The business of war

This year is the 50th anniversary of a great book but one that relatively few people will have heard of. It was called ‘Report from Iron Mountain – on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace’ and it was a spoof. At that time there was almost a fashion in think-tanks, like the Rand Corporation, producing studies for governments and industry on current trends and possible futures. Iron Mountain, or more fully ‘Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation’, was real – it was a depository for business records, set up in a former iron mine outside of Boston, for those corporations who hoped to carry on trading after a nuclear war. This was in the 1950s. The firm is still going and has branches around the world, including in the UK, but now of course most of the data is digitised. This name gave the book, which really was a slim volume, credibility as a genuine think-tank report. Its subject, as the subtitle shows, is an interesting one – it was not just a question of the possibility of peace but also its desirability. But surely peace is always desirable?

The book answers that question early on because the premise of the book was ‘business as usual’. The question then was ‘is peace compatible with business?’ The difficulty is that under capitalism capital needs to be destroyed periodically to allow for renewal, reinvestment and more profits. This analysis is basically marxist and, though the book didn’t point that out, American business has been aware of its truth for a long time. The main mechanism for the destruction of capital, the argument ran, is war and in fact we live in a warfare state. However simplistic that sounds, you only have to watch the news. So for peace instead of war, a replacement must be found for that function. The book considers three principal options.

The first, and most popular with liberals, would be a massive programme to bring living standards in the ‘3rd World’ up to the levels we enjoy in the West. However it is is soon dismissed because, while vast amounts of investment capital would be required to to bring this about, it would then plateau and would not deliver the destruction of that capital needed to maintain the capitalist system.

The second option was another massive programme to explore and possibly colonise the rest of the solar system. This has had its proponents recently too. But it would suffer the same problem – an even more massive outlay of capital but then nothing more – just another plateau.

The third and winning option I would summarise as an ongoing series of managed environmental disasters. To quote the book, ‘Nevertheless, an effective political substitute for war would require “alternate enemies”, some of which might seem equally farfetched in the context of the current war system. It may be, for instance, that gross pollution of the environment can eventually replace the possibility of mass destruction by nuclear weapons as the principal apparent threat to the survival of the species. Poisoning of the air and of the principal sources of food and water supply is already well advanced, and at first glance would seem promising in this respect; it constitutes a threat that can be dealt with only through social organization and political power. But from present indications it will be a generation to a generation and a half before environmental pollution, however severe, will be sufficiently menacing, on a global scale, to offer a possible basis for a solution.’ Sound familiar? The advantage of this over the other two is that the destruction would be ongoing and, hence, would keep capitalism running.

Now I’m not suggesting that this is already happening, but I am hoping no-one thinks of mentioning it to D Trump. Of course, what ‘Iron Mountain’ deliberately avoids considering is the ending of capitalism as well as warfare. To quote the book again. ‘War is not, as is widely assumed, primarily an instrument of policy utilized by nations to extend or defend their expressed political values or their economic interests. On the contrary, it is itself the principal basis of organization on which all modern societies are constructed.’ How does that make you feel?

I have massively compressed and simplified the arguments in this work, which is much more cleverly constructed to look like an authentic study for a US government deeply entangled in the Vietnam War and heading for the near-global revolutionary upsurge of 1968. Many people still believe it’s real. If you want to check it out for yourself, it can still be bought on line or downloaded. Happy trails!

RA 21.6.17