A ruinously costly shield: or why King Solomon would love BMD ... and why we shouldn't

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(A Groundings article from the Catalyst, Vol. 27, #2)

There was once a king who was a huge success commercially. He understood the dynamics of international trade. He moved decisively into new technologies, particularly in shipping and mining, and into strategic partnerships that would maximize their effectiveness. He operated multinationally whenever he needed access to new non-local skills and labour pools. He was a brilliant innovator: the public buildings in his capital city were the talk of the entrepreneurial class in the entire region. For these and other mega-projects he needed workers en masse, so he developed new methods of census-taking. With the resulting data he was successful at mobilizing marginal populations in rural and semi-rural parts of his kingdom for forced labour. GNP soared during his administration.

Consequently, this king had a lot to defend. He decided to install a sort of national shield with the most technologically excellent components then known: war-horses from Cilicia, and chariots from Egypt, which were considered decisively superior to other weapons systems in the market. His national territory was small, but the king got really enthusiastic about his sophisticated system, so he maximized it. Twelve thousand trained war-horses were constantly at the ready, with 1400 chariots all equipped, in specially built garrison towns.

Was this enormous outlay more than he needed? The king didn’t think so. Besides the deterrent effect of such a high-tech shield, there was an obvious trading advantage. Once his “brand” got established, his agents achieved marvels in the import-export aspect of the regional arms race. “The king’s agents took delivery of the horses from Cilicia at a fixed rate. A chariot was imported from Egypt for six hundred shekels, a horse for a hundred and fifty. These were exported through the king’s agents to all the kings of the Hittites and to the kings of Aram in the same way.” (1 Kings 10: 29)

The entrepreneurial king’s name was Solomon, and you can check the details of his acquisitions in 2 Chronicles chapters 8 and 9, or in 1 Kings chapters 9—11.

How did this huge defence outlay affect the peasants of Solomon’s time? For that news you have to hunt around a bit. I Kings 4 points out that to maximize the flow of resources to his mega-projects, Solomon chose to end Israel’s self-governing, self-reliant communal patterns. Instead of rule by local elders who were related to the people they judged, Solomon set up twelve larger districts (regional municipalities?) and appointed administrators responsible not to the local population but to the crown. “These administrators provided the food for Solomon and for all those who came to the royal table, each for the period of a month; they let nothing be lacking. They also provided the barley and straw for the horses and swift steeds, each according to his charge.” (I Kings 5:1)

Well, those twelve thousand “swift steeds” ate a lot, every day of every year. The farmers of Israel had to provide for them, whether or not the extra strain on field and pasture hurt the production of crops important to the farm family and to the local community.

The “land”—the free-held farmland of Israel—was meant to provide the opposite of Egyptian slavery. Small farms were the heart of the covenant economy, the places where families experienced their land as God’s freeing gift, where people fed themselves and their neighbours with their own shared labour, and where they rested and feasted together in praise of God. They were the very expression of redemption.

Under Solomon, the farms of Israel became mere hinterland. The countryside was exploited and drained of food, fibre and freedom to pay for the excesses of the metropolis and of the defence establishment.

As soon as Solomon died, the people rose up and demanded of his son Rehoboam that the burden be lifted: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten…the heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” But Rehoboam, thoroughly desensitized by the pagan atmosphere of Solomon’s Jerusalem with its harems and non-stop luxury and multiple temples, responded: “I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”

The result: instant rebellion, the splitting of the country, the beginning of visible decline.

Commercially-minded kings today still get very excited, as Solomon did, about high-tech defensive shields. The Bush administration is building one known by many nicknames but usually referred to as BMD: ballistic missile defence. Many scientists have grave doubts that this Son of Star Wars will ever work as advertised. Disarmament experts mourn the ways in which it weakens the world’s nuclear non-proliferation efforts and heats up the arms race in general. Analysts warn that this “shield” is inseparable from a suit of armour that includes the weaponization of space, the development of new “tactical” nuclear weapons, and other elements of the Pentagon’s current explicit goal of overwhelming dominance in land, air, sea and space. Those objections can be studied in many documents. A very good source is a recent study by Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares, titled Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence, published by the Liu Institute for Global Issues, and downloadable from the Ploughshares web-site.

It is the cost of the Bush Administration’s anti-missile shield that most reminds me of King Solomon. Oh the cost! One recent estimate by the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation concludes that a “layered” missile defence system, as currently proposed, would range between $800 billion and $1.2 trillion. In just the next six years, the Pentagon has budgeted $53 billion for the further development of the system.

Nobel Laureate John Polanyi recently wrote: “These elaborate arsenals…would deflect the world from the real task of breaking down global barriers rather than building them, and sharing the wealth rather than squandering it. The parties to anti-missile defence would be seen, rightly, as responding with indifference to the world’s needs for food, education, medication and conservation, since they would end by squandering hundreds of billions of dollars. I say ‘squandering’ since the offensive weapons are so dreadful that no conceivable defense can sufficiently negate them.”

Canada, at the moment, is not being asked to pay for BMD. We are being asked to approve of it and accept it, publicly and diplomatically, with all its consequences. Senior officials seem to consider that Canada has no option except to participate. We are currently “inching towards the inevitable”, as one of them recently said to the Globe and Mail.

But there are options. Solomon was not inevitable. The policies of the administration now governing the United States of America are not “given” like the law of gravity. We are free, if we dare to live our God-given freedom.

This past autumn I was on retreat at a Trappist monastery near the St Lawrence River. I found myself speaking with my monastic host, Father Benedict Vanier, about BMD. A long time ago, before he was a monk, Father Benedict had been a naval officer. He wondered aloud about how the interception and destruction of just one nuclear missile, over any ocean, might spread radiation throughout the winds and waters of the planet. Doesn’t that indicate, he said, that for the elementary survival of humanity, the only way is a radical change of attitude, everywhere?

We both thought sadly for a while about how most attitudes are formed; how often it seems that the world is propelled by blind forces far from anyone’s control. But then Father Benedict said: “Considering all that, is God not preparing a new effusion of the Spirit, full of the gifts the Spirit gives, the most ‘real’ of which is love, for the church and for the world? We need it, and God gives what we need.”

Yes, that is what we need. And, to borrow another phrase from John Polanyi: The last thing we need is ballistic missile defence.

* Janet Somerville, retired General-Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and member of the Order of Canada, was interim editor of The Catalyst in 2004.

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