War By Other Means

notes from ‘War By Other Means’, a film by Australian journalist John Pilger, made in 1991 and released in 1992, with additional observations by this author in bold. Although the film is over 20 years ago, the problem that it addresses is if anything worse than it was then, and the general information it provides is still relevant to today.

On July 13th 1985, the world witnessed the phenomenon of simultaneous ‘Live Aid’ concerts in London and Philadelphia, ostensibly to raise money for relief of the Ethiopian famine. That it was all well-meaning in terms of the participants, career advancement savvy notwithstanding, there is no doubt, but what was not realised was that in that year the poorest African countries gave twice as much to the developed world as we gave to them, in loans not wanted or asked for. It’s a modern type of war that doesn’t require occupying armies. Its weapon is debt, the money used for ‘structural adjustment’.

This final phrase is another of those wonderful Orwellian euphemisms like ‘collateral damage’ (killing of innocent civilians), ‘compound’ (the house of a dictator), regime change (invasion of a country and removal of its leader, whether democratically-elected or not), assymetric warfare (the huge imbalance in resources and war methods between the invading army and the one being invaded), defence (attack), clean bombing (bombing with pinpoint accuracy), coercive interrogation (torture), extraordinary rendition (extradition to countries practising extreme torture), extreme prejudice (killing without mercy), liberation (occupation), neutralise (kill), Operation Iraqi Freedom (an illegal operation in 2003 to steal resources, secure huge contracts for private companies and help in a long-term bid to assume total control of the region), waterboarding (simulated drowning as advanced torture technique), rebels (Western-backed terrorists), double-tap drones (a method where a first missile is fired and then as soon as rescuers come to tend the wounded, another is fired in the same area ), and the list goes on and on….

This ‘adjustment’ began after WWII, something to fill the void left by the end of colonialism. The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 set up the World Bank and IMF, based in Washington and run by the U.S. The World Bank is notoriously secretive and its officials are immune from legal action all over the world. The bank, in the words of its ‘Director of Economics’, ‘seeks to alleviate debt’ but also ‘has to worry about its bottom line and its standing in the markets, so is necessarily a hard-nosed financial institution’.

It appears from my own interactions with the public that most people have never really analysed closely the role of banks, for example how they always seem to have the tallest buildings in any city without in reality contributing anything to society’s advancement other than crippling those who actually produce real labour with decades of debt to pay. (the etymology of the word ‘mortgage’ is ‘death pledge’). Should not a bank be a service, with small contributions from the populace to keep it going?

The ‘debt crisis’, which officially started in 1982, has been a dream for the banks, with public institutions alone receiving 1.3 trillion dollars and the Third World 60% more in debt than before.

In the Phillipines, 44% goes to paying back interest on debts accumulated by former President Ferdinand Marcos, compared to 3% on ‘unprofitable’ public services, such as schools, hospitals and clean running water. The Bataan nuclear power station (nicknamed ‘The Big Scam’), lies 60 miles from Manila on 3 earthquake vaults and near 2 live volcanoes. In 1974, Marcos accepted the Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s offer to build this nuclear plant, underwritten by the U.S. government through the Export/Import bank and other private U.S. banks. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter had stopped the building of nuclear power plants for their efficiency and faulty design, but he didn’t stop Bataan. Despite its proximity to an earthquake zone, the State Department readily approved Westinghouse’s export license. William Casey, later head of the C.I.A. and then head of the Export/Import bank, recommended large loans for the power station. The involvement of other banks, along with delays, brought the price from 1.1 billion dollars to a total estimated to be between 2.2 and 2.6 billion, all for a power station that would  produce no electricity, the bill of course to be paid by the Phillippine people.

Marcos was deposed in 1986, and the new administration of President Corazon Aquino, an inexperienced politician who came to power following the assassination of her Senator husband 3 years earlier, immediately closed Bataan and attempted to sue Westinghouse. One day before the case was due to be heard, it was settled out of court. Westinghouse agreed to pay 100 million dollars, but Aquino’s government inexplicably agreed to give Westinghouse 400 million to make the power station work, borrowed naturally from the export bank.

It’s interesting to see how the ‘justice system’ tends to make all the right noises before events go in a circular way back to how the power wanted them in the first place.

As of 1991, poverty in The Phillipines stood at 70%, 10% up in the 5 years since Aquino came to power. The debt was being paid back at the rate of 6 million dollars a day, with private armies protecting shopping malls and the homes of the rich, and political killings rife. In the ‘Smokey Mountain’ landfill, surrounded by slums, Filipino children were dying at the rate of 1 every hour. The Philllipines is abundant in food, but it didn’t help pay the debts, so ‘structural adjustment’ projects like the mainly Japanese-funded Calabarzon super project were apparently necessary, building factories for exports on green land on which 8 million people depended for food. The tragic irony of course is that the profits were always going to foreigners and the debt increased. Another major irony is that while the rich lecture the poor on preserving the environment, the banks force them to plunder the mangroves, tear up the coral reefs and destroy the rainforests to export goods to pay off their debts. Both the land and the country itself are raped by Economics. In an area previously protected from floods and mudslides by the forests, a 1991 typhoon killed 6,000 and left 43,000 homeless. Forests the size of Denmark have been wiped out, previously the homes of thousands of species of plants and animals.

This kind of thing is allowed to happen not only because the public are largely totally unaware of how things like this occur, but also because the gods of the modern world are ‘progress’ and economic growth. We are constantly told that we need to keep up with the modern world, but this is a world that is consciously shaped for us, sometimes decades in advance, rather than just randomly ‘evolving’ as many seem to believe. A good example of this is recently-leaked documents from the Bilderberg Group meeting in 1955, clearly showing discussion regarding plans for Europe to have ‘the highest degree of integration, beginning with a common market’, which didn’t come into being until at least 30 years later. The existence of Bilderberg has until fairly recently gone unreported by the mainstream media, and even now is brushed off as a kind of glorified country club meeting.

A still more incredible irony occurred in BKK in 1991, where the IMF and World Bank conference took place, its aim ‘to find ways of eradicating poverty all over the world’. Most of the delegates were bankers, who even at that time spent approximately 45 million dollars a year flying first-class and staying in 5-star hotels while trying to find ways to save money and alleviate poverty. Chefs were flown in from Paris for the conference as well as personal physicians for the delegates, while local children were dying from malnutrition nearby. Across from the conference site, a wall was put up to shield the bankers from having to see the poor people living in a nearby slum. The slum residents later painted the wall in bright colours to attract attention, so large buses were parked in front of it as well just in case the delegates attending the conference to alleviate poverty had to have their comfortable trip made uncomfortable by seeing an actual poor person. Hundreds of vendors were swept away, unable to make a living until the ‘poverty conference’ had finished its business! 500 families were living by the railway lines, but their homes and makeshift schools were removed for the conference without any rehousing being offered. The Deputy Managing Director of the I.M.F. didn’t seem to notice the absurdity of this of course, feeling ‘a sense of optimism’ at the ‘pledges for positive action’ made during the conference.

It may be too stereotypical to talk of all ‘men in suits’, but the feeling of how out-of-touch these privileged delegates are is hard to deny. Part of this of course is the shielding process, which also happens to the public in a myriad of different ways, war coverage being a good example. And of course there is always comforting language to hide behind to provide reassurance, however hollow.

Debt and war are closely-linked, clearly seen while the U.S government were attempting to form a coalition against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Egypt agreed to join after being promised that 14 billion dollars would be wiped off its national debt. Iran was rewarded with its first World Bank loan since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a cool 250 million dollars. The Chinese Foreign Minister met President Bush at The White House, and one week later his country received their first loan since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Syria bagged an arms deal worth 1 million dollars, brokered by Washington. In the crucial vote of the non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Yemen voted against the war, losing 70 million dollars in U.S. aid as a result. In the early 1980s, a secret U.S treasury report had already stated that ‘the United States is capable and willing to pursue important policy objectives in the banks by exercising the financial and political leverage at our disposal.’

Britain’s influence in comparison is less, both then and now, but your average friendly British High Street bank in 1990 received 6 billion pounds net from poor countries. The banks also got tax relief on making provision for ‘doubtful loans’, which totalled 1.6 billion from 1977-1990, enough to immunise 400 million children against preventable disease and 10 times more than the British public gave in charitable donations in that period. The system of this tax relief is that the banks keep the relief money until the principle of the loan is paid off, while still allowed to demand interest payments which will ensure that it never is. This system is also in place with I.M.F. and World Bank loans. The olive branch offered by western banks has been ‘rescheduling’ (postponement) of debts and In 1991 British Prime Minister John Major announced the cancelling of what appeared to be a large amount of Third World debt but which actually only amounted to 1% of the total. Britain saw a huge rise in poverty in the 1990s and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. 20% of British children were living in poverty and 80,000 homes were being repossessed every year. The 1980s boom, which proved to be hollow due to its reliance on credit, was paid for in the 1990s when it all came home to roost. Multi-generational debt is a huge problem, to add to the problems of the present time.

The solution is fairly simple: A non-profit making development agency is required, and the I.M.F and World Bank need to be abolished, such is their inability to serve both rich and poor at the same time. It is a fact that most countries have enough resources to provide for their people and could do so were it not for being saddled with this crushing, unpayable debt. Economics it seems has become a holy writ requiring blood sacrifices every day. The final tragic irony is that these huge Third World debts actually only account for 5% of the loans of commercial banks, so they’d hardly notice the loan’s cancellation at all. Otherwise, the debt war will go on and may not remain silent forever.

As ever, this kind of information will be tough to read for some, and may lead to feelings of anger, helplessness and temporary depression. However, the truth is a wonderful thing to know and we owe it to the estimated 3.5 billion people (half the world’s population) who have to survive, totally unnecessarily, on around 2 dollars a day. A bit of simple number-crunching will tell you that around 6 months spending on the provably illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be enough to alleviate poverty around the world, so next time one of your leaders, even one with a nice smile, impeccable public manner and reassuring voice, starts talking about governmental commitment to helping the poor, you might want to consider some form of non-participation in the utter charade that is the political process. Candidates are bought and paid for before you cast your vote, and you will find little or no difference between them on most issues that matter. As mentioned many times in this blog, start a discourse with people around you about things that matter and walk through the fear of ridicule and discomfort.