Our Reason for Existing is War and Military Contractors are the Merchants of Death

Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff Under Collin Powell, examines the need for a powerful long-term strategy to oppose the U.S. military apparatus


LARRY WILKERSON: I've brought a whole lot of things with me. I don't know if I'm going to use a lot of them, but I was very intrigued by the scholarly, if you will, juxtaposition of what I take as your ultimate purpose and what has been the progress of that ultimate purpose in the past.
My specialty in teaching, both in the nation's two most prestigious war colleges, in my view, the Naval War College at Newport and then the Marine Corps War College at Quantico, and my experience now for 12 years on three civilian campuses, longest at William and Mary, has led me to understand, I think, that scholarly division between republic and empire.
There was a lot of, shall we say, dastardly deeds done in the Republic, not least of which was from 1866 to 1890, the so-called Indian Wars where we ethnically cleansed over 100 Native American tribes, generally to extinction or reservations that one could say were worse than extinction and still are today. I'm not saying there were no crimes and ravages. In the war with Mexico, for example, was-
Okay. The war with Mexico, for example, was as Lincoln said from the floor of the House of Representatives, an illegal war. He said, essentially, in his famous spot speech, "Show me the spot, Mr. President. Show me the spot," where Mexico invaded Texas because, as most historians know, it didn't. We just wanted that territory.
Interestingly, a story you may not know, might be apocryphal but I doubt it, because records weren't too good at that time and communications weren't too speedy. When Winfield Scott got to Mexico City, the President asked him by courier, "Should we keep it all?" Scott said, "Good Lord, no, Mr. President. You don't want this place." All we took was Texas and a land equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase from Mexico, including, most prominently, the most prosperous state in the Union today, a populous state, a state that has the fourth largest economy in the world and, after Brexit, will probably pass the U.K. and have the third largest economy in the world, California, which I expect anytime in the next decade, perhaps before I go to my grave if I'm lucky, to leave this Union. Were I California, I would.
I was giving a talk at Iowa State University recently, and a gentleman in the back stood up and took some objection to one of my comments and said, "What do you mean, the electoral college is a vestige of slavery and inhibits pure democracy? What do you mean? I'm from Wyoming and it has 400,000 and I can't stand up to that 30 million state next to me called California." I said, "Can I answer you as a corporate executive would answer you? Get thee into California." I would never tolerate the existence of Wyoming with two senators when California sits beside it with two senators. I would never tolerate it. If I were a businessman, I would say to Wyoming, "Get into California because that's the only way I could consolidate and make efficient and effective my government, my management, whatever you want to call it."
That's how badly organized the United States of America is today, terribly organized. So terribly organized that now 40 percent of my Army comes from seven states. Forty percent comes from seven states. Alabama, with a population of 4.8 million, provides more recruits for your Army than Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, with a combined metropolitan population of over 25 million. In Alabama, the Reserve components tell me that almost every male is a member of the National Guard or the Reserve. A lot of women, too.
West Virginia, the most obese state in the Union, provides an inordinate number of recruits. It is also one of the poorest states in the Union. Right now... of the 18- to 24-year-olds who would be eligible for the Selective Service System if we had a draft, cannot be drafted. They're too obese. Right now, one-third of that group cannot be drafted, cannot be recruited because they are intellectually incapable of passing the Armed Forces Aptitude Battery.
My Army, my Marine Corps and, by extension, the Navy, the Air Force, are all restricted when they go to recruit to one-third of the people who are out there and I will guarantee you that Princeton and Harvard and National Merit Scholars and sons and daughters of Congresspeople and so forth, ain't going to be recruited.
What do we have in the Armed Forces today? We have those people, either because of poverty in most cases, or because of a patriotism that goes to their family experience with the Armed Forces, that's the most powerful proclivity to enlist, is their family, uncle, grandfather, brother, father, sister, whatever, has been in the military. Now that's falling off. With the Millennials, that's falling off a cliff. The Millennials have the least propensity to serve of any generation your Army or Marine Corps has looked at in its history.
It is a propitious moment for people who would like to stop this country engaging in war after war, indeed, engaging in interminable war. What we have become, in scholarly terms, is a national security state. That's means our raison d'etre, our reason for existing, is war. You don't need a new term for defense contractors, they are merchants of death. It's that simple. That may be a little bit too pejorative in some channels if you're trying to be effective, but that is, in essence, what they are.
Many of my friends, many of my former colleagues in the military, work for Lockheed Martin, work for General Dynamics, work for Raytheon, work for Boeing. I still talk with them. Their conversations go something like this, usually, if they have a conscience: "Well, I know what you're saying, Larry, but you know I have to support my family." You know I have to do this and I have to do that. There's reason there. What I usually come back with is what Colin Powell used to come back with, with me all the time when he said, "Never be a Beltway bandit or a defense contractor or anything associated there with." They don't pay as much. That's true.
I have a student right now, that's the other group that goes to these people sometimes. I do my best to talk them out of it. I don't try to talk them out of going to the CIA, the NSA, the State Department, the Peace Corps or any of those places, though, because if we don't change the people there, we'll never change the actions there. I don't try to talk my students out of that but, generally speaking, when my colleagues in the defense contract industry tell me that they're making lots of money, they'll also tell me how they're making it. You haven't heard anything until you hear these people, and some of my students, too, who are now revealing to me after six or seven years with Booz Allen Hamilton, Halliburton and so forth, what goes on.
The latest boondoggle is cyber warfare. I'm sitting down in a Starbucks with one of my former students, really bright guy, former E-6 in the Army, went to William and Mary his last two years on the GI Bill, smart kid. Came from Colombia, his mother still lives in the mountains north of Bogota, but every bit an American citizen and, in fact, probably more an American citizen than three-quarters of the people I know in the Republican Party who were born here and live here.
He says to me, "You know, I may have to leave." I said, "Sebastian, you're making a lot of money." He said, "No, I may have to leave because you won't believe what's going on." I said, "Sebastian, yes I would. I've been there, done that, I know what goes on." This is the new terrorist industrial complex, as Colin Powell coined it a few years ago. This is the new one, the cyber terrorist complex. They're going to kill us through our computers. That may well be true, but that doesn't mean we need $5-billion-programs that we sell to the Defense Department or others that are as effective as nothing. That is to say, they're boondoggles.
It reminds me of the time when a Senate staffer came into my office when I was Chief of Staff at the State Department. This was an epiphany for me in this regard. I knew things were going on, but I had no idea of the proportions of the things going on. He said to me, "You know we're getting ready to vote in my committee on a $100-billion-plus, and we know the cost overruns are going to be at least that much, so call it $200-billion program for a new family of satellites." He said, "There is no one in the staff or on the committee who has a clue what the consortium of defense contractors, who are building these satellites, are talking about."
Led by Lockheed Martin but, increasingly now, what Lockheed, Boeing and others will do is they'll be the prime and then they'll hire three or four of the others as subs, so this was a consortium of the last remaining big six, if you will, of defense contractors.
I said, "So you don't even know how to ask questions, right?" He said, "Right. Of all the staffers on this committee, I'm the only one who has any experience at all with the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office, and satellites in specific, and I don't even know the right questions to ask, I don't know the right points to ask elaboration on and so forth and so on. I am lost, too. What do you think I should do?" I said, "Obviously, you can't see me because you know that Colin Powell has some really powerful bona fides with the Congress and you're trying to get me to go in and get Secretary Powell to talk to the committee about this." "Bingo," he said. I said, "Well, I'll try. I'll do what I can. I don't know if it'll be successful, but I think what you need really fast is a stop. Don't go any further, and let me tell you as a military man right now, I don't see the good that those $5-billion-apiece satellites are doing for us to the price that they cost."
We had a real discussion about cost-effectiveness, about the ratio between the price for the instrument and the product that the instrument produced. We this same argument when we were abrogating the anti-ballistic missile treaty, solely on our own. We said, ballistic missile defense? Think about this for a minute, now. Ballistic missile defense was going to cost, at that time, about $100 billion. One hundred billion the Armed Forces needed for lots of other things, everything from mop gear for potential chemical defense to tanks and other weapons. There was absolutely no engineering guarantee that ballistic missile defense would work. There still isn't. I don't know what the total now is. Bill can probably tell you better than I, but I guess it's well over $100 billion in total expenditure.
Military fought it tooth and nail because they knew the other things that they needed, and they knew this money would take from those other things. Then, all of a sudden, you had to create this ballistic missile defense office, and then it just grew and grew and grew and now your government is confronted with a situation that it may be embarrassed too majorly when someone shoots a group of missiles and it fails. My prediction is it will fail.
Bill Perry, former Secretary of Defense, as far as I know, the only one who ever served as Secretary of Defense who was an engineer, a real engineer. Said to me one time, "I've done the study, Larry. I've done the study. We've never achieved more than .19 kill against any airborne target, never." We've played with that a little bit as we got four-barrel Gatling guns that would shoot at 4,000 rounds per minute and we got missile and so forth and so on, but at the same time, the platforms got faster, they're defenses got better and so forth, so we're still around .02."
Imagine 10 missiles, nuclear warhead-equipped, coming at you and you stop two. The other eight get through. Have you spent $100 billion for that, especially when you needed that money elsewhere? Yet, you hear nothing of that today, except every now and then around the fringes, as yesterday, there was an article in the mainstream press about, what if it doesn't work? The egg on the face of some people? We'll come up with something. We'll come up with something, just as we've done during the testing of this system. We'll say, well, this part was not right or this part was not right. We've fixed this, we've fixed that. That's where we've come to in this country. That's what we've come to. We've come to spending trillions of your taxpayer dollars without the expertise, even, to justify that expenditure even on a cost-effectiveness basis. Your money is going out the door.
Brown University convinced me, and I've been there and looked at their stats, that we've spend $4 trillion since 9-11. The official, official total, is about $2.7. We have spent that money, your taxpayer dollars. If you stretched it to the moon, it would probably go and come back twice with $100 bills. That's how much money it is. We spent that money on the probability of your dying from a terrorist attack, which is about, statistically, the same probability as your dying from a lightning strike. Go look at the Cato Institute's graphs on that.
You're more likely to die falling down the stairs, especially if you're like me, over 65. You're more likely to die in an auto accident by far, and yet we spent $2.7 trillion on this phenomenon. Colin Powell was right, it's the terrorist industrial military complex now, and soon to be the cyber terrorist industrial military complex.
The last time we really tried to do anything about this phenomenon called war that was comprehensive, even, you might say, global, was, as you all know, the Kellogg Briand Pact. I was reminded of that in Chicago recently at a Veterans for Peace conference. It's quite a remarkable document. I recommend you all go back and read it. It's very short, it's right here. I'd read it to you, but I don't want to bore you.
The signatories are, besides our Republic, under Woodrow Wilson, one would doubt that it was a Republic, and the Imperial Empire of Japan, the sort of Parliamentary Monarchical Empire of Great Britain, and so forth. They all agreed to renounce war in language, even though it's very short, language that's really beautiful. 1928, I believe, it was concluded and then in 1929 in Washington, we had a ceremony and made our signature apparent to all the American people. Then in 1931, one of the signatories, Japan, went into Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo and, arguably, began the hot part of the Pacific war that would result in their defeat in 1945. It didn't work.
Recently, I got myself very heavily involved in what you might call a very focused, pointed, specific effort to do the same thing with regard to the most brutal war and, remember, Syria's still going on, on the planet right now. That's the Saudi UAE war in Yemen, where more than 500,000 people, yep, might die in the next weeks or so from a combination of cholera and starvation, where the Saudis and the UAE are bombing almost everything, including the port and the cranes that offload food and water at that port. The are blockading, navally, the ships with cranes that we have provided as replacement cranes from landing and being reconstructed so that the food and water can be offloaded.
It's a brutal war, a brutal war. I'm over with the Quakers, Friends Committee for National Legislation, a very effective lobby group. I found that out when we were lobbying for the Iran Nuclear Agreement for President Obama. I'm over with them and I'm in, we said it, we're going, we're going to do it, Republican offices. We already had two Republicans, one from Kentucky and one from North Carolina, on the bill and we had two Democrats on the bill, Mark Pocan and Ro Khanna from California, and we had 26 co-sponsors amongst the Democrats and now we were attacking the Republicans. We went to the Senate and the House.
Our vehicle was something called House Concurrent Resolution 81. What it did was it invoked the Constitution of the United States with regard to the war power. Specifically, that abdication of that power, partial abdication by the Congress in 1972-73 with the War Powers Act. We used that act to get privileged status for the bill, which means it must go out of committee to the floor of the House, it must be voted on, to say the war in Yemen that the United States is participating in, constitutes an illegal action under the War Powers Act by the United States. Guess what? That was President Obama, not President Trump.
Some of my audiences are somewhat shocked by that. The excuse at the time that President Obama offered was that he had punished Saudi Arabia so badly with the Iran Nuclear Agreement, now looking more defunct than ever, that he had to do something with the Saudi royals or he'd lose them. I would have said, "Mr. President, lose the goddamned bastards."
Here is Donald Trump on the day he decides for domestic political purposes, as the German Foreign Minister carefully pointed out, to decertify the nuclear agreement with Iran. Here he is, this is a quote almost, might get the order backwards, but the words are right. "Iran is spreading death, destruction and chaos across the globe."
Saudi Arabia is spreading death, destruction and chaos across the globe, Mr. President. Those guys you did the sword dance with, those guys who had more to do with 9-11 than any other state actor in the world, those guys who are still spreading Wahhabist, Salafist terrorist attitude from madrassa to madrassa from Pakistan to the Philippines, those guys with whom the United States has been so embedded that I used to go to parties featuring Prince Bandar at his residence, where I ate off gold with gold utensils and listened to Roberta Flack warble in my ear. My wife turned to me and said, "Let's leave. This is the most ostentatious display of greed and obscenity I have ever been in. Let's leave," and we did.
You saw Bandar in the film there? Bandar, in my view, is one of the most corrupt human beings and evil people who ever tread this earth. Many of his Saudi compatriots are. I'd say the same thing about the current heir apparent, MBS, as he's called in acronym, Mohammad bin Salman, who started this bloody brutal war in Yemen for no other purpose, really, than Saudi Arabia wanted to show it had a pair, and got the UAE to come along with it because the Emirates are always with the Saudis.
We cast off the most populous, cohesive country in the region, a country whose young people, and most of them are young people, virtually lust for what we could give them, what the world could give them economically, financially and so forth. A country whose people are not indisposed to us, except at the top, a country that is the natural hegemon in the Persian Gulf. We testified to that for 26 years when the Shah was our man. We cast them off for this corrupt, venal, terrorist-supporting bunch of dudes in Riyadh. This is unconscionable.
Your foreign policy, your security policy is not only dominated by the merchants of death and the military industrial university think tank complex, it is dominated by idiots. This is what really troubles me today, it's because they are idiots. That's not to say they aren't smart. Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, Nikki Haley at the United Nations, all those neo-conservatives are relatively smart, but smart is not necessarily what we require. What we require is people with a respect for the decent opinions of mankind and a respect for the American people, less those 48 million Dominionist Christians out there, who worship a Christ I never met in the Bible or elsewhere, Mike Pence, our Vice President, being one most prominent of them. If you lust for Trump, you'll love Pence.
How did we get here? How did we get to this point where you have a man who's fought in three wars, who's been in the military, served nine presidents, seven of them in uniform, two of them in mufti, and I'm telling you, the country is in grave peril, grave peril, as much peril as it's been in, in my 72 years on this planet, 50 of them I like to think...years.
What do we do about this? How can we do something about what's happening because I'm telling you, there are two outcomes and history screams this. My students say, wait, how can you talk about dismemberment of the state? My God, one of the most powerful forces in human history for 5,000 years has been states falling apart, whether they're monarchical empires or they're democratic empires and, by the way, we aren't a democracy, haven't been for some time. Not sure we ever were. Mark Twain once remarked, "You know, if voting were so important, they wouldn't let us do it." He was onto something.
At least we had sort of the elasticity of democracy. The people could rise up in virtuous anger and it did make a difference. The last time I saw it, and President Obama himself said this to me, with John Kerry sitting right beside him in the Roosevelt Room, and four or five senators and several representatives said the same thing to me about the Hill. When President Obama was being pressed by John Kerry to put U.S. ground forces into Syria, major U.S. ground forces, they were getting ready to do it and, all of a sudden, the telephones rang off the hook. The cards and letters kept flowing in. The emails flowed in, the constituent visits picked up to one point where a senator told me, "I've never seen anything like it and I've been here 22 years."
The American people said, "No," and both the President and the Congress took heed and there were no major ground forces going into Syria. It does work, but it's got to happen and it's got to happen in a focused, effective way. How would you do that today? Well, you're working on that. You're working on a long-term strategy? I'm sure you've got some short-term versions of it, too.
One of the things I think is important right now is this resolution. This resolution is the camel's nose under the tent. This resolution could embarrass the bejesus out of the Senate and the House. What Massie from Kentucky a Republican, said to me, I can't say it exactly because I'd be divulging words in confidence, but what he said in essence was, I just want the opportunity to read this bill on the floor of the House of Representatives and have people have to listen. It is a very short, it's only three pages, a very specific bill. It does not poke fingers in the eyes of the Saudis or the UAE, except indirectly, what it does is say, Mr. President, you are involved in an illegal war and the Congress says stop. The people's representatives say stop. Even if he only just gets to read it and the media picks up on it, then we start something. We start something that could possibly bring the war power back into the 535 people who constitute the people, where it should be with regard to the Constitution.
That would be a great start, in my view. That would be a tremendous start to getting people in the country and, most importantly, in the Congress, to thinking about how much power they relinquish to the chief executive. Believe me, I've seen that. In the three presidents I've served closely, I have seen how that power has gone to the White House in such a way, for example, that in 2002 it produced a nation willing to torture other human beings. At the end of November, I'll be a part of a commission in North Carolina. God bless the North Carolinians in this respect, some of them, anyway. We've been after Burr, the North Carolinian at the head of the Intelligence Committee now, we've written in the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh newspapers and everything, let's fire that bastard, get him out of there.
He suppressed the torture report. You would fall off your chair if you read that report. That Americans did what is in that report is reprehensible, unconscionable and would devastate you if you read it. He suppressed that and we may never get it out now, because they've tied the few copies that are still in existence up in legal paraphernalia that will keep them from your eyes for probably at least 25 to 30 years. We tortured people viciously in the name of freedom, justice and the American way.
We rendered people and North Carolina was participant par excellence, because the CIA flew out of North Carolina airports with North Carolina airplanes. We're having this hearing in Raleigh the 30th of November, the 1st of December, and we are going to, as best we can, expose North Carolina and by that, expose the United States. We've got such stellar people as Alberto Mora, maybe William H. Taft IV and others coming, Powell's lawyer at the time, maybe others coming down to testify and to participate in these hearings.
We don't expect to get anybody, President Obama wouldn't do it, to reopen this business. What we're going to do is force at least the North Carolinians to recognize their complicity in this dastardly business. This is incredible, what we did. If there was one issue, one issue that broke my back with regard to keeping my mouth shut, which is the tradition in the military, no matter how many crimes you see, no matter how many crimes you might have participated in, you go to your grave in silence. That's the military protocol, you're not supposed to speak out. The thing that broke my back was torture. I simply couldn't believe it.
When Colin Powell walked into my office in 2004 and said to me, "There are some horrible photographs going to come out about Abu Ghraib." "Where's that?" I said. "Oh, it's that prison Saddam Hussein used to use in Iraq." "Oh, yeah, I remember it. What kind of photographs?" He described some of them to me and, by the way, you and the American people haven't seen the worst ones. President Obama again, made a decision after George Bush made a decision, not to expose those photographs to you. It would create too many terrorists. Well, my God, the drone strikes are creating the terrorists, so why the hell worry about some photographs?
When he told me what was happening, he said also to me, "I want you to join Admiral Church in the Pentagon, Don Rumsfeld has appointed him his investigator, I want you to be mine. Will Taft will handle the legal issues, but I want you to do the tick-tock. I want you to do the chronology. I want you to tell me how we got to this point." For the next six months, I did everything I could to build what I called then a dossier on U.S. complicity in torture.
When I came to share things with Admiral Church, it was a one-way street. Admiral Church took everything I gave him that I could get my hands on and gave me nothing. Then when his report came out, I read it with great eagerness, to find that throughout the report were things that echoed my own findings, but at the end, he concluded that even though torture was widespread amongst contractors, the CIA and the military, there was no clear policy implication. Here you've got torture all over the place, in three different entities, and you say they just did it because in Rumsfeld's famous words, they were just "bad apples." There was no policy implication.
Even Rick Sanchez, a three-star in charge in Iraq later, had real remorse and said, "I should never have done that. I should never have passed those instructions on. I should never have let that guy from Guantanamo come into Iraq." By the way, that guy has been indicted, General Miller, he's been indicted in France and he can't travel anymore, I guarantee you, because the French will pick him up and try him.
Recently I was in Paris and we were talking about that very same individual, along with several other things. The third day there, we had the opportunity to talk with a prosecutor from the International Criminal Court, a very competent young lady. She told us, "We've got a case working in Afghanistan. We're going to bring war crimes charges against the Afghan government, against the Taliban and against the United States of America." I said, "Okay, you just killed it." She said, "We know that, and you know what they've just done? They've just cut our budget because of that." I said, "How big was the cut?" "It was pretty big, so we can only take the very biggest, most difficult complex and what we consider to be the worst, cases on, so we're probably not going to pursue that one." I said, "That's the way your country does business."
That's the way your leadership business in the world now, whether it's human rights, human dignity, war, you name it, we are, in the eyes of at least 3.5 billion people on this globe, that's 50 percent, in poll after poll, the greatest terrorist organization the world has ever seen. That's where we are, so you know why I speak out. Thank you.

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