Mammon, Morals and the Mobile Tanker Deal

The Archbishop of Mobile walks into a barbershop. That could be the opening line of a joke. But what if this is not a chance encounter with His Eminence? As a precaution I assume the moment is a mission bestowed upon me by some quizzical higher power testing whether I would serve when summoned.

* * *

This isn’t one of those glittery Mane Event multi-sexual trimming, pouffing, anointing, perfuming parlors. It’s a modest old male place, which has suited me fine. But the regulars are not joshing as usual. They are hypnotized by the TV.

Only rumors of the Second Coming or an alien flotilla could have matched the anticipation of the looming announcement about who would land the air force tanker contract. Historic, community changing, transformational. Those were the dreamy adjectives ricocheting around lower Alabama.

If Boeing got the contract, as experts expected, it would not have such effects. Instead, an existing passenger plane plant near Seattle would continue cranking out copies of the airframe, and another existing plant in Wichita would convert them into military tankers. And this airborne gravy train would continue rolling for a very long time.

The air force has over 500 aging tankers, mostly from Boeing, some dating to the 1950s. It wants to replace them all. The first new batch would number 179 and cost about $40 billion. A couple other contracts of similar size will follow.

Drop this plum into a place like Mobile and the extravagant adjectives might apply. The city could be a contender only because it has a WW II relic. Brookley Field, once a major air force base, is now a minor aero-industry site. But it has the expanse and infrastructure to make it a credible location for the tanker bonanza.

It did not have a tenant with a credible capacity to build the widebody jets specified in the contract. But recruiting industry has become an industry itself.

The economic potentates, operating through the chamber of commerce, collude with the political ones to assemble an offering of incentives: tax breaks, finance, land, roads, docks, sewers, vocational training, whatever. The chief beneficiaries of this gift are the corporate recipients and their local business partners, who will supply the materials, structures, equipment, power, legal and banking services, whatever as the project proceeds. The local media’s role is to marinate the masses in the notion that all of this is done to create employment for them.

This gambit has been working nicely around Mobile lately. A German steel company is building a mega-mill, and the Earnhardt family is launching a facility that merges the racing traits of Daytona and the entertainment traits of Branson into a NASCAR Disneyworld-on paper at least.

Boeing had only one plausible rival for Mobile to romance: EADS (European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the conglomerate that includes Airbus).

European is bad enough. Worse, EADS is centered in France, lair of the cheese eatin’ surrender monkeys. So a shotgun wedding was performed with Northrop Grumman. This star spangled American company would make tankers out of EADS planes snapped together Lego-like from parts imported to Mobile from France and elsewhere.

Mammoth plants would arise side by side at Brookley Field for EADS and Northrop to do this. Miraculous billions of dollars would flow into the city and fertilize a kudzu jungle of suppliers and subcontractors. Jobs would blossom by the thousands. Hallelujah!

But only if the air force would wean itself of a lifelong attachment to tankers from Boeing. An intense global campaign to accomplish this has been underway for years. That effort reached from Mobile and the state capitol in Montgomery to DC, then fanned outward to the world’s air-and-arms-show circuit, where delegations from Alabama became pestilential, though polite.

At the end of February the decision was due and the Pentagon had scheduled a news conference. But the pressure accumulating around $40 billion was sure to spring leaks, even in military security.

The local media obsessed on the story, and drip by drip the message emerged: the tanker contract is coming to Mobile!!!!!

The black mayor of the city and the white president of the county commission were embracing on TV like brothers separated at birth who’d just rediscovered each other. The buttoned-down chamber of commerce crew was gettin’ loose. The governor and the congressional delegation whooped. The ecstasy verged on effusions that might require the stations to post a warning: For Mature Viewers Only.

* * *

That’s when the archbishop enters the barbershop. The reception he gets says he’s a regular, though I’ve never happened to see him here before. Mobile got the tankers, somebody shouts to him.

He needn’t come here often. If he’d gone into corporate rather than churchly management, a mandatory retirement age might have eased him out already. He has nature’s tonsure, and only a fringe remains for the barber to fuss with.

Although I’m a stranger to him, he’s one of those I’ve been watching for months, and he has arrived precisely on cue. Can this be an accident?

The emphasis of the tanker pitch has been jobs, but the advocates haven’t exactly hidden the purpose of these planes. In the perversely antiseptic lingo of the military they have touted the tankers as force projection platforms that enhance tonnage on target in remote theaters of operation. It ain’t seemly to say so, but everybody understands this means that the tankers refuel warplanes in flight so they can fly farther to blast more Third Worlders into instant barbecue bits more efficiently.

So besides jobs, the ethical aspects of the tanker contract would have to be a prominent part of the community’s discourse. And the religious institutions would take the lead in placing this issue on the public agenda. Because they are the custodians of our values derived from God, and without faith we would have no values, as the politicians keep reminding us during every campaign season.

Yet in vain have I awaited spiritual guidance, lo these many months. Churches are to Mobile what coffeehouses are to Seattle. Surely among the many hundreds of them there must be some preachers who would heed the soul’s hazards in wedding the machinery of war. I listen for voices crying out in the wilderness and hear none. Not even one, Lord? No, not one.

Granted, I’m not as attentive to such sources as many others are. So I deputized a couple friends to be on the lookout for me and to report back if they saw, heard, or read of any religious leader-or anybody at all-raising any moral issues associated with the tankers. Not even one? No, not one.

But now the Archbishop of Mobile strides across the barbershop. I’m at the back watching the TV, and he stops right beside me. The formal announcement from the Pentagon is awarding the $40 billion tanker contract to Northrop and EADS in Mobile.

Fate has put me in this position, and I must do my duty. I turn to the archbishop and say: What would Jesus think about devoting your economy to the production of weapons?

He glances at me and looks slightly startled, or so I imagine anyhow. But his reply is prompt: Jesus would approve of defending your freedoms and your homes.

He shifts back toward the Pentagon faces on TV, so I say to his ear: These tankers are not defensive weapons. They are force projection platforms. That’s what the warriors call them. The purpose is to extend the range of attack aircraft so they can drop more bombs on Afghanistan or any other target on the far side of the world.

The archbishop swivels his full authority and attention on me. Staring straight into my eyes he says: If we hadn’t resisted the Russians and brought them to a standstill in the cold war, we’d either be speaking Russian now, or we’d all be dead.

I draw the implied conclusion: So Jesus would approve of devoting your economy to the production of weapons?

The archbishop’s curt reply: I didn’t say that.

He turns and walks away, regaining his portly aplomb as he nods and smiles at others, signaling that he’s done with me and back among them.

* * *

I’m tempted to feel sorry for the archbishop, though I don’t regret the inquisition. Unsheathing the rusty old anti-commie rhetorical dagger. Perhaps he realizes how lame that sounds, how 20th century.

But a reflexive verbal armory suitable to current circumstances has not been fully formed yet for apologists of the regime. The farther away your forces are operating, the harder it becomes to explain how combat over there defends your homes and your freedoms here. The more dispersed, elusive, undefined, and outgunned your putative enemy is, the harder it becomes to explain why it’s essential search out and kill them-or kill somebody, at least, and baptize the corpses the enemy.

You could just dispense with such tales and admit you are going for the glory, but that sounds too Napoleonic for American tastes. Imposing order sounds too Nazi. Britain and Rome gave empire a Darth Vader tinge.

Absent another Kipling or a Teddy Rooseveltian spasm to make empire seem a heroic adventure, the American attempts to police its sole superpower pretensions will need a different cover. The old reliable, democracy, has been drafted for that role.

Relying on bombs, puppets, and tyrants to propagate democracy is not the only difficulty with this approach. Hypocrisy is another.

Elections alone do not a democracy make. That’s what I was taught as a youth. Red Russia has elections. Is it a democracy? Class to answer in unison: No!!!!! Democracy also requires the direct participation of ordinary citizens in the decisions that shape their communities.

An example of this occurred in Mobile during the campaign to bring the tanker contract to town.

* * *

A century ago a large and lovely park stretched along the bayshore just south of downtown. A hurricane reclaimed it from civilization, and the lords of the waterfront did not want the park back. They were looking decades ahead, when the port would expand from downtown in quest of more acreage for wharves and warehouses.

So the erased park lay fallow, though the memory of it passed through generations. A few years ago the state port authority, which controls much of the waterfront, proposed bulldozing and paving the site to make a big new container-ship dock. That roused the memories, and an effort to restore the park arose instead.

It was a lively, but unequal, contest: feisty community groups against the combined commercial and political establishments of both the city and the state. A seeming compromise sweetened the surrender.

Near the container site was a patch of wetland. An elevated walkway could be built through it for the public. And beside it was a spit of land reaching a short distance into the bay. This had enough space for a boat launch, and a fishing pier, and maybe a stunted beach or swimming hole. The authorities would allow the spit and the swamp to become Mobile’s meager revived bayfront park.

The decision-making apparatus cranked up. Facilitators assembled stakeholders for scoping sessionslandscape designers presented preliminary plans at joint meetings between waterfront interests and community groupsetcetc.

And it was all fake.

Because that spit of land offered access to the ocean-going shipping lanes. The scheming to bring the tanker contract to town had already begun. The prospective location of the plane plant was near the spit. Large components for the tankers had to arrive by ship. No dock, no deal.

Those of us meeting to plan the park weren’t merely jilted when the object of our affection found a more attractive suitor. We were cuckolded. While we were earnestly discussing details of the park’s design, the waterfront executives were off doing the full wild thing with the French aerospace strutter without our knowledge.

We dutifully appeared at a meeting about the final design. When the blueprints and the artist’s renditions were revealed, the spit was gone. Only the wetland remained. The bayfront park no longer had any bayfront.

The director of the state port authority is a decent fellow. So he seemed a bit embarrassed at what had happened. But he had become a cog in the machinery of the international military-industrial complex. If EADS and Northrop wanted secrecy and conniving from local officials, secrecy and conniving they would get.

This is now the norm-and not just for military matters. The wooing of businesses typically occurs in partial or total secrecy. Immense commitments of public resources are offered as inducements, and eventually a completed package that will reshape social and economic contours is presented to the citizens: take it or leave it.

But if you leave it, your livelihoods will disappear, your economy will shrivel, your community will wither. It’s a free country, though. You choose.

Democracy at work.

* * *

The archbishop is worldly enough to sense this, even if he hasn’t analyzed or expressed it. If spreading democracy were really the mission of U.S. forces, the new tankers wouldn’t be necessary. There are plenty of targets with severe democratic defects right nearby that could be softened up by very short sorties requiring no refueling.

But democracy is not their mission, as His Eminence must know. Nor has any other uplifting cover come along that appears to accord both with the actual conduct of those forces and with American ideas of proper reasons for waging war abroad. So a jumble of justifications is slung around, and none suffices.

Meanwhile, wars roar onward and the signs are they will expand beyond their present theaters. The moral guidance that ought to come from spiritual leaders doesn’t. Instead, you get gibberish, like the archbishop’s anti-commie cold war reversion.

In the absence of standards, haphazard expediency rules. So people chuck the moral stuff and aim straight for the money.

Tanker contract? Doesn’t matter what those planes are for. What matters is that big, big bucks will be flooding into town for years to come. Go for it, go for it!!!!

That impulse can run a long course before it yields anything to wisdom, experience, compassion, and humility. St. Augustine explained the process in his Confessions, reflecting upon his pre-saintly self. He had been sowing wild oats by the bushel, and he hoped to empty his whole silo before repenting.

Was this wicked? He fashioned a prayer intended to salve his conscience and to keep retribution at bay: O Lord, grant me chastity and continence-but not yet.

DAVID UNDERHILL has refueled himself in Mobile, Alabama for many years. Underhill is a contributer to Red State Rebels, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at






DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at