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You Can Be a Patriot Or a Profiteer... But You Can't Be Both

Posted: 04/27/2012 11:17 am

This week, the three military contractors that do the most business with the Pentagon announced their quarterly profits for 2012. Their profits continue to grow while they push Washington, D.C. to protect their budgets at the expense of the rest of us.

Here’s the breakdown so far for this year: 

This week's announcement raises a fundamental question: Should people and companies be allowed to make huge profits from war? Even raising this question in today’s environment may seem trite, but we used to have different answers than those that prevail in modern-day Washington, D.C.

“I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.”
-- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1940.
“Worse than traitors in arms are the men who pretend loyalty to the flag, feast and fatten on the misfortunes of the Nation while patriotic blood is crimsoning the plains of the South and their countrymen mouldering the dust.” 
-- President Abraham Lincoln

This last quote is particularly relevant to this week’s profit announcements. Lincoln referred to war profiteers making money by cheating the Union Army. Outrage at war profiteering during this period led to the passage of “Lincoln’s Law,” officially known as the False Claims Act. The False Claims Act is the very same law that two of the companies listed above, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, allegedly violated through price-fixing and double-billing the taxpayer, leading to their having to pay roughly $20 million in the first quarter of 2012 to settle suits brought by the U.S. government.

During Roosevelt’s time, the idea of a single contractor company making almost a billion dollars worth of profit in three months would have received short shrift. As Roosevelt’s quote above shows, the idea of people profiting from war’s “disaster” disgusted him, and during his presidency the Truman Committee relentlessly investigated and exposed war profiteers. The closest analogy in our time would be the Committee on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which found that up to $60 billion (as of September 2011) was lost to waste and fraud in military contracting in those conflicts.

And yet, despite this historical lack of patience for war profiteering, and despite the current record showing gross misconduct and waste, the U.S. government keeps shoveling taxpayer money at these huge corporations. Could it be that the more than $5 million in campaign donations and $33 million in lobbying dollars so far this election cycle from the military contractors keep Congress intentionally ignorant of the problem? 

President George Washington knew a few things about war profiteers, and he didn’t mince words:

“There is such a thirst for gain [among military suppliers]... ;that it is enough to make one curse their own Species, for possessing so little virtue and patriotism.”

As long as we continue to allow the profit motive to play a role in America’s war, virtue and patriotism -- to say nothing of peace -- will continue to be in short supply.

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