Wine, women, and warfare
had held my life together —
but now it was all unravelling
Goldie Flynn struggled up from the recliner and began pacing the floor. He was obviously upset, emotion flushing his fevered face.
"Donn," he groaned, "I'll be sixty years old next month. Sixty years come and gone—where? They passed so quickly. And I've spent nearly fifty of them making money-always making money. I wanted security. I kept telling myself-a little bit for a rainy day. But the more I got, the more I wanted. And the more it piled up, the less secure I became."
"My friend—" I tried to calm him.
He waved my concern aside.
"Sometimes, I think of all the planes and tanks we sold—all the iron and steel we dropped on Vietnam. Bombs dumped on farmers' fields and fragments tearing through thatched huts and burying themselves into the 'enemy'—the bodies of little children."
"Steady, Goldie," I said. "You're sounding like a peacenik."
He shook his head. "No, I've got to talk it out. Who would understand? My housekeeper? The parish priest of the church I no longer go to? Maybe I could call McNamara over at the World Bank? I think now he understands. No, I need a true friend, one who has been around the horn. You know war, Donn, you know the arms business. We're friends. But I've used you, too. Got some blackmail out on you, in fact."
He laughed shakily and wiped his eyes with a pudgy paw. I shifted in my chair in embarrassment. This tough wheeler-dealer of military hardware was becoming a maudlin old man.
"You know," he continued, "most of us forget we were once kids. Instead we make a pact with the devil. Satan comes along and says, 'Fall down and worship me and all this is yours, the world and its gold and its power.'"
Goldie stumbled to his feet and pirouetted about the room not unlike a hippopotamus, lifting an imaginary tail in one hand. "'Here,' the devil tells us, 'just kiss me right here, under the tail, just once, and all this is yours.''' he laughed and wiped his nose with a fist. "And then, having kissed the devil's tail—just once—we spend a lifetime kissing other tails-for favors, for special treatment, for power. 'But no,' they will tell you, 'not for power but for loyalty. Be loyal to me and all this is yours.''' He looked at me imploringly. "Don't you see it, Donn?"
I nodded and cleared my throat. I saw it but I really didn't want to see it.
At the age of forty, I had been catapulted from an ordinary government worker into the world's most select group of weapons peddlers, the international negotiators of our government's Department of Defense. There were only sixteen of us, divided into four teams. But we covered every corner of the earth's surface, meeting with representatives of foreign governments and helping them arrange for the purchase of U,S. battle tanks, jet fighters, artillery cannon, bombs and bullets, rifles and mortars. We sold all the marvels of technocracy designed to kill other people or destroy their war-making capabilities.
I looked upon it as a very necessary calling. "Power creates peace," my boss at the Pentagon periodically intoned during staff meetings. "Nations evenly matched in arms will negotiate rather than fight." The sixteen of us working for him-and for Uncle Sam- had similar characteristics. We were highly motivated, ambitious, well educated, pragmatic, and loyal subjects of our nation's military-industrial complex.
Over the years, I was an interested spectator in Washington, D.C., as the meanest and toughest and biggest of the old bulls sparred in the arena. I watched from the peanut gallery as old bulls like LBJ took on and gored former friends and colleagues. Goldie himself had summed it up: "Always go for the jugular."
Yet even Goldie was waffling now. Too much blood? Was I about to do the same?
Maybe. I was awakening at three-thirty some mornings and wandering about the house or eating a bowl of cold cereal in the confines of the kitchen, hearing ghosts. Whispers of recrimination and self-doubt were cropping up more often—too often.
Then one night as I sat alone in front of my fireplace, I thought back on that conversation with Goldie. The fire had burned low. Only an occasional flame flickered from the glowing embers.
Had I, like Ferdinand the bull, lost my intestinal fortitude for the fight? Or ... ? It was a question that had been building within me longer than I had realized, Or was I completely fed up with the arms business?
I stared into the dull red remnant of a log.
My work had become so all-consuming that I had to learn from a friend that my wife had fought a two-year battle with cancer. A deep sadness filled me. The one I had promised to love, cherish, and honor had to face it alone while I dallied in Europe, indulging myself in a twisted concept of romantic fulfillment with another woman.
How easy it was to understand how men like me could drift from the principles of morality and ethics into something called political expediency.
Stirring the embers with a poker, I grimaced. It took a shock, it seemed, to bring me back to reality. And the shocks lately had been many. My boss, Phil Barrett, had unexpectedly quit the Pentagon to take a job at a university.
I leaned back and tried to picture Phil as a professor. I wondered if he'd tell his young students what the arms business was really like. Would he get past the academic fact that until people halt their hatred and deception, their enslavement and murder of their fellows, the world will continue to depend upon weapons for defense?
Would he tell them that producing arms has become such an over-shadowing part of our life that one-quarter of our nation's work force is now either directly involved in or closely allied in building the machinery of death?
Of course, he could logically point out that our overseas arms sales help bolster our critical balance of payments. They help offset all that incoming oil and the VWs and the Sony television sets and Nikon cameras, the Gucci loafers and the French wines.
And Phil might even tell them about the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes, which we arms peddlers practiced as truth: that no other business is cyclic in nature. Munitions and weapons along with their ground and air transports become obsolete. They wear out or blow up and burn up in this ancient pursuit of destroying other people. So there's never a danger of producing too much. It's all waste and the faster you consume it, the more production runs you can make that will equate with profits, jobs, and prosperity.
"But will you tell them the rest of the story, Phil?" I wondered: 'Will you tell them about the arming of petty tyrants the world over so they'll jump when their chains are jerked?"
How about peddling weaponry to both sides, and even providing them with funds, like the little Jordanian king of the Hashemites? Both the State Department and the CIA poured millions a year into his pocket, and we, the Defense Department, armed him to the teeth. At the same time we did the same for his cousins across the Jordan River. And Congress, in its wisdom, will either forgive the consequent debts or we'll extend credit to them for twenty years at 3 percent.
Will you tell them that, Phil?
I thought about other leaders who consider their small countries personal fiefdoms. They selectively strip them, tucking a little away in Switzerland or France, and buy up farmland in the United States in case they have to leave.
Gangsterism? Sure, maybe Phil will tell them that payoffs flourish in international arms sales, just as they do in organized crime and corrupted unions. The baggers and wheeler-dealers rake it in on every transaction, and blackmail proliferates to keep all the sheep in flock.
Will you tell them all about it, Phil? I leaned forward to stir the fire again and grimaced. No, he wouldn't. For he'd have to tell the rest of the story. And that part was something none of us cared to think about. But I could not escape it now, the ultimate end of our dealings. I sank back in the chair as visions swirled before me.
I saw American mothers and fathers working in a Pennsylvania factory assembling fuses for cluster bombs. Just ordinary people doing their jobs. We peddlers sold them to a Mideastern country. Just doing our jobs. A few years later good mothers, fathers, and children in southern Lebanon are shredded into fragments by the same bombs dropped by pilots. Just doing their jobs.
I covered my face with my hands. But the visions of death persisted. I saw sixty Ethiopian cabinet ministers and other highly-educated officials pulled out of their dank prison cells one cold gray morning. Some were friends of mine-people I had dealt with. They were lined against a stone wall. There, young officers who had wrested control of the government gave a signal in the name of the "Provisional Military Administrative Council"
Four air-cooled, lightweight M-60 machine guns filled the prison yard with a roar and the wall behind the men blossomed bright red.
I remembered our sales pitch on these guns: "An effective tool, fires a cyclic rate of seven hundred fifty rounds of steel-jacketed slugs per minute. "
The older men, some cut in half, slumped to the ground which ran with blood.
"If the maintenance is good, these guns seldom jam."
All that was left of educations in the French Lycee, the Sorbonne, and the Ecole des Haute Etudes in Paris were red-gray brain fragments plastered to the wall.
"The guns cost $4,500 each in units of less than twenty. However, in quantities of one hundred or more, we can offer a highly favorable price of only $3,850 each."
A sickness welled within me. It would happen again and again. Educated, patriotic people in Morocco, Zaire, Jordan, Iran, and other countries would be lying on cold slabs, their bodies laced with bullet holes.
Death and destruction were the ultimate products of our work. I sank back in the chair. And amid the quietness of a sleeping house, a deep certainty filled me.
I knew't'no longer wanted to be a part of the arms business.
Donn Grand Pre quit the Pentagon and has devoted his life to following Jesus Christ. He and his wife, Cella, have bought a farm in Virginia and established it as a home for deaf-blind children.
This story was adapted, with permission, from Donn's book Confessions of an Arms Peddler (Chosen Books, 1978).
NOTE: The Russ Reid Company of Pasadena, Calif. has purchased the movie option for Confessions of an Arms Peddler by Donn Grand Pre (Chosen). Possibilities are being explored for a television movie or series, or a movie for the theaters.