Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films has turned into one of the most prolific and effective documentary shops in the country, maybe even in the history of the country. "Outfoxed" (Greenwald's Fox News investigation), "The High Cost of Low Prices" (about WalMart's predatory business and disgraceful labor practices), and several other documentaries have formed a gold standard for contemporary documentary films, and they released another great piece of work in 2006, which finally made its way into my DVD player last weekend.
I shouldn't have waited, but the film was still well worth the time. Much of what the film dealt with is not news any more to anyone who has been paying attention, but seeing important parts of the case all in one place is still capable of providing an impressive display of the dangers of privatizing our military (something that has been underway for several years, but has accelerated to an astonishing degree under the Bush administration).
"Iraq For Sale" is a scathing indictment of this shift in military strategy, making note of both the astounding costs incurred (in the name of "saving money by contracting services to private companies that can do these tasks more efficiently"), and of the distortions and damage to American foreign and military policy that attend on having unaccountable mercenaries representing American interests in war zones of any kind, let alone insurgencies where the winning of hearts and minds is the first priority. It draws heavily on the work of Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater and others, and it's a sobering portrait of how far down that road we've already gone.
The film makes the point that there are more "contractors" on the ground in Iraq than any force beside the US military itself - the coalition of the billing is far larger than the coalition of the willing. As of 2006, there were over 100,000 contractors in country, over 20,000 or whom were mercenaries, carrying weapons and performing explicitly military functions (like guarding Paul Bremer and Zalmay Khalilzad, protecting and filling our troops' supply lines, and interrogating prisoners - over half of the interrogators in Abu Ghraib were private contractors).
The costs are astonishing. As of 2006, Halliburton alone billed $18.5 billion annually for "reconstruction and troops support", Parsons billed $5.3 billion for construction, DynCorp billed $1.9 billion for police training (not an unqualified success), CACI billed about $1.5 billion a year for intelligence services, Titan billed over $2 billion a year for translators, Blackwater billed over $200 million for security guards, and there are a host of others. Overall, over 40 cents out of every dollar spent in Iraq is going to private companies. Since we're spending $2.5 billion a week, that's a lot of money.
The rationale for all of this spending is that these services are provided more "efficiently" by private companies, but it seems pretty clear that's not happening. Cost plus, single source, and no-bid contracts are the norm (which actively discourages saving money), and what appears to have happened is that the contracting companies have been handed the keys to the federal treasury under the guise of an effort to save the taxpayer money (this will not come as a shock to anyone who has read a newspaper in the last five years, but the details are infuriating nonetheless).
In addition to paying private soldiers and service employees roughly five times the salaries that military personnel make for the same tasks, there are way too many examples of outright larceny. KBR misorders tons of equipment for the war zone, and then burns it instead of returning it, because they get a piece of whatever is ordered, regardless of whether or not it's needed. Every secretary for Halliburton in the Green Zone has their own SUV leased for them at a cost of about $250,000/car, despite the fact that they aren't driving anywhere, KBR sells soda pop at $45/six pack, despite the fact that it's being made locally and therefore has no significant transportation costs, and does laundry at $100/bag, despite the fact that the laundry is so badly washed that soldiers are trying to wash their clothes in the sink. Contractor trainees stay in the finest four star hotels in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, rent waverunners and enjoy lavish meals and entertainments, because all of that increases the bills that are paid on a cost-plus basis to the contractors and makes those contractors more cash.
If the American people were just getting fleeced, that would be bad enough, but what's more dangerous is the incompetence and the lack of accountability for making both the care of American troops and the realization of American foreign policy goals hostage to the profitability of private companies. We see US Army specialists in a variety of services describing having to train contractors to do the jobs they have been doing, so the contractors' employers can charge Uncle Sam ten times what we're paying the soldiers who trained them. We see several military interrogators discussing the prevalence of CACI and Titan personnel in the interrogations that went so well at Abu Ghraib. We see the widows and former colleagues of dead contractors lamenting the fact that the companies that promised to look after their security completely failed to do that and cost those men their lives. We see employees of various contractors describing the complete failure of their employers to do the jobs they were contracted to do, like providing safe water, decent and safely served meals, and other basic services. We see truck drivers describing risking their lives driving along dangerous routes with completely empty trucks, so as to be able to bill us for the trip. We see a translator describing the complete lack of qualifications for his fellow translators, and saying he has no idea how many initiatives have been misunderstood by Iraqis, how many insurgents have been developed, and how many soldiers and civilians have died due to the incompetence he saw around him every day, but claiming that it's a heavy toll of each.
There's no accountability for any of this, and the Congress has signally failed to introduce any, even after the Democratic victory in 2006. The privately contracted war criminals involved in the Abu Ghraib nightmare are legally protected from any criminal consequences for their actions by special dispensation given by the CPA (and kept in place over the objections of the Iraqi government), as are hundreds of other contractors who do things for which they would be court-martialed if they were soldiers, but who are only fired and sent home (and potentially immediately rehired by another contractor) since they are private employees. The costs of this cavalier treatment of criminal cowboys and the promotion of such swashbuckling are incalculable, but they can't be anything but enormous.
The film doesn't address this directly, but what may be even more troubling in the long term is the fact that this privatizing of so many central functions of the Army may well be hollowing out the core logistical competence of the armed forces themselves. It's an old commonplace that in discussions of what wins wars, amateurs discuss tactics and strategy, and professionals discuss logistics. If we contract out the central logistical missions of the armed forces to private (in many cases, multinational) companies who run wars for profit, what does that mean when we need those missions served and we can't find contractors inclined to fill those needs? This is the conservative fetish for privatization gone mad, and it has very real risks for the future of our military strength.
Again, very little of this is news at this point, but it's a useful reminder of how widespread and how dangerous this trend is, and that we need to stay on our representatives backs to change it. The amount of political money spent by these contracting companies and the amount of insider leverage they exert on our policy debates is massive, but it's paying them handsomely, and they'll keep doing it. The only thing that can stop the result from further eroding our control of what our military forces do in our names is to stay involved in these issues, even after the bloodshed is stopped for the time being in Iraq. "Iraq For Sale" provides a powerful argument for keeping that pressure up until the job of fixing the problem gets done.