The Shadow World: disconcerting but necessary tome on arms trafficking
In The Book of Merlyn, TH White’s beautiful, affecting coda to his masterpiece The Once and Future King, his aged King Arthur listens as a council of advisers tells him about humanity. The council is headed by his old tutor, Merlyn the magician, and its views on humanity are perhaps sharpened by the fact that the council members themselves are animals – an owl, a hedgehog, a snake, a goat, a badger and a dog. The question is what to call mankind, since the council has decided that homo sapiens is obviously inaccurate, and the label of homo ferox is suggested. When Arthur protests that surely man is not as ferocious as a tiger, he’s reminded: “Why, there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory.” Merlyn assures him, “It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.”
Andrew Feinstein’s new book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is one long natural history of homo ferox; it would drive White’s King Arthur to tears, and it would make a believer out of him. It’s as profoundly depressing a book as you will read all year, for it’s not primarily about the pretty idea of evil but rather about something below it: the moneygrubbing sharks who supply evil with the tools it needs to do its work. Feinstein has done a great amount of investigation to bring the full details of this story to print, and we must thank him for it just as we thank the housing inspector who points out exactly where the rot has set in.
This is unpleasant but necessary reading, and it starts off as ferociously as possible. On January 6, 1999, forces of the Revolutionary United Front in civil war-torn Sierra Leone moved into Freetown intent on rape, plunder and murder (in accordance with their mission’s name, Operation No Living Thing). “What followed,” Feinstein writes, “was a two-day apocalyptic horror. Thousands of armed teenage soldiers, almost all of them wearing thick bandages on the side of the head where incisions had been made to pack crack cocaine under their skin, swarmed the city.” In less than two weeks of this apocalypse, hundreds of thousands of people were dispossessed, tens of thousands were maimed or abducted, and six thousand were murdered. Before striking, the RUF had waited for the arrival of extra arms and equipment from neighboring Liberia. “The arms trade did not cause this barbarism,” Feinstein allows, “but it facilitated and fuelled it.”
It’s too nice a point, and Feinstein must be aware that his own book doesn’t support it. Consider the impatient waiting the RUF did; hard-eyed men pacing on warehouse loading docks, ready to hand out foreign-made rifles to bored soldiers of death – that waiting has been done by countless such militia in countless countries in every century of the modern era. In every one of those instances, violence, rape and murder waited on the delivery schedules of the arms trade. That “shadow world” is guilty of a lot more than facilitation.
As Feinstein explains, his use of the term “shadow world” is meant to apply to the so-called grey market of covert arms dealing and the black market of illegal arms dealing; he admits that the open and above-board arms market between nations has always been in some measure a legitimate thing. The focus of his years of research and his thousands of pages of notes is rather the illegitimate side of the issue, the countries and agencies trafficking in arms without any legal mandate, or in defiance of international agreements. All countries and governments need arms to defend themselves and their citizens, we’re assured, but there are channels and procedures for the buying and trading of such arms – there’s an industry that can and should be regulated. By contrast, the villains in this scenario are the governments and government agents who make illegal arms deals (usually for staggering amounts of money), indifferent to the vast amounts of human suffering that always results from such deals.
For Americans reading Feinstein’s book, the sheer speed with which the names of President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney come up in this context will be nothing short of sickening. The book’s second paragraph has Bush meeting in 2002 with Prince Bandar, then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, to discuss the president’s determination to invade Iraq despite the United Nations’ assurances that Saddam Hussein didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction.
There are many other big players in Feinstein’s account of this shadow world. The name of the British arms company BAE crops up often, and Russia and China, and their various satellite states, are very much involved. But as the pages fly by (Feinstein is an extremely readable writer), the reader inescapably reaches two conclusions: that there is no practical difference between black, grey and open weapons markets, and that if you look closely enough into virtually any arms deal of any kind conducted in the last 50 years, you’ll find the United States with at least a couple of fingers in the pie. As an account of the international arms trade, Feinstein’s book is smart and up-to-date; as an indictment of US corruption, it’s one of the most damning documents since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
In 1976, the Clark Amendment prohibited the transfer of arms from the US to Angola, where President Gerald Ford had been clandestinely arming the Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (Unita). In 1985 the Clark Amendment was repealed and the Reagan administration flooded Unita with aid and arms, a stream of US aid that Feinstein calls “the second-largest in its history, bettered only by US support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan”. Unita’s only bigger supporter was the apartheid government of South Africa.
In the 1980s, the US supplied massive amounts of military aide to Sudan, Feinstein writes, “despite its atrocious human rights record for a period until the late 1980s”. The US also spent billions per year shoring up Hosni Mubarak: “Between 1981, when Mubarak took power, and 2010, Egypt has spent a total of US$28.4 billion on military equipment. By far the largest supplier has been the US; its $21.7 billion in sales constitutes just under 75 per cent of all arms purchased by Egypt since Mubarak assumed office.” That military equipment included riot control gear, body armour and tear gas – spent canisters and shells littering Tahrir Square earlier this year were labelled “Made in the USA” and manufactured by a company in Pennsylvania that also manufactures tear gas used by Israeli forces in Gaza. And so on ad nauseum. Time and again, Feinstein traces the business dealings of one US company or another, through all the levels of their dealings with the government in what Feinstein calls the MICC – military-industrial-Congressional complex, his “iron triangle” – and time and again, he comes to the same conclusion: “this is damning proof of the lawlessness of the American arms trade”.
“Those who operate in the shadow world are often used as agents, brokers and middlemen by the companies of the formal trade,” Feinstein tells us, trying to draw some distinctions between the two sides of his equation. “While the monetary value of the shadow trade might be small in comparison to the formal trade, its role in keeping formal prices high is crucial. So too is its ability to fuel, grow and prolong conflicts which ultimately provide new markets for the formal trade.” But it all becomes one toxic soup in the end, with consequences that affect every single person on Earth – fundamental consequences, as Feinstein puts it: “The diminution of democracies where they exist, and the entrenchment of undemocratic, often barbarous states.”
Administrations may change, but homo ferox, it seems, is here to stay.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.