Book review: The Shadow World


In The Shadow World Andrew Feinstein, assisted by Paul Holden and Barnaby Pace, tries to portray the global defence industry as uniquely corrupt, venal and greedy.

It is, of course, hardly the first book to make this case, others in this reviewers’ library include Jon Connell’s The New Maginot Line (various, including Coronet Books, London, 1988), Mark Thomas’ As used on the famous Nelson Mandela (various, Random House, London, 2006) and Anthony Sampson’s The Arms Bazaar (various, Coronet, London, 1978). Feinstein, the former African National Congress Member of Parliament who now lives in London, ploughs much the same fields, although adding some detail on more recent scandals – but these should be familiar to most readers, willing or otherwise, of Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It is difficult to see what “pathbreaking reporting and unprecedented access to top secret information” the publishers refer to in their jacket cover publicity “blurb”.

Is the arms industry unique? Feinstein argues that offsets, government secrecy, a revolving door between industry and government and cosy relations with politicians/political parties, etcetera, allows the industry to escape scrutiny and ensures that punishment is slight when deadlines and cost estimates are breached, bribes are paid or bills are padded. Yet one can say the same of the IT and construction industries (recall the Lesotho Highlands water scheme, the FIFA World Cup, etc.), “organised” sport (look at SA cricket, FIFA, the Olympics movement, etc.) and others. Even the “merchants of death” beloved of the left doesn’t float. The majority of deaths in the Rwanda genocide were inflicted with machetes, not arms; and computer technology sold to Germany prior to World War Two allowed the Nazis to industrialise the Holocaust. Don’t even get started on bankers!

While it is true the US military paid $600 for a submarine-standard toilet seat in the 1980s and $435 for a $7 hammer, it is not just defence contractors that engage in gold-plating. Just a few days ago the US Justice Department announced Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping firm, has agreed to pay the federal government $31.9 million to resolve allegations that they submitted false claims related to shipments of cargo containers in support of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Maersk agreed to a global settlement with the department related to allegations that the companies “inaccurately billed the U.S. military for certain assessorial services rendered during war-time conditions in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.”

Feinstein also draws a line connecting the “legal” defence and security market with the grey and black markets, implying dealing in one inevitably leads to trading in all. Again this is not unique to defence – witness the “export” of hazardous IT “e-waste” in west Africa and the infamous dumping of nuclear and chemical waste off Somalia in years past.

The truth is mice will play when the cat is away. This is not to excuse corrupt defence contractors, just a caution against the portrayal of defence as exceptional. It is not. IT, machetes or chemicals in the wrong hands can be as dangerous as any weapon.

The Shadow World – Inside the global arms trade

Andrew Feinstein, assisted by Paul Holden and Barnaby Pace

Jonathan Ball (in South Africa)