The costs of America’s 21st-century wars have been well documented – a staggering $8 trillion in expenditures and more than 380,000 civilian deaths, as calculated by Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Corporations have left the financial feast of that post-9/11 surge in military spending with genuinely staggering sums in hand. Pentagon spending has totaled an almost unimaginable $14 trillion-plus since the start of the Afghanistan War in 2001, up to half of which went directly to defense contractors.
In the first year after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, defense spending rose by more than 10 percent. That was just the beginning. It would, in fact, increase annually for the next decade, which was unprecedented in American history. The Pentagon budget peaked in 2010 at the highest level since World War II – over $800 billion.
As Harry Stonecipher, then vice president of Boeing, told the Wall Street Journal in 2001, “The purse is now open… Any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November.”
Stonecipher’s prophecy proved correct. And it’s never ended.
More than one-third of contracts go to just five companies.
The Biden administration is anything but an exception. Its latest proposal for spending on the Pentagon and related defense work like nuclear warhead development at the Department of Energy topped $753 billion. And not to be outdone, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have already voted to add roughly $24 billion to that staggering sum.
More than one-third of all contracts now go to just five major weapons companies – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. They received over $166 billion in contracts in fiscal year 2020 alone.
The best known contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan was Halliburton, through its KBR subsidiary that provided logistics – setting up military bases, providing food and laundry services. By 2008, the company had received more than $30 billion for such work.
While an armed contractor who had served in the Marines could earn as much as $200,000 annually in Iraq, about three-quarters of the contractor workforce there was made up of people from countries like Nepal or the Philippines, or Iraqi citizens. Poorly paid, they received as little as $3,000 per year.
The Afghan “reconstruction” process included a U.S.-appointed economic task force that spent $43 million constructing a gas station in the middle of nowhere that would never be used, and $3 million for Afghan police patrol boats that would prove similarly useless.
To alter this pattern, a new strategy is needed, one that increases the role of American diplomacy. Otherwise, we’re in for decades of more war profiteering by weapons contractors.