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‘Prophets of War’: The Real Halliburton

A book could have been made from the story of a single fighter plane alone. William D. Hartung’s Lockheed Martin exposé starts with a sharp and concise reckoning of how the company made the full-court press in order to keep its problematic F-22 Raptor fighter program alive. It’s a thrilling piece of journalism, combining deep background knowledge of the program’s particulars with a keen grasp of the political machinations that swirled around its long undeath. Hartung writes that when the company started its advertising and public relations offensive in early 2009, all of its ads and talking points referenced the nearly 100,000 jobs that were at stake. Hartung’s tart opener sums it up nicely:

When an arms company starts bragging about how many jobs its pet project creates, hold on to your wallet. It often means that the company wants billions of dollars’ worth of your tax money for a weapon that costs too much, does too little, and may not have been needed in the first place. So it is with the Raptor, which at $350 million per plane is the most expensive combat aircraft ever built.

Like most weapons manufacturers, Lockheed Martin has scattered its parts suppliers and manufacturers across as many states and congressional districts as possible, not to mention spreading the PAC largesse with generous abandon. Because of this, whenever any of their programs comes up on the chopping block – as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did with the over-budget Raptor – they can count on a good-sized phalanx of former and current politicians to stump the hallways of Congress and the studios of any media outlet that will have them to fight for its salvation.

Never mind that the estimated number of jobs at stake are always vastly inflated or that the weapon itself is either simply unaffordable or just not plain necessary. Gates himself has noted that while the Raptor has been in development for years, it has never seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Hartung notes that Army officials (never afraid to play the interservice rivalry card) were irritated that for the cost of one Raptor, they could fully equip a 15,000-man division. None of these things matter, of course, when the company in question is one like Lockheed Martin, whose driving purpose is profit by any means necessary, not the manufacture of useful weapons for the defense of the nation.

After the opening chapter on the Raptor’s ultimate failure (there were enough skeptical politicians like John McCain and Jack Murtha around to defeat the company’s lobbying blitzkrieg), Hartung digs back into the company’s colorful past to show a pattern of behavior that has lasted nearly a century. The company’s founders were a pair of brothers from Burbank, Allan and Malcolm Loughead, who started building planes in the years just prior to World War I, and later changed the spelling of their name after giving up on telling people how to correctly pronounce it. Their early history seemed to set a template for the company’s future: a freewheeling attitude of aggressive, improvisational deal-making which seemed to leave the actual business of plane-making a distant second or third priority. One good reason for this was the establishment during World War I (during which the nascent American flight industry failed to manufacture a single usable combat plane) of a singularly unfortunate trend in government purchasing habits: the cost-plus contract, which were:

…an arrangement in which the company had all of its expenses reimbursed and then received an automatic profit on top of that. These generous deals were compounded by a lack of effective oversight and minimal accountability for any malfeasance or misfeasance carried out with the taxpayers’ money.

The Second World War was much more profitable for Lockheed Martin than the first. During that conflict, they won contract to build over 10,000 twin-engine P-38 fighters, a massive influx of business that put the company into the leagues of big arms manufacturers who were left, after the surrender of Germany and Japan, wondering how they were going to keep those lucrative contracts coming in. While peacetime might have been the answer to most Americans’ prayers, to Lockheed president Robert Gross, it was nothing less than a disaster. Gross wrote of the war’s end in a 1946 letter: “As long as I live, I will never forget those short, appalling weeks.”

The following year, Gross actually argued before Congress that Washington should keep a steady flow of cost-plus weapons purchases flowing to firms like his so that, should war come again, they would be able to step up again to the plate with minimal fuss. In the end, Gross needn’t have worried so much, since a combination of wars like Korea and Vietnam combined with a nexus of anti-communist paranoia and hysterical misreadings of intelligence analyses (no matter what American spy planes and networks reported back about Russia’s military assets, to some politicians, Doomsday was always just around the corner) to ensure that there would be no famine for arms dealers, only feast. This would ultimately lead up to what Hartung terms the “contractor-conservative” alliance – in which Lockheed executives made up a good part of people revolving doors between the defense industry, neo-con think tanks (usually well-funded by Lockheed and others), and the Bush administration – that fulminated so effectively for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, wars are good for business, and what’s good for business is good for America.

The decades following World War II saw billions of government funds disappear into Lockheed’s accounts despite the fact that they seemed to blunder from one engineering disaster to the next. With few exceptions (such as the successful U-2 spy plane, created by Lockheed’s famous, highly secretive, and strangely efficiently-run, “Skunk Works” program), Lockheed’s grand schemes seemed to end in failure more often than not. There were programs like the Cheyenne, a long-dying disaster of a program to develop a new helicopter for the Army; after a half-billion dollars, only ten prototypes were delivered and it was ultimately shut down. The C-5 Galaxy cargo plane was another expensive white elephant, nearly as big as Howard Hughes’s infamous Spruce Goose and just about as necessary. One crashed in 1975, killing nearly a hundred Vietnamese orphans after a rear door simply fell off; others failed miserably when pressed into service during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. And it was Lockheed whose $600 toilet seat covers and $7,600 coffeemakers made such a scandal in the 1980s. In an effort to keep drumming up business overseas, Lockheed seemed to rarely balk at paying lavish bribes, though they preferred to call them “incentives”.

Hartung reports that in more recent years, Lockheed hasn’t just focused on making bad equipment corruptly for lots of money – those that do work, like cluster bombs, often tend to kill more civilians than enemy soldiers — they’ve also branched out into just about every facet of government contracting possible. These days the company works on everything from processing mail for the post office to developing privacy-annihilating databases for various intelligence agencies and providing horribly-trained interrogators for Guantanamo. In short, the reach of this company would put Haliburton to shame.

Although Prophets of War reports the facts with an eye for the illustrative and well-researched fact, Hartung doesn’t ever quite dig deep enough into the company’s culture. He writes a swiftly-paced book that jumps from one egregious mistake which Lockheed Martin isn’t punished for to the next (like many military contractors subsisting on the Pentagon welfare system, failure never seems to count against them), but misses some of the larger picture.

Last year, Joseph Maiolo’s Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War 1931–1941 did just that, burrowing deep into the historical archives to show how government planners created an inexorable tide of armament that essentially made the Second World War inevitable. Hartung gives us the history but doesn’t connect enough of the dots, particularly failing to adequately report more substantively on the culture of Lockheed Martin itself, and why such a massive and successful company has been the progenitor of so many rank failures and moral outrages.

RATING 6 / 10