War profiteers would prefer to hide in the shadows


Andrew Dey

Originally published as part of Women Peacemakers Programme May 24th Pack.

War is an obscenity, and so often when we see it taking place we feel powerless to stop it. When we set out yet again to march against another war, we are, in a sense, too late – the bombs are already falling. But war doesn't come from nowhere, and it doesn't have to have such an inevitability about it – there are lots of opportunities for disrupting the preparation for war. We can challenge the underlying structures of war, wherever and whatever they are, and one means of doing this is by challenging 'war profiteers' – the industries that both profit and support ongoing cycles of war and violence.

If the world were a theatre set, then wars would take place centre stage, where they are visible to everyone; the soldiers and tanks, the bombs falling from the sky, the politicians on televisions, and of course the death and destruction. When we go to the theatre, we look at what is going on stage; it is less common to think or talk about everything that happens 'behind the scenes', where we would find engineers, piles of equipment, and the finances that allows the spectacle on stage to take place. Despite being made difficult to see if it wasn't for these structures and systems, then war couldn't happen in the first place.

Behind the scenes

It is often what is going on 'behind the scenes' that we speak of when we talk about war profiteering. War profiteers are those who bring the violence of war together in the first place, and 'clean up' after the big show has happened and most people have gone home – and they benefit financially from their business. The activities of war profiteers might take place years before any physical violence takes place, and years afterwards.

In comparison to the violence of war, war profiteering in our society is rarely 'visible' - it provides less dramatic photos - and sometimes we wouldn't even link their work to violence and war profiteering. War profiteering takes place in the arms trade certainly, but also when land is occupied and exploited (like in the West Bank), extraction and mining companies exploit cheap, conscripted labour (as has been alleged by the UN in Eritrea), when economies are ransacked by multinational companies in post-war reconstruction, when research groups take funding from arms companies, or a multitude of other ways, war profiteering is taking place. War profiteering makes war inevitable because the motivation for profit, and the power of the lobbies behind such industries, will more often than not over power calls for peaceful, nonviolent solutions to conflict.

It is also important to note from these examples that profiteering takes place not just during 'actual' war, but also as part of other forms of militarisation. War profiteering takes place when people profit from oppressive and violent contexts or relationships, like when borders are militarised, when our police forces choose ever more violent means of crowd control, and when occupying states take advantage of the natural resources of the land they have occupied. The waste of war profiteering is very real, and goes beyond the financial resources that could be used for more constructive activities and responding to threats like climate change. The skills, labour and intellectual capacity of highly educated and skilled people, and the natural resources that are invested in violent machinery and systems are finite resources, and are wasted when used to prepare for war.


A useful tool for thinking about the violence of war profiteering is Galtung's 'typology of violence'. Galtung said that 'violence' is more complex and sustained than physical acts of aggression ('visible' direct violence), where people are being hurt or killed; this type of violence is the tip of a bigger iceberg. Underneath 'direct violence' are layers of much less visible 'structural violence' and 'cultural violence'. Structural violence is rarely 'visible' – no one is obviously being killed or hurt, no visible violence is taking place, but the economic systems and trade relationships which allow war to take place should be thought of as a form of violence, that facilitates and supports acts of direct violence. War profiteering can be thought of as a form of structural violence that the direct violence of war and militarisation is reliant on.

'Cultural violence' is even more insidious – it's what makes the violence of war profiteering 'invisible', by making it appear legitimate. 'Cultural' violence can take place in an array of ways; through the sponsorship of other institutions (of schools, for example), through “legalese” (“I'm not breaking any laws...”), connections with politicians, through 'dual use' technology (where a piece of equipment can be used for both military or civilian purposes), giving money to charity, or a range of other methods. Another, perhaps even more insidious form of cultural violence takes place as war profiteering takes place directly in front of us, in our own lives. For example, when we go to the supermarket and buy fruit and vegetables grown in the soil of occupied territory, we can end up supporting companies that profit from war and violence. For example, through the violence of occupation, companies are able to keep prices down, even gain access to illegal child labour, and use resources like land and water that occupied communities do not have access to. Activists already involved in boycott initiatives won't be surprised by this, but the idea that war can be taking place in a shopping basket is alien to many people. For those in affluent countries not directly experiencing armed violent conflict, war is something that happens elsewhere – this narrative masks our own participation in the preparation for war. For many, it is simply easier to not look, to avoid the question; Ben Griffin, from 'Veterans for Peace UK' argues that “100 years ago militarists used to demand your young – the men into the army, women into munitions factories. Now all they demand your silence”.

The arms industry

An example of how all these forms of violence intersect – and are made so invisible – can be found the story of the workers at Remington Arms in the USA. Remington Arms built a rifle that was used during a US school massacre in Newton, Connecticut in 2012. After the shooting, one of the workers at the companies factory told a journalist that "nobody wants to think they had a hand in making the Newtown gun." For the individual who built that rifle there may of course be a sense of direct complicity, but to only blame the hand that built the gun misses the point – the worker was only thinking of the immediate direct violence, and neglecting all of the structural violence that allowed that gun to exist in the first place. He didn't say “nobody wants to work for the company that profited in making the Newtown gun” or even “what is it that makes the production and sale of weapons a legitimate industry?” The structural and cultural violence of the arms industry facilitated the direct violence that took place in the school. Looking at violence with a 'war profiteering' lens widens our view beyond the immediate responsibility of the individual actors in war and moves us on to the arms manufacturers, extraction companies, banks, pension funds, research institutions which (in)directly facilitate it, to looking at the structures which support it.


As I've been writing this article, activists in London have beentaking nonviolent direct action against the DSEi arms fair, one of the world's biggest trade shows for the weapons of war. Day after day, before the event has even officially begun, activists have been sitting and standing in roads and impeding entry to the fair for vehicles loaded with weapons and supplies. If it hadn't been for their presence, the set up of the fair would have gone on unhindered, and the whole event would have remained 'invisible', as the organisers would prefer it to. Instead, the scale of the arms trade has been made visible, the way it takes place in and amongst our communities and lives has been exposed, and the ease with which it can be stopped with a little will-power and courage has been demonstrated. The role of campaigners and activists is to make things which most people are failing to notice much more visible, getting to the root causes of problems, demanding we look at not just the most immediate and appalling violence, but also take action against the structural issues that surround the violence in our world.

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