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The arms trade must be kept out of Remembrance Day

Andrew Smith and Matthew Burnett-Stuart from Campaign Against Arms Trade look at the role of arms companies in World War One and how they are trying to exploit Remembrance Day.
5 November 2014


There are few industries with as much to be ashamed of as the arms trade. It is a trade that for generations has profiteered from grotesque human rights abuses and deadly wars and conflicts. Every year its weapons facilitate the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it hands over extortionate profits and dividends to rich businessmen that appear to care little for the damage done by their wars.

As the nation marks Remembrance Day you might expect that if there is one industry that should be keeping a low profile it's the arms trade.

Unfortunately not. Despite its history of war profiteering it has only been too happy to exploit the legacy of those who have died in conflicts and to brazenly associate itself with the annual memorials.

One arms company that has a long and inglorious history of arming some of the world's most brutal dictatorships, Thales, has taken the opportunity to brand the entrance of Westminster underground station with a poppy covered billboard.

Lockheed Martin, the world's biggest arms company, is the main sponsor of the British Legion Young Professionals' Poppy Rocks event. Unfortunately this is far from the first time that the Legion has taken money from the arms trade. The UK's biggest arms company, BAE Systems, has been a long-standing 'supporter'. In the past it has sponsored national poppy appeals and donated to fund-raising drives. It's influence is still there, but now it keep a lower profile. This year they will be sponsoring the annual Poppy Ball white tie dinner, and specific offices and arms factories will be hosting their own local events.

The Legion has been co-opted for the interests of the arms trade before. In 2012 a newspaper investigation forced the then president of the Legion, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, to resign over allegations that former commanders were using their connections to lobby on behalf of arms companies. Kiszely himself told an undercover reporter, who was pretending to work for a South Korean arms company, that the annual Remembrance Day ceremony was a 'tremendous networking opportunity' before boasting of the access it gave him to powerful people.

Arms companies and World War One

All of these companies would rather we ignored the role their industry has played in enabling war, both during World War One and in subsequent conflicts.

The Arming All Sides project exposes the hidden history of World War One. It tells of how a global network of arms companies fuelled war by selling a new generation of advanced weapons to anyone who would pay for them.

It was this drive for profits at all costs that led British arms companies, Armstrong and Vickers - which later merged to become BAE - to sell weapons to the Ottoman Empire that would soon be turned on British soldiers.

Moreover, as international tensions created new business opportunities, some arms companies purposely created war scares in order to increase the arms race. For example, Herbert Mulliner, director of Coventry Ordnance Works, persuaded the British government in 1909, with the support of the Daily Mail, that Germany was secretly accelerating its naval programme. The scare stimulated massive naval expenditure and created an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, making war more likely. Even Winston Churchill later accepted that the claims were entirely false.

World War One was shaped by weapons. It was the first global conflict since the industrial revolution, and the new generation of mechanised arms led to devastating casualties. Attempts had been made to ban Chemical Warfare as early as 1899, but the arms trade persevered, and gas killed 25,000 on the Western front alone.

It's for this reason that the tragedies of the time should never be forgotten, let alone airbrushed over by an arms trade that is trying to give the impression of legitimacy.

The arms trade and public spaces

It is not just Remembrance Day that arms companies seek to exploit, it's also other major civic events. Only last month Guildford Borough Council took the unusual step of suspending its own ethical sponsorship policy in order to allow it to take money from arms companies for Armed Forced Day in 2015. Likewise, this year drone company Selex ES was among the main sponsors of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Arms companies have also been more than happy to associate themselves with some of the country's best known museums and attractions. The last few years alone have seen the Science Museum, London Transport Museum, National Gallery and Edinburgh Science Festival among those that have taken money from the arms trade.

Arms companies do not do this because they care about the war dead, or because they want to promote art and culture. They do it because it is good for their business. By agreeing to take money from arms companies these organisations are giving practical support and a veneer of credibility to an industry that profits from the same war and repression that they seek to commemorate.

Andrew and Matt are spokespeople for Campaign Against Arms Trade. You can follow CAAT on Twitter at @wwwcaatorguk


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Ben Griffin 6 November 2014, 10.50

The Royal British Legion exists to control remembrance, it is in fact a huge propaganda machine. Without the arms trade money the RBL would still wage an annual campaign that has got little to do with remembrance and everything to do with encouraging the public to support the military and war without question.

Kristin 7 November 2014, 10.13

A great article, and great facts to explain our rage and sadness about arms companies that give to commemorate with one hand while taking money for more of the same war-killing with the other.

Thank you!

David Leach 7 November 2014, 11.48

To think that my great grandfather my Grandfather ( Who lost his left arm in action ) his brothers also my father and his eight brother and one sister all joined the armed forces they all fought in many campaigns across the world at great risk to life and limb . They were all conned and lied to being told they were fighting the WAR TO END ALL WARS ! Creating a better safer and more abundant future was said to be theirs in the future ?That Not being so in my fathers case after being demobbed in 1948 after being recalled in 1938 having previously done his national service as a single young man then being married in the early 1930s being a father to four young children before the outbreak of WWII then two more children during the war and three more boys 1945 -1948-1952 . To find out he had contracted Cancer from dust and chemicals used in these periods of armed forces service to his king and country ? With no know restitution or help from the HOVERMENTALITY of the armed services or government ! They that served for LIES and DECIET of these SELFISH GREEDY SELF SERVING WAR MONGERING PSYCHOPATHS IN POWER !

Hugh Donnelly 9 November 2014, 10.50

I have reading a lot recently about the influence of big business in politics. Not surprising they also use charities to meet their objectives. Charities need to be completely transparent otherwise genuine people will mistrust them and stop giving. Money truly is the root of all evil.

Pat Tamler 10 November 2014, 12.11

Why is the creator of the gun to be blamed for what his customers use it for? And what about all the major research contributions in technology in our everyday lives the research departments of these organisations bring? It is not even mentioned here. Part of this ‘arms trade’ money goes on research that in the past it has been seen to be from The Internet itself, to GPS, to sophisticated technology in our mobile phones. What about our everyday benefits in civilian world that these companies eventually bring? What about the financial help they provide to the country? Wasn’t this worth mentioning in this article?

Ian Saville 11 November 2014, 10.48

Pat, it is absurd to think that the only way one can carry out research into socially useful technology is as a by-product of an industry devoted to finding more and more efficient ways of killing. How about making the socially useful stuff the focus of research, and leaving the arms companies to pick up whatever harmful by-products come from that?

Jeff 12 November 2014, 15.59

Royal British Legion should disassociate itself forthwith from any Company involved in the arms trade.

Owen 21 November 2014, 16.28

The Remembrance Sunday/Help for Heroes movement has nothing do to with preventing war and everything to do with celebrating it

Ironically the current fetishisation of “Our boys” may well make it more difficult for governments to wage war and send them to kill or be killed.

kokociel 5 December 2014, 10.29

Ian, technologies such as GPS are not going to receive investment for the promise that we can send up all these expensive satellites so that people can navigate to the shops a bit more easily. There often needs to be one excellent, well-funded use case to get such projects off the ground: regular people could only ever receive such technology as a spin-off.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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