlawfully spying on CAAT and this is the subject of a separate legal case. Meanwhile, if you can believe it, they are busy Greenwashing themselves by producing lead-free bullets. Perhaps the sacred bottom line prevents depleted uranium-free, armour-piercing missiles from being similarly classed as eco-friendly.

Arms manufacture and sales are not obvious targets for humour, but Mark Thomas, a popular British comedian, tours the country and fills theatres with his shows on this theme. He is so dedicated to exposing the trade that he pretended, bravely in my opinion, to be an arms dealer himself. He has written a book on his experiences, which has been described as hilarious as well as disturbing. (2) The first part of the book's title, As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela, indicates that in addition to selling actual weapons, these dealers profit from sales of equipment used to "restrain," sometimes fatally, and indeed torture, the usual suspects.

Once weapons are on the market, there is almost no control of their final destinations. US guns handed out to Iraqi security forces are now in the hands of Turkish criminals. (3) You might well question who are the greatest criminals when something like that happens.

Pages can be filled with statistics about the arms trade and its human casualties, but it is a lasting condemnation of the mainstream media that many, perhaps most American and UK citizens, have little idea of the total number of people who have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. However, the tragic fates of a few individuals sometimes move us more than large numbers. In Burundi, three days after Christmas 2000, a bus, oddly named The Titanic Express, was ambushed by terrorists who killed twenty-one of the passengers. One of them was Charlotte, a British aid worker. In the moments before she was murdered, survivors say she was told, "It's the white people who supply the weapons in Africa. Now you are going to feel what it's like." I wouldn't have repeated this chilling epitaph for an innocent human being except that Charlotte's brother, writer Richard Wilson, seems to want it given maximum publicity. (4) The killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag, peasant army, he has said, but they knew where the guns were coming from. He has been haunted by the idea that the man who sold them the guns might be walking the same London streets as he is, even drinking in the same pubs.

Convinced that the arms trade is out of control, Richard has become a determined campaigner against all its murky dealings and the money behind them. He was outraged when he learned through CAAT that his old college, University College London, had invested over £1.5 million in two arms companies, one of which, Cobhams plc, makes components for Hellfire missiles. (5) This was bizarre for an institution that offers "education for global citizenship" and aims to contribute to "the resolution of global problems." Hypocrisy again, but CAAT's investigations have revealed that other British Universities are also guilty of similar unethical (to put it mildly) investments. I believe some University students are beginning to protest about this, not before time.

We can perhaps conclude that it is not only hypocritical and lying politicians and people directly involved in the arms trade who should be asked, "How do you sleep at night?" However, one person who is easily linked to killing on a global scale is General Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of what has been called the world's most dangerous weapon, but he says he sleeps soundly and justifies himself as follows. (6)

I made it to protect the Motherland. And then they spread the weapon. Not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and it began to walk all on its own and in directions I did not want.

Considering that there are an estimated 70 to 100 million AKs in the world and they are still being made, few people would disagree with his genie analogy. Shall we ever be able to get that genie and the even deadlier nuclear jinn back in their bottles? I think every effort in that direction must be supported, even if as Noam Chomsky once said in a rather similar context, it might be a question of hope triumphing over experience.



1.  An Introduction to the Arms Trade, CAAT Publications 2006. Can be downloaded at www.caat,org.uk/publications  (back)

2.  Mark Thomas; As Used On the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade, Ebury, 2006.  (back)

3.  Alain Gresh; "The United States' New Backyard," Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2007.  (back)

4.  Richard Wilson; Titanic Express: Finding Answers in the Aftermath of Terror, Continuum IPG, 2006.  (back)

5.  Richard Wilson; "The Gower Street Gunrunners," The Guardian, May 19, 2007.  (back)

6.  Gideon Burrows; Kalashnikov AK47, New Internationalist Publications, 2006.  (back)


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About the Author

Charles H. Pearson is a retired research biochemist in British Universities and then in Canada at the University of Alberta who lives in a small village near Cambridge, England. As a hobby he writes short stories, mostly humorous, which have been published in small press magazines. While always intensely interested in politics, he considers that he may as well have been disenfranchised for a few years. Writes Pearson, "To steal from Gore Vidal, I think Britain has only one political party, with two and a half right wings. Web sites like Swans and the British Media Lens provide welcome relief."



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Published December 3, 2007