Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Arlington, Virginia, where many defense contractor offices are.

Arlington, Virginia, where many large military contracting offices—including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon, and others—loom across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Let's Take the Profit Out of War

CEOs shouldn't have a financial stake in the murderous mass violence of modern warfare.

Sam Pizzigati

 by OtherWords

In the 21st century, many of us are used to the murderous mass violence of modern warfare.

After all, we grew up living it or hearing about it. The 20th century rates as the deadliest in human history — 75 million people died in World War II alone. Millions have died since, including a quarter-million during the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan.

But for our forebears, the incredible deadliness of modern warfare came as a shock.

The carnage of World War I — with its 40 million dead — left people scrambling to prevent another horror. In 1928, the world’s top nations even signed an agreement renouncing war as an instrument of national policy.

Still, by the mid-1930s the world was swimming in weapons, and people wanted to know why.

In the United States, peace-seekers followed the money to find out. Many of America’s moguls, they learned, were getting rich off prepping for war. These “merchants of death” had a vested interest in the arms races that make wars more likely.

So a campaign was launched to take the profit out of war.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats set up a committee to investigate the munitions industry and named a progressive Republican, North Dakota’s Gerald Nye, to chair it. “War and preparation for war,” Nye noted in 1934, had precious little to do with “national defense.” Instead, war had become “a matter of profit for the few.”

The war in Afghanistan offers but the latest example.

We won’t know for some time the total corporate haul from the Afghan war’s 20 years. But Institute for Policy Studies analysts Brian Wakamo and Sarah Anderson have come up with some initial calculations for three of the top military contractors active in Afghanistan from 2016-2020.

They found that total compensation for the CEOs alone at these three corporate giants — Fluor, Raytheon, and Boeing — amounted to $236 million.

A modern-day, high-profile panel on war profiteering might not be a bad idea. Members could start by reviewing the 1936 conclusions of the original committee.

Munitions companies, it found, ignited and exacerbated arms races by constantly striving to “scare nations into a continued frantic expenditure for the latest improvements in devices of warfare.”

“Wars,” the Senate panel summed up, “rarely have one single cause,” but it runs “against the peace of the world for selfishly interested organizations to be left free to goad and frighten nations into military activity.”

Do these conclusions still hold water for us today? Yes — and in fact, today’s military-industrial complex dwarfs that of the early 20th century.

Military spending, Lindsay Koshgarian of the IPS National Priorities Project points out, currently “takes up more than half of the discretionary federal budget each year,” and over half that spending goes to military contractors — who use that largesse to lobby for more war spending.

In 2020, executives at the five biggest contractors spent $60 million on lobbying to keep their gravy train going. Over the past two decades, the defense industry has spent $2.5 billion on lobbying and directed another $285 million to political candidates.

How can we upset that business as usual? Reducing the size of the military budget can get us started. Reforming the contracting process will also be essential. And executive pay needs to be right at the heart of that reform. No executives dealing in military matters should have a huge personal stake in ballooning federal spending for war.

One good approach: Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s Patriotic Corporations Act.

Among other things, that proposed law would give extra points in contract bidding to firms that pay their top executives no more than 100 times what they pay their most typical workers. Few defense giants come anywhere close to that ratio.

War is complicated, but greed isn’t. Let’s take the profit out of war.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati, veteran labor journalist and Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits Inequality.org. His recent books include: The Case for a Maximum Wage (2018) and The Rich Don't Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (2012).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Indignation as Michigan Judge Drops Flint Water Charges Against GOP Ex-Gov Snyder

"The people of Flint deserve justice—and it's unacceptable that the people responsible for Flint's water crisis aren't being held accountable," said Food & Water Watch in response to the development.

Brett Wilkins ·


70+ Lawmakers Tell Biden 'You Can and You Must' Provide Rail Workers Paid Sick Leave

"As president, you and your administration have a number of tools at your disposal to make sure rail workers are guaranteed paid sick leave," wrote the lawmakers.

Julia Conley ·


COP15 Biodiversity Summit Highlights 'Deadly' US Attitude Toward the World

"While others play by the rules, the most powerful nation refuses," writes George Monbiot. "If this country were a person, we'd call it a psychopath. As it is not a person, we should call it what it is: a rogue state."

Jessica Corbett ·


Final House Covid Panel Report Exposes 'Reckless' Trump Pandemic Response

The publication accuses top Trump officials of "failed stewardship" and a "persistent pattern of political interference" that undermined the nation's response to a pandemic that has killed more than a million people in the United States.

Brett Wilkins ·


As NYT Staffers Strike, Sanders Calls for 'New Ways to Empower' Workers Battling Industry Giants

"We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists and media workers can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires," said the Vermont progressive.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo