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Response: The Business of War, the Labor of War

A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible.

The following is a response to Christina McRorie’s chapter, “Christian Ethics and the Problems of War and Business” in The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.

There exist multiple entry points to interrogating modern warfare critically. Similarly, there are multiple ways to examine the morality of business. The Business of War scrutinizes the complicated relationship of two social practices: business and war. As Christina McRorie brilliantly points out, the former is about life or a possibility of sustaining human life’s vitality, while the latter is about death or how to kill human life. The Business of War invites readers to reexamine the socially conventional understandings of war, militarism, business, and political economy, challenging them to critically reflect on their everyday lives in the highly militarized world. Especially for Christians, the commodification and industrialization of war, prison, and the military threaten our core values of love, justice, and community building in Christ. From a transnational feminist perspective, I have analyzed war and militarism in the context of prostitution around U.S. bases in South Korea and elaborated on a Christian feminist ethic of peace with emphasis on spiritual activism and a politics of empathy. My writings purport to make invisible actors in war visible and untold stories told so that justice and peace can be imagined and reimagined concretely with the real bodies of war. Hence, this short essay is not my critical response to three chapters from The Business of War but rather, conversation with them on a liberative journey toward God’s peace and justice on earth. This conversation revolves around labor and everyday peacemaking.    

Christian discourses on business and war often lack critical human labor approaches, although labor is what connects business to war. More specifically, who is turning war into a lucrative profit-making business? Who is recruited to offer labor for war business? How is military labor consumed? Who is making a profit from militarized labor? Burroughs’s essay deals with these questions in the case of private military and security contractors. The analytical case of PMSCs demonstrates how globally disempowered population’s labor is extracted to benefit warmongers (e.g., capitalists of the war business). Asian American feminist scholar Jin-kyung Lee (2010) calls military labor such as soldiering and (military) prostitution “necropolitical labor.” As the most disposable labor, necropolitical labor conceptualizes that the extraction of labor from those who are condemned to death happens for the sake of fostering the lives of others and on-demand of the state or the empire. Necropolitical laborers are exposed to death, injury, violence, and trauma while working for necessary wages for their food and shelter. These workers live on the stage of living death. Lee argues that necropolitical labor is constitutive in biopolitics because the state’s right to allow who can live always assumes some people’s necropolitical labor. Thus, the opposite of biopolitics is not necropolitics or death per se but necropolitical labor.

Burroughs’s chapter makes me think of the transnationalization of necropolitical labor in service of the U.S. empire of bases, and simultaneously the intricate connection between the U.S. military and the privatization of military and security. U.S. Armed Forces is a competitive employer in the market. While most Americans of conscience refuse to turn war into a money-making business, the U.S. military system has followed the law of the market. The birth of America’s All-Volunteer Force in 1973 was possible due to the idea of libertarian economists. They argued that if the market’s invisible hand ruled the military, it would resolve any unexpected inequalities because individuals would make rational choices based on their best interests (Bailey, 2009). The growing role of PMSCs in America’s wars might be a foreseeable result when the All-Volunteer Force was grounded in the logic of the free market, the cost-and-effect rule. As an employer, the state wants to minimize its cost of war, including lawsuits, compensations for soldiers, medical care for veterans, and so forth. Private contractors would take the long-term cost of war from the state while supplying military laborers once performed by enlisted soldiers. As wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become prolonged and intense, the number of enlisted soldiers decreased due to the increasing public critique of America’s wars in the Middle East and young people’s fear of losing lives in combat. When the military cannot meet its recruitment quota, PMSCs appear attractive.

A moral discourse on the use of PMSCs must be connected to the scrutiny of the institutionalized military that adopts the market rule. We can see U.S. military commercials on YouTube and billboards on the street, among other advertisements. The military commercials do not show the tragic realities of war but the faces of ordinary people, including women and people of color in uniform who mostly perform civil services for women and children in foreign countries, demolish empty buildings, and engineer computer programs. As Zillah Eisenstein (2004) argues, feminine faces normalize the military as if the system were no harm but comfortable, sweet, and feminine work performed by anyone. The commercialized military exemplifies the war, becoming a usual business.

As a society, we should stop PMSCs from conducting any form of military labor for two reasons. First, as Burroughs points out, PMSCs remain oblivious to the true costs of foreign policies in blood and treasure, but they are often uninformed about the very policies themselves. The U.S. government can be held accountable for commercializing the military and driving soldiers to necropolitical labor. Unfortunately, PMSCs can hardly be held accountable for their mistreatment of employees. Military workers employed by private companies can hardly be protected by any government, either. If we considered the Christian affirmation of the sacredness of all lives, the use of PMSCs, precisely necropolitical labor for our life in the U.S., certainly goes against our moral values, even secular liberal values. Second, the U.S. employment of PMSCs accelerates the commodification of combat soldiers and military workers alike, giving a false idea that they are disposable and easily replaceable. As long as PMSCs supply military labor, politicians and multinational corporations will continue to find ways to wage wars without seeking public approval. Decommercializing the U.S. military should go hand in hand with stopping using PMSCs in any armed conflicts. We need international cooperation for these.

I appreciate McRorie for offering some interesting points of convergence in Christian thought and practices around business and war problems so that readers can think of how to stop turning any war into a profit-making business. On the other hand, I wish the contributors to the book, including McRorie more critically interrogated gendered, sexualized, and racialized human labor in business, governed by the rule of cost. While McRorie’s definition of business is based on a capitalist understanding, the author’s typology (rejection, embrace, and ambivalent or judicious restraint) does not move beyond Christians’ historical responses to the capitalist market system. However, McRorie’s essay reminds me that war (at least unnecessary war) cannot be prevented without creating an alternative system to the neoliberal market economy. Christian moral discourse on war should also engage the problems of the market economy more rigorously. These problems could be analyzed by asking whether killing could be considered a form of labor or what kind of labor should not be permitted in the market.

McRorie accentuates that: “[W]e certainly cannot approach business as war. Nor should we allow ourselves to be comfortably reconciled to thinking of war as a business—and certainly not ‘business as usual.’” I wonder whether these two moral imperatives equip us with critical thinking of the reality of war. Can we think of any war that was not business-like or not intended to be profit-making? All wars waged by European and American empires to conquest Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania were for economic gains. America’s wars and bases worldwide are intricate with its economic gains, specifically for American multinational corporations and a few capitalists. Even more than eighty years ago, Brigadier General Smedley Butler’s anti-war classic, War Is a Racket, criticized a small number of capitalists for reaping profits from the war that cost so many soldiers’ lives (1935). War has been a lucrative profit-making business for a long time. If this were a reality, would it be matter not thinking of war as a business or vice versa?

Three questions came to my mind while closely reading McRorie. First, we may need a more explicit definition of business concerning labor and the economic structure so that we can use “business” as a tool in analyzing the practices of war. Second, while McRorie’s typology helps us understand the discursive formation of, for example, the business ‘of’ war, it should be historically contextualized in order to show human realities. Third, the danger of business cannot be treated more lightly than that of war. A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible. We may need aid from a more comprehensive concept such as necropolitical labor that can lead us to see the interconnection of deaths across different industries—prison, military, prostitution, and so on. The analysis of the historical process of war becoming a profitable business is also necessary.

My third point is connected to McCarty’s emphasis on transformative justice, resisting militarism and war, the military-industrial complex, in particular. McCarty’s chapter understands the military-industrial complex more broadly, including the prison industrial complex or social institutions that profit from militarism. McCarty shows the inseparability between domestic injustices (racism, economic inequalities, and militarism) and America’s foreign policy as well as global wars. By conscientizing this inseparability, we can further interrogate the interconnection of global miseries of various disenfranchised populations in the U.S., Vietnam, France, South Africa, Brazil, South Korea, and so forth. From a transnational feminist perspective, the critical understanding of the global relations of ruling is crucial to imagine and reimagine global peace and justice that is intricately related to domestic political and economic justice. Namely, the personal is internationally political, and macropolitics is always interconnected to everyday micropolitics. Thus, peace activists should continue to investigate the interconnected nature of various forms of in/justice and find effective ways to synergize one another’s activism in their respective local contexts.

In conversation with McCarty’s chapter, I delineate two crucial aspects of contemporary peace activism. First, peace activism should close the gap between positive peace and negative peace. Transformative justice certainly shows the anti-war aspect of every social movement grounded in all living beings’ interdependence, envisioning a new world order. Any social movement should articulate social injustice connected to militarism and emphasize its role in demilitarizing the world. Second, the future success of peace activism depends on how ordinary citizens realize their everyday activism (or treating their neighbors close and far) and ways of living are, in fact, part of global peacemaking activism. Additionally, I agree with McCarty that “if we learn to overcome racism, classism, and violence with our neighbors in town we might also learn how to do so with our global neighbors.” For this learning, we should consistently remind ourselves of our interconnected lives with all living beings on Earth and that what we are doing here and now always matters with God’s all creation, global peace and justice.  

The Business of War is an essential book when war metaphors casually use for business, COVID-19, church life, and almost every part of society. The book offers critical entry points to war stories, accentuating that war cannot and should not be treated as “usual business.” The conversation around the business of war will generate collective consciousness countering normalized militarism. Finally, after earning critical knowledge of war, we should morally inquire about who should have the power to justify war. Smedley Butler (1935) argued that not politicians or capitalists but soldiers should have the power to decide which war they want to fight. In a world where war becomes a usual business, the collective citizenry might claim the moral power to decide which war the state should engage in.     

Christian Ethics and the “Problems” of Business and War

Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking.

Justice and the Use of Private Military and Security Contractors

Transforming war into a capitalist imperative, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

Transformative Justice is Resistance to the Military-Industrial Complex

By working to abolish policing and prisons as we know them today, prison and police abolitionists are engaging in the kind of activism that can resist and dismantle these interconnected evils at the same time. In other words, transformative justice and prison abolition are ways to resist the military-industrial complex.

Response: The Business of War, the Labor of War

A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible.

Response: The Inversion of U.S. Society’s Militarism

A transformative justice approach with restorative mechanisms works to break this logic of de-humanization and build more humanizing social processes. Accountability, as distinct from punishment, is about better understanding the harm, growing in empathy, acknowledging responsibility, and moving in the direction of changing harmful behavior.

Response: Frameworks of Meaning, Identity, and Resistance

The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.

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