Andrew Smith and Matthew Burnett-Stuart from Campaign Against Arms Trade look at the role of arms companies in World War One and how they are trying to exploit Remembrance Day.
There are few industries with as much to be ashamed of as the arms trade. It is a trade that for generations has profiteered from grotesque human rights abuses and deadly wars and conflicts. Every year its weapons facilitate the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it hands over extortionate profits and dividends to rich businessmen that appear to care little for the damage done by their wars.
As the nation marks Remembrance Day you might expect that if there is one industry that should be keeping a low profile it’s the arms trade.
Unfortunately not. Despite its history of war profiteering it has only been too happy to exploit the legacy of those who have died in conflicts and to brazenly associate itself with the annual memorials.
One arms company that has a long and inglorious history of arming some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, Thales, has taken the opportunity to brand the entrance of Westminster underground station with a poppy covered billboard.
Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms company, is the main sponsor of the British Legion Young Professionals’ Poppy Rocks event. Unfortunately this is far from the first time that the Legion has taken money from the arms trade. The UK’s biggest arms company, BAE Systems, has been a long-standing ‘supporter’. In the past it has sponsored national poppy appeals and donated to fund-raising drives. It’s influence is still there, but now it keep a lower profile. This year they will be sponsoring the annual Poppy Ball white tie dinner, and specific offices and arms factories will be hosting their own local events.
The Legion has been co-opted for the interests of the arms trade before. In 2012 a newspaper investigation forced the then president of the Legion, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, to resign over allegations that former commanders were using their connections to lobby on behalf of arms companies. Kiszely himself told an undercover reporter, who was pretending to work for a South Korean arms company, that the annual Remembrance Day ceremony was a ‘tremendous networking opportunity’ before boasting of the access it gave him to powerful people.
Arms companies and World War One
All of these companies would rather we ignored the role their industry has played in enabling war, both during World War One and in subsequent conflicts.
The Arming All Sides project exposes the hidden history of World War One. It tells of how a global network of arms companies fuelled war by selling a new generation of advanced weapons to anyone who would pay for them.
It was this drive for profits at all costs that led British arms companies, Armstrong and Vickers – which later merged to become BAE – to sell weapons to the Ottoman Empire that would soon be turned on British soldiers.
Moreover, as international tensions created new business opportunities, some arms companies purposely created war scares in order to increase the arms race. For example, Herbert Mulliner, director of Coventry Ordnance Works, persuaded the British government in 1909, with the support of the Daily Mail, that Germany was secretly accelerating its naval programme. The scare stimulated massive naval expenditure and created an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, making war more likely. Even Winston Churchill later accepted that the claims were entirely false.
World War One was shaped by weapons. It was the first global conflict since the industrial revolution, and the new generation of mechanised arms led to devastating casualties. Attempts had been made to ban Chemical Warfare as early as 1899, but the arms trade persevered, and gas killed 25,000 on the Western front alone.
It’s for this reason that the tragedies of the time should never be forgotten, let alone airbrushed over by an arms trade that is trying to give the impression of legitimacy.
The arms trade and public spaces
It is not just Remembrance Day that arms companies seek to exploit, it’s also other major civic events. Only last month Guildford Borough Council took the unusual step of suspending its own ethical sponsorship policy in order to allow it to take money from arms companies for Armed Forced Day in 2015. Likewise, this year drone company Selex ES was among the main sponsors of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Arms companies have also been more than happy to associate themselves with some of the country’s best known museums and attractions. The last few years alone have seen the Science Museum, London Transport Museum, National Gallery and Edinburgh Science Festival among those that have taken money from the arms trade.
Arms companies do not do this because they care about the war dead, or because they want to promote art and culture. They do it because it is good for their business. By agreeing to take money from arms companies these organisations are giving practical support and a veneer of credibility to an industry that profits from the same war and repression that they seek to commemorate.