Shadow World, directed by Johan Grimonprez, which had its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, strips the veil from our minds about a subject that has long been the Tyrannosaurus Rex devouring our economy and raiding taxpayer funding from vital social programs: the nefarious global arms trade. Grimonprez emphasizes trenchant facts, figures, and heavily researched information to focus on the explosion of the global arms trade following the Reagan administration from Iran Contra to the “War on Terror,” Obama’s targeted assassination list, and his justification of the use of heinous drone warfare.
This alarming chronicle begins with a memorable tone poem from the archives of WW I. Initially we see a hazy greyness of montage we can’t make out. In a gritty voice over narration, we hear the poetic words of Eduardo Galeano read against a backdrop of grey ghostly images which distill into recognizable human shapes as the lines are quoted: “Scientists say we are made out of atoms, but a little bird told me are made of stories.” The montage follows a recreation highlighting figures of soldiers with the story of what happened on the eve of Christmas 1914 in the trenches when German soldiers lit candles and sang “Silent Night.” A soldier emerged from one dank trench, then another soldier and soon both sides, mortal enemies hours before, exchanged presents of cigars and whiskey and promises to write to one another as they demonstrated kindness from the depths of their souls. The story rings in our ears as we watch the grey images on film and imagine how soldier “enemies” celebrated the miracle of a Christmas truce. It was an extraordinary moment of courage, peace, and humanity.
But the unofficial cease-fire spontaneously effected by grunts was not to last. Eventually, testimony is given that infuriated officers upbraided their men for not fighting and ordered them to continue firing and killing. After 4 more long years of a war that was supposed to end all wars, the peace that could have continued after Christmas Eve 1914, if the men resisted and turned on their commanders, arrived in the form of an armistice (the armistice created more problems and fomented WW II). Some of the 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians who died might have been saved if the convivial soldiers refused to obey their commanders’ orders and killed them instead. Therein is the lesson. Why/how are grunt soldiers brainwashed by elite commander/leaders into killing other human beings? Meanwhile, 21,000 new millionaires were created as a result of WW I’s war machine. The corporations and bankers then and now that profit from bloodshed and death don’t ask questions. They make deals. Grimonprez shows how.
Today, global arms dealers, their handlers, the politicians that serve as defense department salespersons for Tornado ADVs, propulsor systems, etc., and the banks that slap on high usury rates then provide safe havens for illicit kick backs, operate these dirty deals in a shadow world. Government leaders of Western super powers pretend such machinations don’t exist. They fabricate rationales. Grimonprez includes a clip by Karl Rove who states, “We make reality.” He implies that by the time the press figures it out, Rove, et. al created another reality. It’s “catch me if you can.” (a case in point the film reveals is Iran-Contra where plausible denial was in operation)
From the revolving door of their positions in Republican Administrations under Ford and in the Department of Defense with Bush (41), bouncing to Halliburton and bouncing back again to the Department of Defense and Vice Presidency with Bush (43), Rumsfeld and Cheney have benefited from their association with defense contractors like Halliburton who has made trillions from their blessed association. If one follows the money trail, all becomes clear. The end result is an increase in power for corporations fueled by their lackey politicians in a government that is no longer, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Andrew Feinstein and Grimonprez with the help of whistleblowers, journalists, secret arms dealers, and a retired colonel blow the lid off the shadowy arms trade to reveal how and why the dark realm operates. They follow the money right into Swiss bank accounts and corporate accounts in the Cayman Islands. Grimonprez’s trenchant and monumentally disturbing documentary is co-written by Andrew Feinstein who serves as the knowledgeable commentator who summarizes, clarifies and gives lead ins to interviews with those whose direct testimony explains the extensive corruption and machinations between government leaders and defense contractors that have taken place for decades. The film, based on Feinstein’s comprehensive and astutely researched book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is an incendiary expose of how arms dealers function through a systemically corrupt network of bribes which are brokered by convenient conveyors of war. All is done with impunity and above the law. That’s why the Executive Branch of government must be involved.
The arms network must include leaders of countries, defense manufacturers, the financial industry. Secret bank accounts must be beyond the kin of national and international justice or systems of taxation. The bribes to broker defense contracts are in the millions. In the film they are attributed to to a myriad assortment of politicians like the U.K.’s Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, members of South Africa’s ANC, the Bush family (41 and 43), Obama who has moved in the footsteps of former administrations with Wall Street, the war in Afghanistan and the “War on Terror.” For arms corporations and their sales rep politicians, war is a necessity, it is privatized, it is as permanent as the sun. Drone warfare is the latest craze; according to Feinstein, 70 defense companies were salivating over $1 billion in contracts to proliferate the use of drones.
Overarching themes loop throughout the film. Pithy, wise observations and poetic insights are given by various writers on the subject of wanton killing, empathy, humanity and the destruction of many to satisfy the lusts of a greedy few. To what end? Military budgets skyrocket; millions go unaccounted for. Meanwhile, the country’s social contract and the budgets for social programs shrink. Interviews and commentary by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writer Jeremy Rifkin, war correspondent Chris Hedges, Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, economist Milton Friedman, The Guardian’s David Leigh and others are the glue which coheres to elucidate the information that Grimonprez and Feinstein present.
The editing, music, and conceptualization is stylized, and poetic grist by Galeano philosophically elevates. The film includes historical clips and photographs which trace the growing institutionalization of war globally and the systemic corruption which leaders depend on to nurture their power and protect the profits of banking and defense corporations. For Feinstein and Grimonprez the business of war is an “octopus” that has its tentacles in every aspect of global governments and the institutions that serve them.
Grimonprez sounds the alarm at the beginning and ends with the same ghostly figures on the battlefield hugging. In between comes the horror, the latter 1980s when the defense industry during the Reagan administration fights cold and hot wars against communism (Iran-Contra, El Salvador), in South America. The price is the little peoples’ blood and destroyed dreams exacerbated by the IMF and WB who indebt countries manipulate dictatorial leaders friendly to US business interests. The filmmakers quote Marta Benavidas peace activist. Many were disappeared and killed standing against regimes supported by corporate entities exchanging blood for profits while the citizens were silenced against choosing a government not beholden to foreign corporate interests.
The filmmakers indict former Saudi intel chief and Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. They connect his role in forging arms deals with Saudi Arabia for kick backs in every administration since Ronald Reagan’s who worked through Margaret Thatcher to do dirty arms deals. During Iran-Contra, Bandar was the CIA’s man.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia through Prince Bandar (a fierce outspoken opponent against Shiite Muslims), plays two ends against the middle, manipulating politicians’ greed, while masking Saudi Arabia’s true intentions to augment its power in the Middle East. Filmmakers through interviews site billions of dollars in arms deals that Bandar effected with Thatcher (her son benefited with millions in kick backs), and Tony Blair (who had the fraud investigation with BAE Systems closed down). Through published reports by David Leigh in The Guardian, they identify a secret slush fund in Switzerland from Britain’s BAE Systems defense contractor to Saudi beneficiaries: a $1.5 billion to bribe to Bandar for arms deals. Other deals include millions in bribes to persuade South African officials to purchase $10 billion in unnecessary warships, helicopters, etc.
Shadow World’s revelation is that the necessity for war must be institutionalized. The trillions in profits to perpetuate killing and death of predominately women and children is a financial imperative. Political leader lackeys guarantee war’s perpetuation by fabricating war’s justification. Brisk business by defense contractors and funding banks is done by any means necessary. After WWII Eisenhower warned that the power of the Military Industrial Complex must be curtailed. It wasn’t. Afterward came the nuclear arms race and Cold War which initiated hot, local wars in Korea and Viet Nam. Defense industries and chemical industries engorged themselves on profits. The current “War on Terror” is the “terror of perpetual war.” The outcrop of killing and death abroad and the aftermath of PTSD for soldiers at home who increasingly commit suicide or take it out on the population, is part of that terror.
The filmmakers have done a masterful job. Shadow World is a reality program that cannot easily be switched off or responded to lightly. For that reason it is a must see. You will be enlightened, frustrated and aggrieved. The film website has ways to become involved. Not a bad idea if you are sick of being governed by the consuming darkness of an underworld of shadowy arms deals that always end in bloodshed and your shrinking wallet.