Donald Trump has gone ballistic with sanctions and, having exhausted the possibilities of China, promises to reimpose sanctions on Iran. As a preliminary, he has bailed out of the Iran nuclear deal forged by the Obama administration in 2015, denouncing it as “decayed and rotten”. This left Iran free to cast off restrictions on its nuclear industry, and the fuel enrichment facility at Natanz confirms that it has quadrupled output of low-enriched uranium. In response, Trump has graciously offered to erase Iran. The threat, intended to energise his domestic constituency, is causing unrest elsewhere.
This brings to an end a decade-long peace brokered in part by Stuxnet, the worm weaponised by the US and Israel to cause centrifuges in Natanz to spin out of control and destroy themselves. Centrifuges separate nuclear fuels by atomic or molecular weight, a crucial step in enrichment. Though the Natanz plant recovered from the attack quite quickly, the demonstration of the havoc that could be wrought digitally was one of the factors in hastening the end of the US-Iran crisis. In the hacker community, Stuxnet is revered as a rare instance of malware whose effect was not restricted to the digital domain (such as stealing credentials or documents), but immediately produced real, physical consequences. That it spun out of control and infected computers everywhere, including in India, is largely forgotten.
The Iran face-off is part of Trump’s withdrawal from international strategic commitments to consolidate Fortress America but on his watch, America’s interest in cyberwarfare has been rapidly increasing. Last autumn, the US Department of Defence offered Silicon Valley giants the biggest defence contract ever, worth about $10 billion over 10 years. The Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (Jedi) is designed to move US defence capabilities to the cloud and give field units better access to the data and software capabilities that are now restricted to central installations in the US mainland. This would confer more accuracy in operations, and reduce the bad press that follows when drones target harmless goatherds by mistake.
The contract award process was frozen by the US Court of Federal Claims on a plea from Oracle, but the apparently paradoxical commitment to withdraw boots from the ground while investing in electronic warfare recalls a very early denunciation of militarised foreign policy by one of America’s most popular commanders. After an illustrious career on foreign shores, Major General Smedley D Butler of the US Marines — “Old Gimlet Eyes” to his admiring men — gave an anti-war speech which shook and stirred the establishment. In 1935, it was published as a 51-page book titled War is a Racket by the now-defunct Round Table Press. It also appeared in Readers’ Digest, which secured it a global audience. A new edition of 120 pages is available from Feral House, established by the intriguing journalist and editor Adam Parfrey. Unauthorised etexts are also hosted by fans.
Noam Chomsky brought global attention to bear on the military-industrial complex, but decades earlier, Butler had dialled the number of the beast. He wrote of war as a venture from which a few benefited at the expense of mass human misery and loss: “It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” His anger was directed not primarily at governments, but at Daddy Warbucks: “How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”
His solution: governments should make war unprofitable. Before they conscript troops, they should conscript the factors of military production to deprive industries of huge margins. Governments should also not commit themselves to wars of aggression without a referendum, and the US navy should limit its operations to within 200 nautical miles of the coast.
Butler was moved to write his book after he retired, when he saw the great powers facing off for World War II. In a way, he saw Pearl Harbour coming. He refers to the war between Russia and Japan, when the US jettisoned an “old friend” and backed Japan, because US bankers were financing the Japanese war effort. But in 1935, “the trend is to poison us against the Japanese” to protect US interests in the China trade (now squeezed by Trump) and US investments in the Philippines.
The better part of a century has passed since Butler said it like it was. Now, Trump’s America wants to get the boots off the ground. But the government’s appetite for military contractors has only turned elsewhere, and firms like Blackwater (now Academi) will lose some business to the brands of Silicon Valley.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘War is a Racket’