Making a Killing: The Business of War Profiteering

Renowned national security journalist Andrew Cockburn breaks down the 21st century’s “spoils of war.”

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

Last month, the Democratic-controlled House voted in favor of appropriating $768 billion for the 2022 defense budget. This week on Intercepted: Senior writer for The Intercept Jon Schwarz talks with Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, longtime national security journalist, and author of “The Spoils of War: Power, Profit, and the American War Machine.” Cockburn and Schwarz discuss the legacy of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and how private defense companies have historically maximized profits from horrific wars.

[Intro theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a senior writer with The Intercept.

Last week, Colin Powell, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former national security advisor under Ronald Reagan died from complications related to Covid-19 and cancer.

The corporate media had always loved Powell in life, and loved him just as much in death.

ABC Reporter: That was General Colin Powell, the warrior, concise, calm, lethal clarity.

Lester Holt: A great American and his words that continue to lift and inspire.

Craig Melvin: That’s how you’ve lived a life well spent, when that is your legacy. 

Sheinelle Jones: Mhmm. 

Craig Melvin: Are you’ve done it right here on Earth.

Anita McBride: And that was a great example of a truly, truly great American. 

ABC Reporter: Amen. 

SJ: Show of hands, how many of you are inspired by his journey? [Pauses.] All of you.

ABC Reporter: Decorated war hero, distinguished diploma, a good and decent man, husband, father, grandfather — Colin Powell didn’t just break barriers, he built bridges. And not only did this child of immigrants lived the American dream, he embodied it.

JS: What the press didn’t say was this: The most important thing about Colin Powell, the reason he rose so high, is that he was a salesman — and just as honest as anybody trying to sell you something on TV. From Vietnam, to Panama, to Iraq; Powell sold U.S. foreign policy and U.S. wars. And he was great at it.

Andrew Cockburn: Well, the glowing profiles were entirely predictable. This was a guy that the blob — or whatever you want to call it, the consensus — had worshipped because he so fitted the bill as someone who went along to get along and went along to get upwards. So he was exactly what was needed and accepted.

JS: That’s Andrew Cockburn: Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, longtime national security journalist, and author of many, many books. He comes from a powerhouse family of journalists: his father, his siblings, his niece, and his wife have all exposed real abuses of power. I feel like everyone would be scared to go over to his house, because the Cockburns would uncover all of your crimes immediately.

And for years, Andrew’s been specifically documenting what happens inside the U.S. government’s war machine. So he’s looked behind the frontmen, like Powell, and examined what U.S. military spending is really about — not even war, exactly, but instead the care and upkeep of the gigantic Military Industrial Complex.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: Year after year Congress ships more money off to the Pentagon. The U.S. spends far more on its military than any other country in the world. Just last month, the Democratic-controlled House voted in favor of appropriating $768 billion for the 2022 defense budget. Of course, we say defense budget, since it’s the Department of Defense. It used to be called the Department of War, but that was changed in 1949, the same year the novel 1984 was published.

And, as a result, military contractors — building airplanes, bombs, getting started on the weapons of the year 2060, etcetera — are making a figurative, and of course, literal, killing.

CNBC Reporter: U.S. companies including Lockheed Martin and Boeing sold more than $23.7 billion in arms last year to nearly 100 different countries.

Morgan Brennan: Well, Lockheed Martin earnings are out: revenue of $17.03 billion. That was a beat versus the estimates of $16.9 billion.

JS: Andrew’s new book — “The Spoils of War” — is an incredible compendium of avarice and folly, all using our money and, of course, the lives of millions of people around the world.

Andrew and I spoke about his new book, his journalism, and Colin Powell’s death last week. We began by talking about some of Powell’s forgotten crimes — ones that didn’t damage his career but actually boosted him up the ladder to the top:

AC: I always thought of him, long before his Iraq-UN debacle, as a horse holder, by which I mean, by which I mean someone who was always there to lend a willing hand to hold the horse of whoever was in charge and enable them. 

There’s been a bit of discussion since his recent demise about his role in M? Lai.

Amy Goodman: Fifty years ago today, on March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers attacked the Vietnamese village of M? Lai, U.S. troops arrived at 7:30 a.m. local time. Even though the soldiers met no resistance, they slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese women, children, and old men over the next four hours in what became known as the M? Lai massacre.

American Soldier: So he grabbed my rifle, and just went to their heads, and put it between their eyes, and just pulled the trigger. 

American Soldier: And the guys are just walking up there and shooting in houses and stuff.

Captain Ernest Medina: I can further say that I did not see any slaughter at my M? Lai for that day. And none was reported to me. And I’ll further state that I did not order any massacre at M? Lai.

American Soldier: I think I killed about 18 to 20 people.

AC: Basically he had to write up one of the initial reports which of course covered up and obscured — and actually, I think contained the deathless phrase: the Vietnamese people loved the American troops, or words to that effect, when he knew full well what had happened and the whole army machinery was cranking into gear to cover up this horrible massacre. 

I’m reminded of something I wrote about in 2007 for The Nation, it was actually a book review, about the gassing of Halabja. Once upon a time quite well-remembered, but now a more or less forgotten war crime by Saddam Hussein, when the Iranian-backed Kurds had taken a town in Northeast Iraq, and Saddam dropped poison gas to retake the town and killed huge numbers of civilians.

Al Jazeera Reporter: Thousands of Kurds were killed when the Iraqi army said it attacked Iranian forces in the closing stage of the Iran-Iraq War.

Al Jazeera Reporter: Ahmad Zangiabadi, like so many other Iranians, signed up to fight after Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. But he was gassed during Iraq’s first major chemical weapons attack four years later.

AC: One thing worth remembering in this context is that the U.S. immediately swung into action to cover this up because we, at that point, were Saddam’s good friend and ally and we were determined to obscure the fact that this was an Iraqi war crime and to stick it on the Iranian.

ITN News Anchor: Iraq denies using chemical weapons. It says Iran carried out the attack. Whoever is to blame, the victims are clear: civilians who were caught up in one of the world’s most unforgiving wars,

AC: And central to this effort was none other than Colin Powell. At that point, he was national security adviser in the Reagan White House. And he was a key operator in organizing a very efficient worldwide disinformation campaign. I mean, it was up and running within days, as I recall, to persuade everyone this was an Iranian war crime — and of course, had nothing to do with the Iraqis themselves and it was shocking and loathsome. 

And then, fast forward to 2003, to the degree that the invasion of Iraq had any kind of moral legitimacy at all, it came from the gassing of Halabja, the use of chemical weapons on Halabja. And the Bush people endlessly talked about: Saddam dropped closing gas on his own people. And none was more eloquent than Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited Halabja right after the fall of Saddam and gave an eloquent speech about how shocking it was, and very moving, and everything — when he had been a key architect of covering it up. 

Secretary of State Colin Powell: What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988, is never going to happen again. [Applause.]

AC: I mean, at least you had some giant criminals like Rumsfeld and Cheney, who were like the people in the driver’s seat, and trotting along behind the enabler was Colin Powell, speaking as Secretary of State at the U.N. And in this particular, otherwise long-forgotten incident:

Secretary of State Colin Powell: Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard and nerve gas against the Kurds, in 1988, was one of the 20th century’s most horrible atrocities.

JS: Yeah, it is funny with people like Cheney. I always get the very strong sense that they resent the liberal adoration of people like Powell, when they know very well that Powell is exactly like him, he’s just better at PR. 

AC: Well, yeah, but they found him useful, you know? We got to sell this Iraq deal and who is a better leader? I think they’ve surely enjoyed the joke of making this liberal pontificator go up and lie in order to keep his job, I suppose.

Secretary of State Colin Powell: Indeed, the facts in Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.

AC: And then they must have watched it with great delight and amusement seeing Colin willingly the lap dog, or the horse hold, or whatever do that bidding. I’m sure they got a kick out of that.

JS: And in your story from 2007, about Powell going to Halabja, there are also further extraordinary details that I think almost no one knows about. Some of what you write, because Halabja was kind of abandoned by everyone after the attack on it, that it had become a place that was open to influence by sort of hardline Islamists and that that, in turn, was used by Powell at the U.N., as part of his evidence about how, well, al-Qaida is in Iraq, like they’re right up there near Halabja.

AC: Exactly. That’s a ghastly circularity to it, isn’t it? I mean, that again, was them grasping at some shred of respectability for the criminal enterprise, but used by Colin Powell, who — anyway, what a disgrace he was. 

And how disgraceful it is that all these floods of tears in Washington, and the official press, state-influenced media, whatever you want to call it, about this noble warrior?

JS: Yes, I wonder if you agree with my rule of thumb, which is that the more enthusiastic the D.C. press corps is about any political figure, the more appalling they are. And that, for instance, Alan Greenspan was seen as this tremendous, perspicacious, wise man running the economy and, in fact, he was largely responsible for the gigantic, incredibly disruptive housing bubble. And he got out just before it collapsed, and then he went to work for the guy, the hedge fund manager, who had profited so much from shorting it.

But anyway, as I say, I think that you really can’t go wrong. If they love someone, they are awful.

AC: Yeah. I think it’s some sort of inbuilt mechanism that sort of prompts this, maybe it’s back in their deep cortex of their brains they know that someone who is an obvious crook and asshole, therefore he needs further inflation. Remember, for years they worshiped John McCain, Senator from Arizona, who was regarded as a sort of noble warrior. And indeed a maverick — it’s wonderful to be called a maverick. And, in fact, John McCain was a sort of absolute tool and catspaw of the military industrial complex throughout his career. It was there in plain sight. He would say: We are going to crack down on some terrible example of waste, fraud, and abuse, and then do nothing about it.

JS: But that’s what made him a maverick. You’re absolutely right.

AC: [Laughs.] Yeah, as long as you’re a toothless maverick, or you never actually use your teeth, that’s fine. If you’re a real maverick, then they all turn on you.

JS: Yeah, it was extraordinary to see the entire system gear up in rage at the exit from Afghanistan. 

AC: Yes, it was amazing. And it also, in a way, disheartening to see how patsies the White House and the Biden people were to not get out of the way. Biden did the right thing, finally, getting out of this ridiculous engagement. And the military, who I think were keen to move on, I know were fairly keen to move on, they organized the evacuation, so to the extent it was a screw up, it’s on them. But they very adroitly managed to stick it all on Biden, and Blinken, and Sullivan, and whipped up the media to denounce Biden for having officially declared a war over.

Greg Gutfeld: Why is everyone acting like it’s their first day on the job? And their entire job is to protect American citizens and yet they’re more scared of offending the political left than those we left behind.

Jake Tapper: This is not just about the overall idea of leaving Afghanistan. This is about leaving hastily and ineptly. Secretary Blinken, how did President Biden get this so wrong?

Sean Hannity: This is beyond a national embarrassment. Innocent people will likely die as a result of all of this. More will die. So congratulations, Joe! This is your mission accomplished. 

AC: It’s interesting, it reminded me of, in some ways, of the first impeachment of Trump. Trump was impeached, really, for holding up an arms deal. Remember that he wasn’t rushing weapons. He’d made weapons supplies or weapons sales to Ukraine conditional on them giving them some dirt on Biden.

Paul Adams, BBC: Mr. Zelensky wanted to discuss American military assistance, but Mr. Trump said he wanted a favor. President Trump was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid; his opponents smelled a rat. They said the president was abusing his power, using his office for personal, political gain.

AC: You remember the outrage of: How dare he do this? Putting the national security of the United States in peril, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you threatened something deep. 

So declaring a war over and admitting defeat, which was what Biden, I think, very commendably did that really stirred up the deep state. I’m not sure you’re allowed to use that phrase. We have to deny we have a deep state, but we obviously do, and they’re all frothing at the mouth and denouncing him for the chaotic withdrawal and the shameful humiliation and all the rest. 

In fact, it’s probably the one decent act of American foreign policy in the last 20 years, I’d say.

JS: But this this is a great way to, you know, introduce your new book, titled “The Spoils of War,” because you begin by quoting Alexander Hamilton in the “Federalist Papers,” and Hamilton wrote that: many, many wars: “take their origin entirely in private passions; in the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members. Men of this class, whether the favourites of a king or of a people, have in too many instances abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage, or personal gratification.”

Now, I will say that that is something that I was not taught in schools. That was not part of any class that I took. I believe it also does not appear in the very popular Broadway musical “Hamilton.” 

AC: And no, I think that runs counter to the narrative. A lot of things don’t appear in [laughs] “Hamilton.” And we’re all taught to revere the “Federalist Papers,” founding document of our constitutional democracy, but no one brings that one up. 

But Hamilton knew what he was talking about, obviously. And I defy you to find an exception. People talk about foreign policy and strategy, but I defy you to find an example where someone did a single, solitary thing for foreign policy, as opposed to winning the next election or making money.

And, as I argue in my book, basically, you can’t understand military strategy, and actually foreign policy too, though I don’t talk so much about that, unless you understand this is the case. Why do we do this or that? If you look closely, it’s always because someone aims to make some money out of it.

JS: So I wanted to quote something that you yourself had written in the book at the beginning, which is something that I resisted believing for a long time, but your reporting and just the basic facts of life in America have convinced me that you’re 100 percent correct. 

You say: “Outsiders generally find it hard to grasp an essential truth about the U.S. military machine, which is that war-fighting efficiency has a low priority by comparison with considerations of personal and internal bureaucracies. The military are generally not interested in war, save as a means to budget enhancement.”

AC: Well, that is patently true. I guess I have to have to allow an exception in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, perhaps. But, largely, it’s completely true. And, again, in recent years, I defy you to find an exception. I mean, my story that I heard a long time ago, which I quote in the book, which was told me by a late friend of mine, Dick Hallock, who was a officer in the Korean War: in winter gets jolly cold in Korea, the Army’s boots were completely inadequate and everyone was getting frostbite. And, in fact, most of the casualties in that first winter of the war were from frostbite, because they had these terrible boots. So they used to raid the Chinese trenches to steal Chinese boots, because they were nice and warm and well-padded, and kept your feet warm, and the toes didn’t fall off.

And he said he used to think to himself: Why am I, a soldier in the richest country in the world, risking my life to steal the boots of soldiers of the poorest country in the world? And the reason was that the defense budget had gone through the roof, of course, with the onset of the war, but the money wasn’t going to buy boots, it was going to buy B-47 nuclear bombers, which could fly at great speed most of the way to Russia. But they are pouring billions into that — 

President Harry S. Truman: We will build up our own Army, Navy, and Air Force and make more weapons for ourselves and our allies.

AC: — why? Because I am convinced obviously because the aerospace manufacturers, had rather more political clout and money than the boot makers. So forget the boot makers, it’s the airplane manufacturers that got the money.

JS: It is shocking, to any sort of conventional perspective, to see all of these examples where the very basic needs of the people who are purportedly so venerated in the U.S. military are completely ignored and you have a startling and alarming quote about this from Pierre Sprey. 

So he was a weapons designer, correct, at the Pentagon. But he spoke about U.S. soldiers being betrayed on the ground is like a festering sore in the history of the U.S. military. And just reading your book that becomes absolutely obvious that for all the beautiful words that are said about U.S. soldiers, people really running things do not seem to care about them at all.

AC: Oh, really, I mean, let me let me cite some examples. It was really shocking. Even I was shocked, callous though I am. 

In the early days of the Iraq War, families of soldiers and Marines were going into debt to buy essential equipment for the sons and daughters who were going into combat: body-armor, night-vision goggles, binoculars, stuff like that, because the Army couldn’t be bothered to supply them.

I remember talking to families who had to do this, but also two friends of mine, wealthy women whose sons went into the Marine, their sons wrote to them saying: Mom, no one here’s family can afford body armor. So we had units, in both cases, the entire platoons in the United States Marines being equipped through the bounty, the philanthropy of these wealthy women, who went out and bought stores of body armor and things like that. I thought, this is kind of medieval. 

I’ll give you another example: the Army, they have a whole helmet bureaucracy, making helmets; obviously, a very, very basic tool of the soldiers’ trade is to have a decent helmet. And the helmets, in the most recent wars, the main danger to troops has not so much been bullets and shrapnel, but blast effects — I mean, the blast from IEDs. 

The Army managed to design a new helmet that enhanced the effect of blasts. And when this was pointed out to them, they refused to change it. It turned out you could mitigate this ill effect by extra padding, people were making their own padding in the Marines that I’ve talked to. But the Army refused to put in extra padding. The bureaucracy, for whatever reason, couldn’t be bothered.

Furthermore, a contract for weaving the Kevlar was going to one particular contractor, and the contractor was using too few threads — was sort of making extra money by basically putting too little Kevlar in the helmets. And when whistleblowers brought this to the attention of authorities, they were promptly fired. [Laughs.] And they went on doing this. This should give you the idea.

JS: One particularly awful example of the kind of thing that you’re talking about now is also in the news right now, which is hypersonic missiles. And my understanding is that these are different from boring, old, intercontinental ballistic missiles because they fly much lower in theory, if they ever worked, than ICBMs. And they have an erratic trajectory that would make them hard to shoot down with regular, boring, old missile defense systems. You have written about this in your book and elsewhere. What is the latest news about these that is getting Washington so much in a tizzy?

AC: We’ve had a particularly — I mean, a really egregious — piece of threat inflation, where some interested parties in the Pentagon leaked to an all-too-credulous Financial Times reporter news that the Chinese — the dreaded Chinese — had tested one of these hypersonic missiles, which had flown all the way around the world, skipping through the atmosphere and actually had missed the target, but landed within a few dozen miles of the target. 

Wolf Blitzer: There is new concern about China’s military capabilities, amid a report the country recently tested a nuclear capable hypersonic missile.

James Longman: So, bottom line: All this essentially means China is close to being able to launch a nuclear warhead against any other nation without any warning, and there’d be no defense against it.

AC: Predictably, already, you’re hearing from Congress and the military demands that we really step up our own hypersonic effort. To me, this is a perfect example of something I quote a couple of times in the book, which is originally coined by a guy called Ivan Selin, who was a Pentagon official in the 1960s, who would welcome new people coming to work for him and say: “Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don’t work to meet threats that don’t exist.”

JS: [Laughs.]

AC: [Laughs.] And that’s what we have in spades with the hypersonic missile. 

I mean, very briefly, let me say why I’m speaking so derisively about it. First off, all we have is a couple of blind quotes from the Pentagon, so why should we believe a word of it?

Secondly, the attractive feature of a [hypersonic weapon] is that it’s aerodynamic — in other words, it flies through the atmosphere and it can maneuver, which means it’s in the atmosphere. So it has control surfaces like a plane. So it can go this way and that, thus making it difficult to shoot down — because, theoretically, at least with a ballistic missile once it’s taken off and has gone a little distance, you can plot its trajectory easily. And so, in theory, at least, it’s very easy to shoot down; not in practice. So this is designed to get around this alleged vulnerability of a ballistic missile. 

The problem is that if it’s not maneuvering, what’s the point? It might as well be a ballistic missile, because if it’s going in a straight line, you know where it’s going to be in, you can shoot it down. If it’s maneuvering, it’s going to be encountering friction — every time it maneuvers it slows down, basically, because you’re putting up extra friction by turning left or right or up or down. So the idea that it can glide around the world, I think, is ridiculous.

What really put hypersonics in the news was Vladimir Putin three years ago now, where he announced the Russians had a super-duper hypersonic missile called the Avangard. And at a meeting of the Russian Federation, he put up a big sort of display showing the Avangards raining down — and actually heading towards Mar-a-Lago as far as I could see.

CBS News Anchor: During his State of the Nation speech Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin described new strategic nuclear weapons that he claims can’t be intercepted.

AC: I looked into this, and you can read this in the book, it turned out that the Avangard was a very ancient program. The Russians have been working on it since the 1980s. And the reason they’ve been working on it was the factory where it was being made, which employed 10,000 people, and they were worried about the unemployment and consequent unrest if they dropped it with the collapse of the Soviet Union was put into mothballs; then they revived it in the early 2000s, and Putin went to see a test in 2004, which actually failed — didn’t work — but now Putin needs to impress his people that he’s really standing up the Americans. And, the U.S., on this side, we have reacted predictably. Everyone, just as now with this Chinese effort, everyone three years ago was like: Now the Russians have got this dreadful super-duper hypersonic thing and the money tree shock. And indeed, I particularly noted that Marillyn Hewson, [advisor to] the the CEO of Lockheed, the largest arms weapons contractor — actually they have now built it — they were breaking ground for a new hypersonic factory. And to break ground, she used a golden shovel, which I thought was very appropriate. [Laughs.]

Announcer [at Lockheed Martin groundbreaking]: One, two, three: break ground. [Applause.]

AC: But to me, the hypersonic furor, which is, you know, still echoing as we speak, is a perfect example of what a racket the whole thing is.

JS: Yes, I like to imagine that Lockheed charged that golden shovel to the government on a cost plus basis.

AC: I’m sure we paid many thousands of dollars per ounce on that. I mean, a few years ago, they were discovered to be charging $10,000 for a toilet seat cover. And when the under secretary of the Air Force was sort of challenged on this by, I think it was a congressman, he said: Well, we needed to pay that price to ensure the profit for the manufacturer. 

JS: [Laughs.]

AC: [Laughs.] I thought it was wonderful. At least, at last, honesty! Honesty!

JS: Their cost was $9,000 per toilet seat cover, and so they needed to charge us $10,000 so they’d be able to make a reasonable profit. 

AC: Yeah, exactly.

JS: Now, I have a question for which I believe I already know the answer, but I feel I should ask it anyway: The Democrats and the Republicans, clearly they’re both guilty of protecting and enhancing this kind of war profiteering, is there any difference between the two parties or is it pretty much uniform across the board?

AC: The Republicans are more sort of unabashed. There are fringes of the Democrats who say, we should be spending the money on hospitals, and healthcare, and schools — which of course we should — but they’re on the fringe. 

I mean, recently, the progressives introduced a resolution to Congress to cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which was crushed like a bug in a bipartisan vote. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which are controlled by the Democrats, both recently voted to increase next year’s defense spending by an amount more than even the Pentagon had asked for. And that’s the Democrats talking.

So yeah, there’s really zero difference between the two. That’s where the money is! This is something most people know, if you prod them, that the military industrial complex has its tentacles in every part of the country. You know, it’s tragic. You see things like Lima, Ohio, where we make tanks, the one tank, the Army has many more tanks than it knows what to do with — hundreds of them in storage. And yet, whenever they talk about maybe not closing down the Lima plant, the Ohio senators, including one of which is Sherrod Brown, noted progressive, good guy in lots of ways, absolutely spring, for obvious reasons in defense of the Lima plant and we go on cranking out unneeded tanks. 

I always thought it was very sad that there’s this whole series of programs launched by Obama — who else — to completely overhaul build a whole new sort of nuclear war-fighting strategic force — a new bomber, new missile, new warhead, new submarine, and new plutonium pits, you know, the core of a nuclear weapon. Now we have many more plutonium pits than we need. But, you know, the Los Alamos nuclear lab would like to have that business. And when he was in the Senate, Tom Udall, as liberal and decent a senator as you could find, he fought like a tiger to have this boondoggle go through.

It’s in plain sight. And it’s depressing. I don’t know how we get rid of it.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: Whenever I read one of your books, I think two things: Number one, why are there such a miniscule number of people covering this kind of subject from this perspective? And number two: How do you get away with it? And I should say, not just you. But you and your wife Leslie. Certainly, I’ve followed both of your work for a long time — when you’re working on stuff together and individually. How do you pull this off? Because there must be some secret? 

AC: There’s no secret. I think it’s just sort of knowing where to look. It’s not really that hard. And it’s really a question of orientation. If you start with the belief — I didn’t originally start with this attitude way back as a stripling, but it came to me fairly early on, — that actually, the whole thing is, basically, it’s all about the money and it’s a very high quotient of crooks and thieves, then you look at things a certain way. And then, you start looking for documents, and test results, and things with that in mind, which all too rarely happens these days, it used to happen a little bit more, you had reporters who would look at things this way. 

I think there’s a thing, which isn’t just about journalism, it’s about the whole approach to this issue, which is: hawks and doves. If you’re a hawk, you want a strong military and you therefore are disposed to believe the military when they tell you that producing a strong military is a strong defense, and if you’re a dove, you think the whole thing’s really rotten, and we should be spending the money on hospitals or whatever. 

But I always think: How well is it working? Are we actually getting a decent defense out of this? And actually, you can bridge the ideological divide that way. I mean, a lot of my good sources and friends whose political views, would, in other areas, might make your hair stand on end, but you know, they are interested in this issue. It helps to have a bit of historical memory. And it helps to talk to people: go to go to the trade shows. I find it’s very useful going around and talking to them.

I think with great nostalgia the days when you could walk into the Pentagon, and wander around and knock on people’s doors. I can sort of just remember that. And they had to come and sort of clear you, but once you’re inside, you could wander around. Now, of course, you practically get sent to Guantanamo, if you’re found in the Pentagon unescorted.

JS: I wonder if you’re familiar with the anthropological phenomenon of social silence, which I think explains a great deal of this. It is the perspective that in all societies — not just ours, but in all societies — the most important aspects of those societies are surrounded by a kind of silence have very little discussion of them. So if you live in a society that is ruled by a god-king, you don’t have a bunch of newspapers debating like; Are there really such things as god-kings? Yes and no, we’re going to debate! 

And you see that in the United States. Clearly the most important economic institution is the Federal Reserve. Does anybody truly talk about the Federal Reserve or understand how it works? Even very well-educated people. No! The Pentagon is at the center of how American society works and foreign policy and also economic policy. And it would make sense that it’s very hard to sort of break that silence and get people to want to discuss it.

AC: It’s absolutely true. That’s why it’s so important to do that. 

My father, who was a journalist, who inspired me in a lot of ways, he always said: You should always pick an enemy as at least twice as big as yourself. Obviously, the Pentagon is many times more than that. Yeah, there is an absolute ring of silence around it.

Unfortunately, what’s happened is, Vietnam, if it had any good effects, one of it was such a sort of huge shock to the society, because so many Americans were getting killed, it was such am undeniable disaster that people were impelled to commit truth about it, and accept truths about it, and the Pentagon Papers had a huge effect. And people washed on for a long time afterwards. People were prepared to accept that this thing had feet, knees, and thighs of clay; that it was really a questionable piece of institution indeed. And that’s kind of worn off. 

The military loved the 1991 War in the Gulf, because — actually, I think George Bush, Sr. actually said: This gets rid of the Vietnam Syndrome.

President George H. W. Bush: The gratitude I feel, not just to the troops overseas, but to those who have assisted the United States of America, like our Secretary of Defense, like our chairman of our Joint Chiefs, and so many other unsung heroes who have made all this possible, it’s a proud day for America. And by God, we’ve kicked Vietnam Syndrome once and for all. [Cheers and applause.] Thank you very, very much.

AC: It was so wonderful, worked so well, we had these precision weapons — which actually didn’t work so well, once you got past the PR — and since then, there’s been this sort of veneration of the military, of which most people have no experience. Once upon a time, we had the draft and a lot of people were around who’d had a fairly firsthand knowledge of what a crappy institution it basically was, a bumbling bureaucracy, and so forth. 

Now, most Americans know little or nothing about it. They have no experience in the military. The military is largely invisible. Even in Washington, you don’t see people in uniform. So it’s an abstract thing and, therefore, it makes it much easier to sell the idea of a super-proficient military, and as amplified by their propagandists on the news media.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: Now, I can’t let you go without getting your point of view on a weird theory of mine about why the kind of stuff that you do is so important and really, genuinely sort of noble, which is what I like to call the gossip theory of journalism. And it goes like this: 

You go to a restaurant to meet a friend, and you get there first, and you sit down and wait for your friend and then at the next table, there are a couple people gossiping, and: Well, I can’t believe that Marcy broke up with Sam again, that’s like the third time, and Maryann’s Etsy store isn’t doing very well. And you’re listening to them and you’re like: This is the most boring thing I have ever heard in my life. Why are they wasting their lives talking about this? 

And then your friend arrives. And the two of you start gossiping about people that you know, and it is the most fascinating, most compelling thing imaginable. 

AC: [Laughs.]

JS: And I think that the way people sort of think about the world works in the same way, is that once you have sort of a basic knowledge of a situation, all the details, new information, is incredibly compelling. But if you don’t know anything, it’s like watching a sport where you’ve never seen it before, you don’t know the rules, like who cares? This is the dumbest thing that people could possibly do. 

And I think that one very basic function that you would like journalism to serve is to move important subjects from the category of gossip about people that you don’t know into the category of gossip about people that you do know. And the kind of stuff that you do is absolutely fantastic about it. Like, the more that I’ve read your work, the more I’ve wanted to read work by other people. And once you have a basis in these kinds of things, like it all fits together. 

And so I wonder if you think that there’s anything to that? Like one of the problems with this is just that people just don’t know anything about it. But once you can get them interested in the subject, they are going to want to know more.

AC: I love it! Yeah, I think you’re entirely right. I mean to bring the gossip and make it about your table, so that once you’re into it, this particular topic, you can get really excited about the loading mechanism on a Russian tank. 

JS: [Laughs.]

AC: I really get off on that. I love it. I can read about that stuff all day. 

But I do try and persuade people: This is really important because this, writ small and also writ large, when we’re talking about incinerating the planet, or these morons who want to have a military confrontation with China, this is going to infect you so you better pay attention. So you need to be like me and get fascinated by it.

JS: Andrew Coburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, a longtime national security journalist, and author of the “Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine.” 

Andrew, thank you so much for joining me.

AC: Hey, thank you.

[End credits theme.]

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is Lead Producer. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

And I’m Jon Schwarz.

If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you want to give us feedback, email us at 

Thanks so much. Until next time.

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