A new PBS documentary looks deep into the shadowy world of the global arms trade, profit-making from war, and the politicians who sell the interests of their constituents to the highest bidder.
In his first year in office, President Donald Trump has earnestly played the role of salesman-in-chief for United States arms manufacturers.
The U.S. accounts “for more than half the world’s annual arms deals.” Trump may make it much easier for the government to sell weapons by enlisting the Pentagon and State Department to more aggressively peddle the products of U.S. arms manufacturers. His administration also has proposals and plans in the works to make nuclear weapons more usable, with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon each working on prototypes of a delivery system for “future nukes.”
Trump’s actions reinforce all the most profoundly disturbing aspects of “Shadow World,” a documentary based on Andrew Feinstein’s book on the global arms trade that premiered on PBS at 9:30 pm ET.
Feinstein was once an African National Congress (ANC) member of South Africa’s Parliament. As he recounts in the film, Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, spent $10 billion on weapons. Three hundred million dollars was spent on bribes to senior politicians, officials, and military officers. At the same time, Mbeki claimed there were no funds for developing life-saving medications for 6 million South Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS.
“The financial oversight committee on which I was the ranking ANC member started to investigate the deal and the corruption. The ANC leadership instructed me to stop the investigation,” Feinstein said in an interview with ITVS/Independent Lens interactive editor Craig Phillips. “When I refused, they thwarted the investigation, including removing me from the committee and then forcing me out of Parliament.”
As Feinstein wrote in his first book on corruption in South Africa, he took an interest in global defense contractors, especially how they were propped up by their own governments. He recognized there was no comprehensive book on the subject and developed the “Shadow World” project.
The film manages to cover quite a bit of history from President Ronald Reagan to President Barack Obama. Commentators featured in the film also reach back before to reference developments that happened with CIA covert operations in the 1950s to the 1970s. And President Richard Nixon’s disdain for diplomacy is highlighted through a clip of Nixon expressing the urge to use nuclear weapons.
Many of the key arguments in the film come from journalist Vijay Prashad, who condemns policymaking on the “assumption of greed” and how it has ruined the world.
“A society that decides that the bulk of its budget is going to go to arms manufacturing, building up military, etc.—they have made a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well being for the population,” Prashad declares.
This policymaking, which capitalist Milton Friedman champions in the film, opened the flood gates for a world economy that incorporates and flourishes on permanent war.
Millions in Latin America fought against oligarchs backed by the U.S. government. They had an “alternative imagination” for how the world could function. Yet, as Prashad describes, “In the early 1970s, this attempt was destroyed, and it was stopped through a real genuine attempt by the global north to take over the institutions of the world, including the World Bank, the IMF.”
“So it’s not simply that the people of the south were incapable of carrying forward their dreams,” Prashad adds. “These dreams were assassinated.”
One-off killings and coups had a devastating impact, but beyond that, there were forces that recognized the dreams of Latin Americans had to be killed for their way of doing things to survive and continue to thrive.
The film is punctuated by vignettes told by Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, novelist, and writer. As Feinstein says, it is supposed to offer viewers a bit of relief from the “dark nature” of the material.
There is an air of cynicism and despondency to the subject matter, like the behemoths that are Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, or Northrop Grumman can barely be challenged. However, the film’s focus on the political leaders, who engage in bribes and engineer massive deals for corporations all under the guise of security, make it clear they keep this system of greed going.
If there is to be an end to the insanity of arming Israelis to enable their occupation of Palestinians, which fuels their country’s arms industry and benefits the global arms trade, the hope lies with people resisting their elected officials.
If there is to be an end to the lying that creates pretenses for military action or the funneling of weapons to terrorists (so-called “rebels”), the hope lies with people who become fed up.
If there is to be a backlash against sending arms to Saudi Arabia so it can further tear apart and destroy the Middle East—and kill tens of thousands of children in the process, the hope can only come from citizens courageously telling politicians no more.
While “Shadow World” is primarily about past chapters in the global arms trade, little has changed. It is very much rooted in the present, and the dark horrors that make arms manufacturers record profits will not subside until something is done to address the ease in which heads of state from the U.S. and other countries can play salesmen and get away with it.
Watch | The trailer for Shadow World
Top photo | A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Published in partnership with Shadowproof