PRINT September 1991


Missile Accuracy, At Rocket Prices

IT WAS LIKE A FIRST encounter with pornography. “I just want to read one of the articles,” I said apologetically to the librarian, “I don’t usually look at these magazines.” But when I got to the first two-page full-color spread I did look—and looked again. I glanced over my shoulder, fascinated and ashamed. But it wasn’t the Pet of the Month, it was an advertisement for a deadly, multimillion-dollar missile system in a 1990 issue of Armada International, a “defense” journal published in Switzerland, home of Heidi and the Geneva conventions.

“THE BEST MISSILE, THE BEST MISSILE SYSTEM. THEY DESERVE WHAT THEY GET,” proclaims the French firm aerospatiale, in bold type, over a photo of a fiery launch from what looks like a moving-van. The Persian Gulf war has taught us to call these “mobile launch units.” Armada International, like Jane’s Defence Weekly and Armed Forces Journal, whose articles offer surveys of new defense technologies, is bristling with ads for mortars, night-vision equipment, missiles, tanks, radar systems, antiradar systems, antitank, antimissile, and anti- antiship-missile missiles. And guns and grenades. And a whole economy’s worth of products that everyday consumers almost never see pitched publicly.

Promoted with such hooks as “Squadrons of threat aircraft will be neutralized when they are massing for attack,” “superior tank kill capability,” and even “user-friendly,” these weapons and weapon systems are all for sale on the open market, and none of the ads mention democracy, containing communism, or smashing Arab nationalism. Almost all, in fact, are completely free of any identifying flags, uniforms, or insignia. The rhetoric of national security, or of any ideological motivation, is clearly secondary here to the march of technology and the sale of hardware.

Advertising has had its hands full for years promoting indistinguishable consumer products, differentiating identical shampoos or crackers with wild abstractions and bizarre dramatic scenarios or strings of non sequiturs. Whether it’s a teenage boy clinging to the side of a racing train in order to bring his date a can of soda, or the simple slogan “Alive with pleasure,” most ads are merely trying to keep a product name fresh and to associate it with unrelated moods and ideas. No company is content to say “it’s a sugar-and-water mixture” or “it cleans your hair.”

For more complicated products, technical specifications become the selling point, and yet acoustic range (in stereos), rate of acceleration (in automobiles), and speed of calculation (in computers) still seem to play second fiddle to ideas about status, potency, access to new worlds, and being “set free.” To any American who watches TV now and then or sometimes glances at a magazine, these tropes are so commonplace as to be almost invisible.

Although during the Gulf War most companies were wary of having their lightweight claims broadcast during news briefings and war reportage for fear of appearing incongruously perky (The Economist speculated that network ad revenues fell more than $100 million during the six-month U.S. troop deployment in the gulf), there was a feeling, sometimes overtly stated, that their products were worth dying for. Their ads were symbols of the vaunted American way of life, and often went a long way toward encouraging the patriotic, nationalist mood necessary for any war effort.

You might think, then, that war products themselves would be promoted with flag-waving and anthems, but that would be to misunderstand the international war economy. It is true that ads for war-related technology in more consumer-oriented magazines differ from ads by the same companies in the trade journals. A full-page McDonnell-Douglas spot inside the front cover of Smithsonian’s Air & Space shows two boys making a sand castle on a sunny beach, and prattles on about building things “higher and stronger,” “invest[ing] in the future,” and “the stuff dreams are made of.” Air & Space is a magazine for armchair enthusiasts, and also features ads for videotapes that exclaim, “Climb Aboard the Most Awesome Combat Aircraft in the World. Be there...IN THE COCKPIT.”

But when McDonnell-Douglas advertises on the back cover of Armed Forces Journal their message is a lot less reassuring to parents and children. Under the bold headline “APACHE OWNS THE NIGHT” which could just as well be a slogan for malt liquor, hovers the dark silhouette of a heavily armed attack helicopter. The text catalogues the load of advanced avionics, laser-guided Hellfire missiles, automatic cannon, and 70-mm. rockets, and concludes, “It gives nightmares to all the right people.”

But who are the right people? One of the wonders of these magazines is that the advertisers are from around the globe—the U.S., England, France, Sweden, Spain, Pakistan, Singapore, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel. And a little research shows that they sell even more widely—to South Africa, El Salvador, India, Peru, Jamaica. In short, with relatively few restrictions—dictators OK, socialists no way. One French company boasts “missile accuracy, at rocket prices.” Pakistan Ordnance Factories claims, “We work hard at making your work easier.” They sell rockets, mines, bombs, ammunition, and other devices that kill and cripple. An Israeli firm notes, “We at IAI can supply you with what you need. We’ve been supplying it to the Israel Defense Forces and other airforces for many years.” These are the kind of homey slogans you expect to find in the Yellow Pages, and, in fact, the ads all helpfully provide their addresses and telephone numbers.

In the context of the Persian Gulf war, this laissez-faire death market was the cause of some problems—and embarrassment—for the hastily assembled anti-Iraq coalition. It seems that Saddam Hussein, retrospectively described by the formerly approving U.S. government as a psychopathic despot, had been packing his nation with allied-built military hardware for at least a decade. Early in the recent conflict, the U.S. asked that France not fly its sophisticated Mirage F-1 jets in the region because they could be confused with the ones France had sold to Iraq. Belgian, Italian, Swiss, British, and German firms designed the parts for many of the hardened bunkers in which Iraqi soldiers and civilians waited out the carpet-bombing raids. Others were built by a Scandinavian contractor. German companies helped develop Iraq’s chemical arsenal, worked to extend the range of their Soviet-built Scud missiles, and even built a pair of gas chambers equipped with Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi death camps. From the U.S., Iraq obtained land mines and other matériel, and U.S. firms also sold high-tech electronics to the Iraqi government until just one week before the invasion of Kuwait. Three days after the invasion, the British sent Iraq both plutonium and uranium.

The U.S. would encounter a similarly complex situation if it suddenly decided that El Salvador, Turkey, or the Philippines needed to be taught a lesson. The mutability of the foreign-policy decisions that have encouraged massive sales of military equipment to nations like Panama and Iraq, which are then, suddenly, villainized and shown by administration mouthpieces to be dangerous and unstable, is evocative of the permanent global war of George Orwell’s 1984, with its ever-changing enemies and allies.

But if the literal rewriting of history and the promotion of new allies and demons to the fore of public consciousness is the responsibility of cabinet members, speech-writers, and sympathetic talk-show hosts and newspaper editors, no such problems exist for the manufacturers of fragmentation devices, fuel-air incendiary bombs, and laser-guided missiles. Their government-funded work goes on:

Combustible ordnance products for infantry support weapons? Who else but Armtec.
The main objective for a missile is to blast its target.
A completely new concept in automatic grenade launchers.
Turns every rifle into a 140mm cannon. . . . Imagine infantry in which every rifleman can blast a gaping hole through reinforced concrete.

In fact, they’ve received a tremendous public-relations boost as a result of the successful “deployment” of their products in the air war over Baghdad, the much-heralded research and development of which has helped to devastate the American economy, by diverting profits out of the cycle of production and consumption, as surely as the weapons themselves have been used to slaughter people worldwide.

It’s not as though the advertisers aren’t mindful of some sense of propriety, however. They never get right to the point and say, “It incinerates cities—and the people in them,” or, “Designed to blow the legs off of your enemies.” They talk instead of specifications, reliability, and accuracy. The language and art they use is sometimes awkward and inept (like the dud ad “reactive armor is no protection,” featuring a dim, oddly cropped close-up of a tank turret), and sometimes it is slick and grimly humorous (Harris Aerospace’s air-to-ground missile, “DROPPING IN UNANNOUNCED”). But whatever their techniques, it is instructive for civilians to see the nonpartisan rhetoric of the industry. No doubt the plants and the head offices are filled with jingoistic nationalists. But in the sales offices, they know enough not to offend potential customers or to limit future markets. This is where the money is, and the message is very different from that of the armed forces (“Protecting freedom takes hard work.” “We make earning money for college an education in itself.” “Be all that you can be.”). Or from that of George Bush, who explained in his wartime State of the Union address that we were fighting because “We are Americans.”

Indeed. And as we all know, the business of America is business.

David Sternbach is a free-lance critic and writer who lives in New York.