Looking For WMD? Come To London’s Docklands

I found the weapons of mass destruction. Next week they’ll be in London‘s Docklands, at a vast arms fair. Which sounds almost quaint, as if it’s like a record fair, and should be in a school hall on a Sunday afternoon with obsessive collectors flicking through items on a table and asking questions such as: “This anti-personnel land mine on the Lockheed label – I don’t suppose you’ve ever come across one of the originals on green vinyl?”


Instead, every imaginable object capable of destroying in a massive way will be on display and on sale at the Defense Systems and Equipment Exhibition [http://www.dsei.co.uk/], where 1,000 arms companies will compete for business. And the marvelous part is I don’t have to commission any dossiers to prove they’re there, as the arms dealers have published their own, proudly sexed up with notes such as: “Ample space for full-size military aerospace mock-ups” and “The most recently upgraded warships overlooking the hospitality suite”.


If you claimed British Aerospace could launch a cruise missile attack in 45 minutes, you’d be surrounded by salesmen insisting it would only take 30 seconds. So they’re bang to rights. It’s as if Saddam had placed radio adverts that went: “Hurry, hurry, hurry to the chemical warehouse off the M25 where we’ve gone ANTHRAX CRAZY. Nerve gas £19.99 a canister, deadly spores £5.99 a liter and nuclear weapons programs with easy payment schemes and no interest for the first SIX MONTHS.”


The exhibition organizers proudly boast they’ll have six warships in the arena, with the smug tone of someone who has arranged a film premiere bragging about who will be there. It’s as if they’re saying: “Some showbiz events may have Cameron Diaz and Kate Moss, but neither of them have ever shelled a historic city flat in three days like these little beauties.”


The last time this fair took place was two years ago, when it began on 11 September and carried on seamlessly, undaunted by events elsewhere. There must be people who still say: “I’ll never for the rest of my life forget 11 September 2001. That’s the day I sold three Apache helicopters to the Hungarian air force – I got pissed that night, I can tell you.” Though to be fair, when they heard 3,000 people had been killed, they probably thought: “Amateurs.”


One third of the world’s governments have been invited, and there’s great excitement at the possibility of deals being struck with regimes such as Syria, Turkey and Indonesia. The excuse offered to any moral objection is the old favorite: “If we didn’t sell them arms, somebody else would.” Which is perhaps a line of Defense the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay ought to try – “Oh, come on, if we didn’t blow up your embassies, somebody else would.”


If pressed, arms dealers may try the other approach, which is to claim that the tanks sold to Indonesia “aren’t used for repression”. Presumably they use them for rolling pastry. When it emerged that British Scorpion tanks were used by the Indonesian army to attack Aceh separatists, the British government explained that Indonesia had “promised” it wouldn’t. And how were we to know they’d break their promise? This government could sell Vlad the Impaler a truck full of impaling sticks, then say: “But he’s promised not to use them for impaling.”


Two other governments who have been invited are India and Pakistan. That’s handy. I suppose British Aerospace will send someone across to the Indian representative and say: “Here, you see that Pakistani cabinet minister. He just called you a wanker. You’re not going to stand for that, are you? Well, as it happens, I’ve got just the thing…”


Similarly, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda are all invited, all of which are involved in the war in the Congo. Of course they’re invited – there’s no better customer for arms dealers than a country at war. Which is why any attempts to claim the process can be ethical is ridiculous. The nearest you can get is the statement by Denis Healy, when in 1966 the Labour government set up the Defense Expert Services Organization to promote the British arms trade. He said: “While the Government attaches the highest importance to… arms control and disarmament, we must… ensure this country does not fail to secure its rightful share of this valuable commercial market.”


If only Gary Glitter had thought along these lines. “Your Honor, we must do whatever we can to eliminate child abuse. But kiddie porn is a growing market and if we don’t grab our share we are being fools to ourselves.”


Some people, clearly ill-informed as to the way the economics work, have called for protests against the fair, which will be taking place from next Tuesday until Saturday. The Campaign against the Arms Trade is promising to deliver a cardboard tank, so we’ll know if there are any genuinely ethical arms dealers, by whether the campaigners manage to land an order for another 300. But such is the arms trade, that it’s more likely that a spokesman for the fair will respond by saying: “My worry is that this demonstration against the firing of depleted uranium could result in violence.”

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