Conflict Profiteers

Michelle Maiese

September 2004

Additional insights into conflict profiteers are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

War often confers benefits that give various people a stake in the continuation of conflict. Those who profit from war range from single persons to whole companies and nations. Conflict profiteers include political leaders, who gain their reputation and power from being "tough" and standing up to the other side, and military leaders whose reputation has been (or is being) earned by battle victories. In addition, young, uneducated men who have no other way of making a living may benefit from gaining employment as low-level military personnel. Another group that profits substantially from war consists of all the companies selling weapons and military technology.

Other conflict profiteers are illegal arms dealers and those who profit from illegal trade. War generates opportunities to loot and to carry out illicit production and trade in drugs, diamonds, timber, and other commodities. For example, during and after World War II, many people made enormous profits by selling rare goods such as cigarettes, chocolate, coffee and butter on the black market.[1]


"From the devastation of the Inca in Peru by Pizarro in his search for gold in the 1530s, to the 1960s when the Peruvian military bombed the Matses indigenous peoples in the Amazon on behalf of Mobil, from the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 to the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States to secure the oil fields of the Middle East to the benefit of companies like Chevron, the mineral extraction industry has always profited enormously from violent political upheaval."

-- Available here.

One can distinguish passive war profiteers from active war profiteers. While passive war profiteers make profits from war, they do not influence the duration and outcome of a war or the way it is waged. Active war profiteers, on the other hand, are in a position to start and prolong a war in order to increase their own profits. The notion that private motivation plays an important role in prolonging conflict is supported by the cases of Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Many believe that powerful private interests are also behind the war in Iraq begun in 2003. Major profiteers in today's wars include companies involved in weapons making, security, military intelligence, mineral extraction, and reconstruction initiatives.

Theorists maintain that where alternative opportunities are few, because of low incomes and poor education and employment, the possibilities of enrichment by war are considerable, and the incidence and duration of wars are likely to be greater. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, conflict profiteers sometimes help to instigate wars and make conflicts more protracted. And in cases where there is a powerful group that stands to gain from continued war, conflicts may be more difficult to de-escalate or settle.


"Making bombs and fighter jets is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, buoyed by the Bush administration's 'war on terrorism.' World military spending accelerated sharply in 2002 -- increasing by 6 percent in real terms to 794 billion dollars in current prices... For example companies like Boeing, Northrop Grumann and General Electric have made billions from manufacturing 'smart bombs,' amphibious assault ships and nuclear weapons."

-- Available here

If it appears that greedy individuals are personally benefiting from the way the struggle is waged or how it is settled, this may arouse feelings of outrage among the larger population. Leaders who flaunt their personal gains risk discrediting the cause for which they claim to be fighting. Making unreasonable profits from war is widely considered unethical and is deeply unpopular.

Attempts to prohibit excessive war profiteering sometimes come in the form of an excess profits tax. While such taxes receive much political support in wartime, defining 'excessive' accurately is difficult. As a result, such legislation frequently allows some instances of profiteering to go unchecked while reducing the income of others' war-related business to extremely low levels.

Other policies to reduce private incentives to fight include providing employment schemes and credit to young men, extending education and economic development to enhance peacetime opportunities, and maintaining better control of international markets in drugs, diamonds, and other commodities. These policies help to make war less appealing to young men and reduce the opportunities to profit from illegal trade during wartime[2].

[1] (No longer available as of March 19 of 2013)


[2] []


Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Conflict Profiteers." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.

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