Taking on the masters of war

At the 2021 annual shareholder meeting of the U.S. weapons manufacturer General Dynamics, shareholders turned out to confront the company’s board of directors, asking how they justify the destruction and death they’ve helped cause.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK, to which I also belong, used her shareholder question last year to ask CEO Phoebe Novakovic how she justifies making $21 million a year, while in 2016 a 2,000-pound bomb made by General Dynamics hit a Yemeni marketplace killing 97 civilians, including 25 children. Novakovic, in response, said General Dynamics’ role is ultimately to “support the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.”


This year’s shareholder meeting, held on May 4, was completely online, with an audio-only broadcast, no chat function and a question submission box that was disabled without explanation halfway through the meeting.

Among the proposals before the board was a request from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in New York that the company prepare a human rights report to address and remedy the “actual and potential human rights impacts associated with high-risk products and services.”

As the sisters pointed out, General Dynamics’ products and services are used by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and U.S. government agencies at the U.S.-Mexico border. The company’s weapons have been used in war crimes and human rights violations against Yemenis, Palestinians, asylum-seekers and others.

The board unanimously recommended a vote against this, saying it would “undermine shareholder value” by attempting to “embed radical skepticism toward U.S. foreign policy.” During the shareholder meeting itself, CEO Novakovic said “we have supported the U.S. government’s foreign policy, and we will continue to do that — if that is at odds with anyone else’s view, that is something you should take up with your representative. But that is not appropriate to ask at this meeting.”

General Dynamics, based in Reston, Virginia, is part of a defense contractor tradition of spending millions of dollars each year on lobbying to shape U.S. policy. According to the watchdog group Open Secrets, weapons manufacturers have spent more than $2.6 billion on lobbying in the past two decades, and have been rewarded with “half of the $14 trillion allocated to the Department of Defense during that time.” For every $1 Lockheed Martin spent on lobbying in 2020, it received $5,803 from DOD contracts.

Defense contractors like General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin hide behind a veneer of serving the U.S. government, but ultimately only care about selling weapons and making profits. It is against their self-interest to provide transparency around their human rights practices, because the more weapons they sell, the better.

This is why now is a critical time to pull money away from these corporate behemoths.

Pushing your congressional representatives to refuse to take campaign contributions from weapons manufacturers is another powerful way to disrupt weapon manufacturers’ manipulation of U.S. policy for their own benefit.

Weapons manufacturers are pulling in immense profits. But we all have more power than we think, and an important first step is pulling away money — and power — from these weapons profiteers.

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