The Sale of War

Soldier shows Afghan child L85A2 rifle. Gorup-e Shalsh Kalay, 2010.

Two months ago, I set up an email alert for “UK Ministry of Defense.” Just to keep an eye on what my old chums are up to. I was expecting to have blogs, articles and reports of military activities – drone strikes, deployments, the usual catalog of daily military fuck-ups and the like – appearing in my inbox every day.

To my irritation, what I got, at first, was a little of the aforementioned material, and about five articles a day from the specialized business press. These articles detailed a daily list of investments, contracts, shares and meetings which all in some way involving Britain’s Ministry of Defense.

It was only when I received a copy of Nick Gilby’s Deception in High Places a few weeks later did it really all click into place. I had always known that the MOD ran a racket or two – legal and otherwise – but not that it was every bit as much a business initiative as a defense (war-fighting) institution.

Gilby’s book lays this reality out in forensic detail. It is also doubly effective. While Deception is primarily a history of bribery in the British arms trade, it is also accessible and well-crafted enough to serve as a solid introduction, or primer, to the history of the UK-Middle East trade in bangs and bombs as a whole.

Gilby has managed to balance necessarily dense detail, original research which he was forced to fight to access, and vivid characterization of a never-ending list of smug toffs and dodgy princes. He then wrapped the whole thing up together and contrived to add a flavor of Le Carre – except it is better because it’s true.

Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank patrolling outside Basra, Iraq. June, 2004.
Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank patrolling outside Basra, Iraq. June 2004.

Deception in High Places also provides a brilliant portrait of several generations of the British ruling and bureaucratic class. Taking, for example, one of the main early protagonists Geoffrey Edwards. A hard drinking, slicked back, ex-RAF officer, Edwards proved central to teeing up the first relations between the then–sleepy kingdom of Saud and a selection of British arms companies, all with the approval of the British state.

As he “got chummy” with the princes, diplomats smuggled booze out for him as he went about wrangling for contracts among the Saudi ruling class. Edwards – and those chancers who would (and continue) to emulate him – are captured perfectly in one perfectly weighted quote unearthed by Gilby as more “buccaneer” than “gentleman.”

Gilby’s work is also striking in its even-handedness. Blessedly, as prominent sections of the British Left cling to the idea of reconditioning Labour, the author pulls no punches. He demonstrates that at all times since WWII,  the British governments of the day – left or right – have maintained a steadfast commitment to, and taste for, flogging guns to despots. Mapped here is an unbroken and bipartisan lineage of inglorious behavior.

Gilby follows the story from the post-war era and the Gulf states, through Mossadegh and the Shah, on to periods of scandal, and a series of investigations which never full got off the ground and, in all fairness, were never likely to. Whether as the best history of corruption and bribery, or as a book with general value for anyone interested in British death-dealing, Deception in High Places is essential reading. I can’t recommended it more highly.


Photographs courtesy of Ministry of Defense/Flickr and the Ministry of Defense. Published under a Creative Commons license.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.