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What War Can Do For You!
Published on Tuesday, January 28, 2003 by the Boston Globe
What War Can Do For You!
by Alex Beam

In times of national emergency, citizens respond accordingly. I have been watching a documentary about the 1940-41 Battle of Britain, when most Britons rallied to their country's cause. Young people not already in uniform flocked to the armed forces, and many of their parents volunteered to serve in the Home Guard, mustered to repel an expected German invasion.

We live in a different time and place. The apparently inevitable war with Iraq will rain down horror on populations already living in unenviable political and economic conditions. Many American families will make even greater sacrifices than they already have. But it seems in keeping with the spirit of the age to pose the question: What can the war do for me?

We may be about to reap some dividends from the impending conflagration. Nice Mr. Bush has already proposed to reduce taxes for the lucky 50 percent of Americans who have stock portfolios - the Better Half, we call ourselves.

There have been figurative dividends as well - for example, the wraithlike Gary Hart's emergence from internal exile to offer us moral guidance for the opening stanzas of the 21st century. In the past year, we have witnessed the Return of the Repressed: Hart, Fritz Mondale, Ramsey Clark. Maybe the Raelians can bring back one of my personal favorites, Louis Abolafia, the 1968 Nude Party candidate for president. (''What Have I Got to Hide?'' was his slogan.) Then I can relive my adolescence in its entirety.

But the real point of a war is to make some money. During World War II, stocks began a 24-year surge that started immediately after the Battle of Midway, America's first great victory against the Japanese-German Axis. The Vietnam War, alas, ushered in a time of economic troubles that is deemed to have lasted until the early 1980s. Looking on the bright side, Time magazine notes that Bush Sr.'s 1991 Gulf War paid off handsomely, stock-market-wise. ''Wars are generally not such a bad thing for US equity markets,'' Time reports. ''Indeed, sending the troops into battle abroad has often signaled a great buying opportunity.''

But what to buy? Absent a pure play in coffins, I would turn first to the classic Merchants of Death. No, not McDonald's and Philip Morris (now Altria); I mean the weapons suppliers. Unfortunately, killer stocks such as Raytheon, Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have fallen off badly in recent months. ''War? What is it good for?'' The Wall Street Journal asks. Not for defense stocks, the paper answers, because ''when the nation is at war, the government spends billions of dollars, but not on war toys for the future.'' Bummer! And yet one doesn't picture the defense industry lobbyists urging their elected representatives to give peace a chance.

The energy industry, in which both our president and vice president served a spell, might be ripe for investment. Dick Cheney's alma mater, the oilfield services company Halliburton, hasn't prospered lately, but things could be looking up. The Houston-based company and its peers are facing a win-win situation. If we, or Saddam Hussein, destroy the Iraqi oilfields, they will have to be re-engineered by such companies as Halliburton. But even if the fields survive the war, a successor regime in Baghdad will want to boost the country's oil output from its many undeveloped fields, ''for the benefit of the Iraqi people,'' as Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld like to say.

Happily, what's good for the Iraqi people is also good for ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. ''War would be a boon'' for the energy giants, the Dow Jones news service reported late last year. ''Conversely, no war with Iraq - or a war in which the US prevails and maintains relations with Iraq and other oil-producing countries - would probably result in lower oil prices and a subsequent swoon in producer companies' shares.''

Lower oil prices? That's a scary outcome; we'd better give war a chance. Lloyd Hill, the chief executive of everyone's favorite restaurant chain, Applebee's, confided to Bloomberg Television that conflict could be good for his business. ''People will be stopping at our to-go facilities and taking food home to watch the war, if history is any lesson for us,'' he said.

The past is prologue: I'll have the Fiesta Lime Chicken to go. Let the bombing begin.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company


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