'Shadow World' Paints a Vividly Depressing Picture of the International Arms Trade

A documentary film now on Yes VOD brings the world arms trade out of the shadows and makes for an eye-opening viewing experience.

Michael Handelzalts
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Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in documentary footage from 'Shadow World.'
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in documentary footage from 'Shadow World.'Credit: Courtesy Yes Docu
Michael Handelzalts

If there is one prefix that seems more dangerous than others, it is “sub,” from the Latin, meaning “under, beneath.” It’s not only the notion that things unseen may suddenly surface and throw us off course; there is also a painful track record. For instance, there were the subprime lending schemes that almost sank the U.S. economy in 2008. And the current submarine debacle, where the Prime Minister wants Israel defended by German-made submarines, though the Israeli Navy is keen to have the very idea sink into oblivion. (Incidentally, it was the German submarine, or U-boat, that was the first to become a decisive factor in world warfare and politics, during World War I. At the outbreak of the war, the Germans had only about 20 U-boats; by its end they had sunk about 5,000 Allied vessels, the RMS Lusitania included.) It seems pretty clear that matters military are best left in the hands of those who have the necessary knowledge and the proper authority to decide. But the story presented on Israeli TV screens last weekend was not only the question of whether to buy or not to buy German submarines, but mainly who profits the most from whatever deal is being made.

Amid the troubled waters, I badly needed some TV fodder to distract my mind, so I zapped into the depths of Yes VOD. There I stumbled on “Shadow World,” a documentary based on a book by the South African journalist Andrew Feinstein. Directed by Johan Grimonprez, the film had its global premiere at the last Tribeca Festival.

“Pulling back the curtain on the secretive world of the global arms trade,” says the book’s website, “Andrew Feinstein reveals the corruption and the cover-ups behind weapons deals ranging from the largest in history – between the British and Saudi governments – to BAE’s [referring to the British multinational defense firm] controversial transactions in South Africa, Tanzania and eastern Europe, and the revolving-door relationships that characterize the U.S. Congressional-Military-Industrial Complex.” The Indian writer Arundhati Roy summed it up in other words: “Andrew Feinstein has written an authoritative guide to the business of war. Chilling, heartbreaking and engaging.”

Just for profit

Grimonprez’s documentary brings to the screen some of Feinstein’s sources; their assessments combine with documentary footage, some of it in grainy black and white from the last century. The basic image for the grim tale that unfolds is Christmas Eve in 1916. On that day, soldiers from German and British trenches, although foes in a deadly battle, spontaneously celebrated Christmas together in no man’s land – drinking, smoking and exchanging addresses for an as-yet-unforseeable peacetime. They were called back to their separate trenches by shells fired on orders of generals on both sides, who preferred to go on fighting.

The point Grimonprez is making, based on Feinstein’s conclusions, is that war and peace are not matters decided by politicians trying to get the best deal for their constituency, but rather by the huge worldwide arms industry – not in any political cause, but just for profit. To put it bluntly, as long as there are huge conglomerates manufacturing weapons – all of them perishable and therefore needing continual replacement – there will be wars, big and small, the human ideal of peace on earth notwithstanding.

U.S. President George W. Bush with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh in 2009.Credit: Mandel Ngan, AFP

The documentary follows recent events and offers details about BAE and its way of effectively turning politicians into willing and/or unaware – but mostly the former – war brokers. (These include U.S. presidents Reagan; the Bushes, father and son; and even Obama; British prime ministers Thatcher and Blair, and Saudi prince Bandar.) It makes the point that promoting never-ending war (while the politicians preach about world peace), against menacing but unspecified and elusive “terror organizations” is the best PR campaign for the arms industry and its many intermediaries, who earn commissions by marketing weapons. That’s a buck that never stops, but keeps changing hands and accruing interest, which can be termed blood money, and makes wars all over the world go round and round.

It was a very depressing 90 minutes, so I badly needed some comic relief. What better than the last episode of the fifth season of “Veep” (originally screened in June 2016, next season of the series expected in 2017) with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as a female U.S. president – ah, the charms of fiction – leaving the White House to be replaced by another, female (and Latino!) U.S. president. And so I switched from the reality of war-mongering undercover to the fun of a sitcom that resembles the transition pains of the new U.S. administration, where Steve Bannon speaks (tongue in cheek not discernible) about the benefits of the powers of darkness (like Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort) calling the shots. Fired, presumably, from a submarine, delivering the deadly second strike. I ended up with a sinking feeling. But hey, didn’t Descartes coin the phrase, “I sink, therefore I am.”