Milo Minderbinder in Afghanistan

1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder
“We’re gonna come out of this war rich!”

“You’re gonna come out rich. We’re gonna come out dead.”

-From the Buck Henry screenplay of Catch 22

No one has captured the absurd spirit of US war-making better than Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Here’s one of the greatest literary symbols for capitalism, Milo Minderbinder, on the future of US warfare:

“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.”

Milo Minderbinder is the squadron mess officer who works the angles and makes deals until he is a major political figure in the European theater. The corrupt Colonel Cathcart keeps him from flying deadly combat missions so he can pursue his talent for business deals and profits–profits that Cathcart then shares in. At one point, Milo figures money can be made by contracting with the Germans for US bombers to bomb their own squadron headquarters.

Milo Minderbinder’s loyalty to the streams of capitalism and profit over the literal shooting sides of war is a fiction based on real fact.

In the years before the US entered WW II, Fortune magazine ran cover stories on the Nazi economic miracle in Germany, while Henry Ford was deeply sympathetic to the Nazis and some say influenced Hitler’s efforts to produce the Volkswagen.

The most interesting case, of course, is Prescott Bush, George W’s grandfather, who managed or was involved in several financial investments in Germany from the 1930s well into the war. In 1942, his company’s assets were seized under the Trading With The Enemy Act. Since then, Prescott Bush’s loyalty has been resurrected, as it was in Milo’s case. Here’s how Heller describes it:

“Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. … his stock had never been higher.”

Milo is the perfect nightmare stand-in for the military-industrial complex that General and President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation of in his final days in office in 1961, the same year Catch 22 was published.

The Eisenhower speech is an incredible cry from the heart from a man who had worked at the center of the beast and witnessed all its dark possibilities for decades. Pretty much on every score – the rise of the military-industrial complex, the need for honest and realistic government, world peace and the alleviation of poverty – Eisenhower’s vision of the future has come up short. And many of the causes are rooted in his own administration.

Still, it’s a magnificent speech that highlights the struggle between human dignity and power. Here’s the most famous quote:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

All this foreshadows the rise of Enron-style bookkeeping, the abuse of the financial economy for personal greed and the imperial mismanagement of the world that has led to Iraq and Afghanistan. Think Dick Cheney — Halliburton CEO one day, vice president the next — and a thousand similar revolving door cases of war profiteering and government and the redirecting of tax resources from long-ignored public needs to the pockets of the rich — all undertaken as taxes for the top earners are cut.

“We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren,” Eisenhower said, “without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph Heller were amazingly on the same wavelength.

Gangs with guns

Recently, The New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins reported a story tragically in synch with the Eisenhower/Heller vision.

What he found was the armed entrepreneurial spirit of Milo Minderbinder manifested in how Afghans mobilize for the war the Bush and Obama administrations have brought to their land.

As we know, US War is now a highly privatized affair, and in Afghanistan that means the rapid rise of business enterprises formed to meet the need to protect US and NATO bases and, especially, the convoys that supply those bases. Afghanistan is a much more expensive war to prosecute than Iraq ever was, and literally billions of dollars are at stake — while notions like democracy and honesty become quaint PR concepts employed here at home for the gullible.

This expanding system of security businesses naturally involves President Hamid Karzai, a very savvy oil man hand-picked by the US, and his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, chairman of the Kandahar provincial council. Filkins reports that Wali Karzai is planning to consolidate 23 of these security enterprises under his control as The Kandahar Security Force.

It is well known that the Karzai brothers are very wary of being too closely tied to US interests, as it might interfere with their ability to sit down and with the Taliban. After all, all of them are Pashtuns and all of them have mutual interests to see Afghanistan working for them.

In a dynamic Milo Minderbinder would understand, the Afghan security companies protecting US troops from Taliban attacks are now cutting deals with the Taliban on a regular basis. According to an official in the Interior Ministry, if the Taliban are too strong to intimidate, a deal is made. This includes payment not to attack convoys and certain things like radio and cell phone towers.

In one instance, two Afghan security companies — Watan Risk Management and Compass Security — were cut out of NATO convoy protection contracts for shooting civilians. The morning the ban went into effect, a NATO convoy was attacked and two men were killed.

According to Filkins, evidence suggests these companies either attacked the convoy themselves or contracted with the Taliban to make the attack. Supply-laden trucks began to stack up on the highway, and soon the contracts were resumed and the two companies were back to work.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan the US interest is not democracy, freedom or the liberation of women. Rather, it is to facilitate a system of governance and military power loyal to the interests of the United States. Satisfying local humanitarian needs is important, but only as a means to an end.

Given the powerful vision of the melding of business and war-making presented 49 years ago by both Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph Heller, Afghans seem to be following our lead.

“What’s good for M & M Enterprises will be good for the country,” Milo says of his capitalist syndicate that exploits and ultimately subsumes the war into its operations. The same internal profit-driven cycle occurred in Vietnam when enterprising Vietnamese realized the incredible profit-making opportunities arising from US military largess.

The Chicago School

Naomi Klein fills in the documentary details on Heller’s nightmare nicely in her book The Shock Doctrine, which details ad nauseum examples of the famous right-wing economist Milton Friedman’s notion that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Friedman believed that natural or man-made disaster was the time for the forces of privatization to pounce. This is greatly facilitated by the fact the forces of privatization are always ruthless and well armed.

A classic example of Friedman’s so called “Chicago school” of economics unfolded when Paul Bremer arrived as US pro-consul in Iraq. While the US military was wrecking Baghdad, by personal fiat Bremer privatized over 200 formerly government firms.

“Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery,” he said.

The same thing was done with US support in 1973 in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. As a ruthless military coup began to systematically torture and kill thousands of Chileans loyal to the ousted elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, the Chicago school privatization formula was implemented.

In the lessons-learned department, given this history and given the people the US puts in charge of these places, why would we expect resourceful and tough Afghans to act any differently?

As the famous movie line puts it: “Where’s the money?”

Following WWII, the US hit the ground running with the military-industrial system it had so successfully developed in the four-year global conflagration. In 2010, the results are literally out of control.

US corruption has reached such a massive and virtually totalitarian scale it either operates within the law or above the law. It has become a way of life. Few even see it as corruption. It’s seen more as power to be sought and accommodated to. When something goes wrong, it’s either “mistakes were made,” or it’s “too big to fail.” The perfect metaphor is the out-of-control BP well belching oil from the bowels of the Earth, as the American people impotently watch the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico worsen by the day.

Afghans are not stupid. As we demonize even moderate critics of the war and turn their nation into our war zone, Afghan wise guys are naturally going to follow our lead and figure out how to profit from “protecting” our troops, even as they cut deals with our enemy.

The final tragic irony of Afghanistan may be that the Milo Minderbinderization of Afghan behavior will become the reality that allows us to leave. That is, old-world Afghans will watch us and learn modern corruption and become so obsessed with privatization and profit that US war-makers will finally feel comfortable leaving them the keys to their own country.

Milo Minderbinder should have the last word. Here he speaks with the story’s main character Yossarian, in the 1970 film version of Heller’s story. The character Nately has just been killed in the raid Milo contracted on the US base.

“Nately died a wealthy man, Yossarian. He had over sixty shares in the syndicate.”

“What difference does that make? He’s dead.”

“Then his family will get it.”

“He didn’t have time to have a family.”

“Then his parents will get it.”

“They don’t need it. They’re rich.”

“Then they’ll understand.”