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Barack Obama, Iraq and the Big Lie March 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, About War, Barack Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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By Roger Hollander, March 1, 2009, www.rogerhollander.wordpress.com

 

“Don’t piss on me and try to tell me it’s raining”

Judge Judy

 

Does it matter whether it is a moral and intellectual imbecile like George W. Bush or a brilliant and charismatic intellectual like Barack Obama who employ the Big Lie as a tactic to explain and justify the unjustifiable?

In a posting that appeared in towardfreedom.com on February 18, Joel S. Hirschhorn writes, “Compared to rioting Europeans, Americans seem like docile, drugged out sheep … mesmerized by melodic rhetoric of political messiah Barack Obama.”

(http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/1529/1/) (italics added)

 

In an ironic and tragic twist of fate, it now appears that Barack Obama’s mesmerizing and melodic rhetoric has turned out to be a two-edged sword.  The same magic timbre that inspired and motivated millions of America to work day and night for his election in order to end America’s disastrous military adventures in the Middle East is now being put to use to give credibility to the Bush/Cheney worldview of the Iraq War and to thwart the desires, interests and welfare of those very same millions.  The delivery hasn’t changed, but God help us, look at the content (which is what this article is all about).

 

In an article entitled “War Is Over (IF You Want It)” that appears in the current edition of The Nation magazine (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090316/alterman), Eric Alterman calls attention to the radical Republican right strategy of defining the fiasco in Iraq as a “victory.”  He cites, for example, an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal that quotes Bush speech writer Marc Thiessen, “As Mr. Bush leaves office, Iraq is a unified and free country, and our enemies there have suffered a devastating defeat. If his successor does not squander that victory, a free Iraq will one day be to the Middle East what a free South Korea has been to Asia.”  (this parallels the same kind of Big Lie that the radical right has propagated about the Vietnam War, that it could have been won if only the politicians had given the military a free hand – to nuke Hanoi presumably).

 

Alterman goes on to cite other neocons in a similar vein and suggests that this is a conscious and concentrated strategy the purpose of which is to set up President Obama up for failure.  If that is indeed the case, then Obama seems to be willingly and blithely walking into the trap.

 

In his speech given on Friday, February 27 at marine Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, Obama both affirms the neocon revisionist history of the Iraq invasion and occupation and lies blatantly to the American public about the proposed withdrawal.

 

First the latter.  Obama: “Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end …. And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”

A bald faced lie.

Writing in the journal Foreign Policy in Focus on Friday, February 27, (http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/5910), Phyllis Bennis exposes Obama’s dissimulation about the up to 50,000 allegedly non-combatant troops “left behind.”  Leaving aside the question of why that huge number would be required to “train,equip and advise” (one is reminded of the “advisors” in Vietnam), which even Nancy Pelosi has questioned, Bennis refers to a December New York Times article “describing how military planners believe Obama’s goal of pulling out combat troops ‘could be accomplished at least in part by re-labeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned,’ their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.’”  She adds, “That would mean a retreat to the lies and deception that characterized this war during Bush years — something President Obama promised to leave behind. It would also mean military resistance in Iraq would continue, leading to more Iraqi and U.S. casualties.”

Along with AlterNet’s Jeremy Scahill (“All Troops Out By 2011? Not So Fast; Why Obama’s Iraq Speech Deserves a Second Look,” (http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/129362/all_troops_out_by_2011_not_so_fast%3B_why_obama%27s_iraq_speech_deserves_a_second_look/), Bettis shows how the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was adopted by the Iraqi government but never ratified by the United States, and which calls for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, is full of loopholes that the Pentagon and presumably the President are ready, willing and able, to employ when the time comes for the helicopters to be evacuating the remaining troops a la Vietnam (in other words, it ain’t gonna happen).

Obama himself (inadvertently, I presume) lets it slip into the speech where he states that he will “retain a transitional force … conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions.”   Such missions can hardly be characterized as anything other than combat missions.  He also telegraphs to both the American people via his warning to the Iraq resistance what his ace-in-the-loophole will be: “But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.”  It’s that flexibility that we knee-jerk peace-mongers worry about.

Sins of omission can be as deceptive, disingenuous and morally corrupt as sins of commission.  As Bettis points out, Obama neglected to mention the future use of air and naval force in Iraq, the disposition of the more than fifty military bases in Iraq, or the future status of the enormous numbers of mercenaries and contractors (e.g. Dyncorp, Bechtel,  and Blackwater, now Xe).  Nor did refer to the city within a city that is the United States Embassy in Baghdad, the largest embassy in the history of humankind of which you can bet that it wasn’t built to become redundant in a period of a couple of years. Come December 31, 2111, all logic and experience tell us that United States military presence in Iraq will continue to be substantial.  Obama does himself and the nation a disservice by suggesting otherwise.

As for the Bush, Cheney, neocon, and now apparently Obama fairytale version of the United States involvement in Iraq, it is probably true that it is the only one that would have been palatable for obvious reasons to the marines at Camp Lejeune, not to mention the neo-Fascist right that has ruled the country for the past eight years.  But to speak before the country and the entire world and characterize the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, untold misery for millions and the virtual destruction of the Iraq infrastructure, as some kind of a noble venture is to contort reality into nothing less than a Big Lie which can only serve to justify past atrocity and foreshadow future ongoing bloodshed and destruction.

Obama: “We Americans have offered our most precious resource – our young men and women – to work with you to rebuild what was destroyed by despotism; to root out our common enemies; and to seek peace and prosperity for our children and grandchildren, and for yours.”  Bush could not have said it any better (which is probably why McCain is salivating as we speak).

The Biggest Lie of all comes toward the end of Obama’s speech: “And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime …We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government …And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life …”

Alleging that “we sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime” contains the truth within a lie.  In making the statement, Obama incredibly admits that the United States government violated the most fundamental precept of the United Nations Charter and international law, to wit, an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation.  But does the President expect the American people and the world to forget about the intentionally false information about nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction that was fed to the American people and world community as the justification for the invasion in the first place?  In this instance Obama’s Big lie serves to reinforce the Original Big Lie of the Bush administration.  The growing demand for prosecutorial accountability with respect to Bush and Company include, we should remember, not only torture, rendition, illegal wiretapping, etc. but also the crime of lying to the American public and Congress about the grounds for the invasion.

(To put matters into an even broader historical context, I refer readers to Nora Eisenberg’s excellent piece in AlterNet.com where she documents the Big Lie technique that was used to justify the first Gulf War in 1991 where according to a United Nations report the United States Air Force bombed Iraq “back into the Dark Ages.”  “Obama to Announce Iraq Troop Withdrawal,”

http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/128916/why_the_dark_secrets_of_the_first_gulf_war_are_still_haunting_us/)

As for establishing a sovereign government and leaving the Iraqi people the opportunity to have a better life, while the jury may still be out on those counts, the evidence we have to date flies in the face of such empty rhetorical wishful thinking.

Some time ago Bush and the neocons began, ominously, comparing Iraq with South Korea, where the U.S. has had a “successful” military presence for over 50 years.  They neglect, of course, to note the difference, to wit, that South Korea was a military ally of the United States against the North Korean invasion, whereas the U.S. has been bombing the life out of Iraq since 1991 and through its unlawful invasion provoked a near civil war within the country that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?  Will this South Korea paradigm fiction be the next straw that Obama will need to grasp in order to justify occupation in perpetuity? 

There are two other critical concepts, which are central to the forces that were behind the original invasion and which impulse the continued military occupation, that Obama neglected to mention.  One of them is “war profiteering.”  Wipe out the infrastructure, and then as a pretext for reconstructing it, give billions in untendered contracts to the likes of Dick Cheney’s Haliburton.  And that is not to mention the corporate ghouls who manufacture our weapons of mass destruction.

The other concept, however, is one that virtually every American, not to mention the rest of the world, knows in her or his heart to have been, is, and will continue to be the single most – if not the only – motivating force behind the U.S. military adventure in Iraq.  It can be found in the original but quickly discarded acronym for the mission: Operation  Iraqi  Liberation.

Further Deconstruction of President Obama’s February 27 “Withdrawal from Iraq” Speech

Obama: (to the military) “You have fought against tyranny …”

Deconstruction: Those soldiers who have fought tyranny are living in Canada.

Obama: (to the military) “You have fought against … disorder.”

Deconstruction: Disorder created not only by the current invasion and occupation but also by 19 years of U.S. bombing and economic blockade.  Eisenberg: “We never learned that the government’s goals had changed from expelling Saddam’s forces from Kuwait to destroying Iraq’s infrastructure. Or what a country with a destroyed infrastructure looks like — with most of its electricity, telecommunications, sewage system, dams, railroads and bridges blown away.”

Obama: “Violence has been reduced substantially from the horrific sectarian killing of 2006 and 2007.”

Deconstruction: Sectarian killing and violence that the U.S. invasion and occupation provoked and by which Saddam Hussein’s atrocities pale in comparison.  U.S. inspired violence and killing 2003-2006 conveniently ignored.

Obama: “Al Qaeda in Iraq has been dealt a serious blow by our troops and Iraq’s Security Forces …”

Deconstruction: And has been handed a recruiting opportunity that will dramatically inflate the ranks of revenge-motivated terrorists who will plague us for decades or more.

Obama: “… a transition to full Iraqi responsibility … an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant … The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources.”

Deconstruction: An Iraq that is occupied by the U.S. military in perpetuity, in order to ensure the protection of U.S. interests in the region’s natural resources and to ensure the “election” of government’s that maintain Iraq as a client state of the U.S.

Obama: “There are those … who will insist that Iraq’s differences cannot be reconciled without more killing.”

Deconstruction: We don’t insist on more killing we just do it.  Bennis: “And what if the reduction in ground troops is answered with an escalation of U.S. air power? The U.S. appears to be planning to control the skies over Iraq for years to come. That means even more Iraqi civilians being killed by the U.S. military. We need the withdraw all air and naval forces too — something the SOFA agreement mentions, but we have yet to hear anything from the Obama administration. The U.S. has been conducting continuous overflights and regular bombing of Iraq since January 1991 – isn’t 18 years of air war enough?”

Obama: “And as long as I am your Commander-in-Chief, I promise you that I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary …”

Deconstruction: Necessary to what and to whose ends?

Obama: “What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.”

Deconstruction: Forget such wishy-washy idealist notions such as actual peace and justice.

Obama: (with respect to) “millions of displaced Iraqis … America has … a moral responsibility – to act.”

Deconstruction: This is another Obama slip up: America has no “moral responsibility” to help those refugees.  It was Saddam who made us create all those refugees.  Right?  We do it out of the goodness of our gas-guzzling hearts.

Obama: “… the United States of America – a nation that exists only because free men and women have bled for it from the beaches of Normandy to the deserts of Anbar; from the mountains of Korea to the streets of Kandahar.”

Deconstruction: Obama gives us jingoistic triumphalistic patriotism, when the American people hunger for a truthful acknowledgement of the past crimes.

One has to ask the question why the entire sub-text, not to mention the practical implications, of Obama’s speech was addressed directly to the radical Republican right, corporate America, and the military-industrial complex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Dark Secrets of the First Gulf War Are Still Haunting Us February 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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By Nora Eisenberg, AlterNet. Posted February 27, 2009.

Americans, and our leaders, would do well to take a hard look at the war that we continue to love only because we never got to see it.

With rare exceptions, American politicians seem incapable of opposing an American war without befriending another in a different place or time.

Barack Obama, an early and ardent enemy of the Iraq War, quickly declared his affinity for a war in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. And like so many Democratic leaders, he has commended Bush 41′s Gulf War over Bush 43′s, for its justifiable cause, clear goals, quick execution and admirable leadership.

It’s difficult to determine the proportion of expedience to ignorance that allows politicians and pundits to advance the theory of the good and trouble-free Gulf War. What’s clear, though, is that for close to 20 years, the 42-day war, in which we dropped more bombs than were dropped in all wars combined in the history of the world, maintains a special place in American hearts.

But as John R. MacArthur amply demonstrates in The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, the real 1991 war was kept from the American public. This week, as we commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Gulf War’s end, and opportunities for new hostilities beckon, Americans, and our leaders, would do well to take a hard look at the war that we continue to love only because we never got to see it.

Despite our inability to detect it at the time, U.S. prosecution of the 1991 war with Iraq relied on all the now-familiar and discredited strategies used to promote the present war — with equally disastrous and far-reaching results.

Bogus Justification

When Saddam Hussein summoned April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to his office on July 25, 1990, it was to determine what the U.S. response would be should he invade Kuwait with the 30,000 troops he had amassed on its border. According to the Iraqi transcript published in the New York Times two months later, he told the seasoned diplomat that Iraq had defended the region against the Iranian fundamentalist regime, and that the Kuwaitis were paying them back by encroaching on their border, siphoning their oil, increasing oil production and driving down prices. His people were suffering, and his “patience was running out.”

Glaspie commiserated: “I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. … I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late ’60s. The instruction we had during this period was that … the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction.”

Glaspie later claimed that Iraq transcripts contained “distortions,” which may be so. But her own recently declassified cable to Washington closely resembles the Iraqi transcripts: She wrote that she asked Saddam, “in the spirit of friendship, not confrontation” about his intentions with Kuwait. She reports telling him that “she had served in Kuwait 20 years before; then as now we took no position on these Arab affairs.” She wrote that “Saddam’s emphasis that he wants peaceful settlement is surely sincere … but the terms might be difficult to achieve.”

Glaspie was not the only official to deliver this laissez-faire message. The next day, at a Washington press conference, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutweiler was asked by a journalist if the U.S. had sent any diplomatic protest to Iraq for putting 30,000 troops on the border with Kuwait. “I’m entirely unaware of any such protest,” Tutweiler replied.

Five days later, on July 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs John Kelly testified to Congress that the “United States has no commitment to defend Kuwait, and the U.S. has no intention of defending Kuwait if it is attacked by Iraq.”

Two days later, when Saddam entered Kuwait, he had no reason to believe that the U.S. would come to Kuwait’s defense with a half-million troops. Or that when he tried to negotiate a retreat though Arab leaders, the U.S. would refuse to talk. In 1990 as in 2002, a Bush president had his mind set on war.

Disinformation

If the White House and Pentagon were fixed on a war with Iraq, during the summer and early fall of 1990, the American public and Congress were not. To change that, the week after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government, disguising itself as “Citizens for a Free Kuwait,” hired the global PR firm of Hill & Knowlton to win Americans’ hearts and minds.

In charge of the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton was Craig Fuller, a close friend of George H.W. Bush and his chief of staff when he was vice president. For $11.8 million, Fuller and more than 100 H&K executives across the country oversaw the selling of the war.

They organized public rallies, provided pro-war speakers, lobbied politicians, developed and distributed information kits and news releases, including scores of video news releases shown by stations and networks as if they were bona fide journalism and not paid-for propaganda.

H&K’s research arm, the Wirthlin Group, conducted daily polls to identify the messages and language that would resonate most with Americans. In the 1982 Emmy award-winning Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary To Sell a War, a Wirthlin executive explained that their research had determined the most emotionally moving message to be “Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.”

To fit the bill, H&K concocted stories, including one told by a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah, to another H&K concoction, the House Human Rights Caucus looking to pass as a congressional committee. According to the caucus, Nayirah’s full name would remain secret in order to deter the Iraqis from punishing her family in occupied Kuwait. The girl wept as she testified before the caucus, apparently still shaken by the atrocity she witnessed as a volunteer in a Kuwait City hospital.

According to her written testimony, she had seen “the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where … babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

During the three months between Nayirah’s testimony and the start of the war, the story of babies tossed from their incubators stunned Americans. Bush told the story, and television anchors and talk-show hosts recycled it for days. It was read into the congressional record as fact and discussed at the U.N. General Assembly.

By the time it emerged that Nayirah was a Kuwaiti royal and the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and that she had never volunteered in any hospital and that the incident and her testimony had been provided by H&K, it was too late. The war had already begun.

Another concoction was top-secret satellite images that the Pentagon claimed to have of 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks on the Kuwait-Saudi border, visible proof that Saddam would be advancing soon on Saudi Arabia. Yet the St. Petersburg Times acquired two commercial Russian satellite images of the same area, taken at the same time, that showed no Iraqi troops near the Saudi border, and the scientific experts whom the Times hired could identify nothing but sand at the supposed location of the advancing army.

But the St. Petersburg Times story evaporated, and the Pentagon’s story stuck. When Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 11, 1990, he reported that developments in the Gulf were “as significant as they were tragic”: Iraqi troops and tanks had moved to the south “to threaten Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi reluctance to host foreign troops and bases that would desecrate their sacred sites, the holiest in all of Islam, gave way in the face of an imminent invasion, and the war had its staging area. American discomfort with a war to defend a country most had never heard of began to transform into dread that the Saudi oil they relied on would be swallowed up by a monster.

Censorship

In the lead-up to war, U.S. media organizations, with rare exceptions, had begun to back away from investigative reporting and journalistic scrutiny. Once the war began, government censorship combined with this self-censorship produced a media blackout. The restrictions on the press were tighter than during any earlier American war. Journalists could not travel except in pools with military escorts, and even then most sites were off-limits.

Pentagon censors had to clear all war dispatches, photos and footage before they could be released. Department of Defense guidelines stated that stories would not be judged for “potential to express criticism or cause embarrassment,” but journalists weren’t taking any chances. When news anchors weren’t hosting retired generals and pundits, or screening eerie green images of the coordinates of the day’s targets, they were praising the military on a job well done.

Two months after the war ended, the editors of 15 news outlets protested to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney about the Pentagon’s control. But the damage had been done. The real war was never reported to the American public.

What We Missed and Need to Remember

Americans never saw images of even one of the 100,000 civilians killed in the aerial war, just coordinates of precision-guided strikes, the majority of which missed their marks.

We never learned that the government’s goals had changed from expelling Saddam’s forces from Kuwait to destroying Iraq’s infrastructure. Or what a country with a destroyed infrastructure looks like — with most of its electricity, telecommunications, sewage system, dams, railroads and bridges blown away.

There were no photos or stories of the start of the ground war on Feb. 24, 1991, after Iraq had agreed to a Russian-brokered withdrawal. We never saw the “bulldozer assault” of Feb. 24-26, when U.S. soldiers with plows mounted on tanks and bulldozers moved along 10 miles of trenches, burying alive some 1,000 Iraqi soldiers. Or the night of Feb. 26, when allied forces cordoned off a stretch of highway between Kuwait and Basra, Iraq, incinerating tens of thousands of retreating soldiers and civilians, in an incident come to be called the “Highway of Death.”

We saw no coverage of dead Kurds and Shiites who, at Bush’s instigation and expecting his support, rose up against Saddam. Nor in the months and years after, the news of the Iraqi epidemic of birth defects, cancers and systemic disease.

We heard little about the 20,000 troops occupying Saudi Arabia after the war, the growing regional resentment for the destruction and death, injuries and insults of invasion and occupation. We never heard of the Saudi Muslim radical Osama bin Laden, his outraged protests, for which he was banished, wandering the region, recruiting young followers to avenge the desecration of Islam’s sacred sites.

As for our own, there were no images of returning coffins filled with U.S. service members, nor, in the days and months after the war, coverage of the war’s aftermath: The 200,000 troops who returned profoundly ill from Gulf War illness; the trauma, addiction and/or brain damage that caused veterans to kill their wives, family, fellow citizens, and/or themselves; and, of course, on Sept. 11, 2001, the tragic event used by the George W. Bush administration to launch a second war against Iraq.

There was no mainstream media coverage of the roots, just of the proclamations of them versus us, hatemongers versus freedom lovers, barbaric cowards versus civilized heroes.

We could read about bin Laden’s jihad, but little appeared of the fatwa he and his counterparts throughout the Middle-East issued, except the often-quoted statement that it was the duty of every Muslim “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military,” leaving out the second part of the sentence — “in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

Barack Obama’s early opposition to George 43′s Gulf War was a sign of the integrity, knowledge, and depth for which Americans would elect him,  trusting these virtues would guide us in hard times. Patriotic etiquette discourages politicians, especially presidents, from bearing complexities in public forums.

But war-weary, broke and scared Americans will welcome the president breaking rules and speaking awkward truths.

Invasion and violence, like chickens, do come home to roost. We’re ready for a leader who grasps history’s complications and heeds its lessons and who won’t release us from one war only to tie us to another, and another.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as the Partisan Review, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Tikkun, and the Guardian UK. Her third novel, When You Come Home, which explores the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness, was published last month by Curbstone Press.

The Military’s Expanding Waistline February 20, 2009

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By Pratap Chatterjee, www.tomdispatch.com, February 19, 2009

What Will Obama Do With KBR?

President Obama will almost certainly touch down in Baghdad and Kabul in Air Force One sometime in the coming year to meet his counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he will just as certainly pay a visit to a U.S. military base or two. Should he stay for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or midnight chow with the troops, he will no less certainly choose from a menu prepared by migrant Asian workers under contract to Houston-based KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton.

If Barack Obama takes the Rhino Runner armor-plated bus from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone, or travels by Catfish Air’s Blackhawk helicopters (the way mere mortals like diplomats and journalists do), instead of by presidential chopper, he will be assigned a seat by U.S. civilian workers easily identified by the red KBR lanyards they wear around their necks.

Even if Obama gets the ultra-red carpet treatment, he will still tread on walkways and enter buildings that have been constructed over the last six years by an army of some 50,000 workers in the employ of KBR. And should Obama chose to order the troops in Iraq home tomorrow, he will effectively sign a blank check for billions of dollars in withdrawal logistics contracts that will largely be carried out by a company once overseen by Dick Cheney.

Questions for the Pentagon

If Obama wants to find out why KBR civilian workers can be found in every nook and cranny of U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, he might be better off visiting the Rock Island Arsenal in western Illinois. It’s located on the biggest island in the Mississippi River, the place where Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk nation was once born. The arsenal’s modern stone buildings house the offices of the U.S. Army Materiel Command from which KBR’s multibillion dollar Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program contract (LOGCAP) have been managed for the last seven years. This is the mega-contract that has, since September 11, 2001, generated more than $25 billion for KBR to set up and manage military bases overseas (and resulted, of course, in thousands of pages of controversial news stories about the company’s war profiteering).

Even more conveniently, Obama could pop over to KBR’s Crystal City government operations headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, just a mile south of the Pentagon and five miles from the White House. On Crystal City Drive just before Ronald Reagan National airport, it’s hard to miss the KBR corporate logo, those gigantic red letters on the 11-story building at the far corner of Crystal Park.

Many people who know something about KBR’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan might want Obama to question the military commanders at Rock Island and the corporate executives in Arlington about the shoddy electrical work, unchlorinated shower water, overcharges for trucks sitting idle in the desert, deaths of KBR employees and affiliated soldiers in Iraq, million-dollar alleged bribes accepted by KBR managers, and billions of dollars in missing receipts, among a slew of other complaints that have received wide publicity over the last five years.

But those would be the wrong questions.

Obama needs to ask his Pentagon commanders this: Can the U.S. military he has now inherited do anything without KBR?

And the answer will certainly be a resounding no.

Keeping a Volunteer Army Happy

Tim Horton is the head of public relations for Logistical Supply Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, the biggest U.S. base in that country. He was a transportation officer for 20 years and has a simple explanation for why the army relies so heavily on contractors to operate facilities today.

 

“What we have today is an all-volunteer army, unlike in a conscription army when they had to be here. In the old army, the standard of living was low, the pay scale was dismal; it wasn’t fun; it wasn’t intended to be fun. But today we have to appeal, we have to recruit, just like any corporation, we have to recruit off the street. And after we get them to come in, it behooves us to give them a reason to stay in.”

 

Even in 2003, the U.S. military was incredibly overstretched. For the Bush administration to go to war then, it needed an army of cheap labor to feed and clean up after the combat troops it sent into battle. Those troops, of course, were young U.S. citizens raised in a world of creature comforts. Unlike American soldiers from their parents’ or grandparents’ generations who were drafted into the military in the Korean or Vietnam eras and ordered to peel potatoes or clean latrines, the modern teenager can choose not to sign up at all.

As Horton points out, the average soldier gets an average of $100,000 worth of military training in four years; if he or she then doesn’t reenlist, the military has to spend another $100,000 to train a replacement. “What if we spend an extra $6,000 to get them to stay and save the loss of talent and experience?” Horton asks. “What does it take to keep the people? There are some creature comforts in this Wal-Mart and McDonald’s society that we live in that soldiers have come to expect. They expect to play an Xbox, to keep in touch by e-mail. They expect to eat a variety of foods.”

A quarter-century ago, when Horton joined the Army, all they got was a fourteen-day rotational menu. “We had chili-mac every two weeks, for crying out loud. What is that? Unstrained, low-grade hamburger mixed with macaroni. Lot of calories, lots of fat, lots of starch, that’s what a soldier needs to do his job. When you were done, you had a heart attack.”

Today, says Horton, expectations are different. “Our soldiers need to feel and believe that we care about them, or they will leave. The Army cannot afford to allow the soldier to be disenfranchised.”

When I visited with him in April 2008, Horton took me to meet Michael St. John of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the chief warrant officer at one of Anaconda’s dining facilities. St. John led me on a tour of the facility, pointing out little details of which he was justly proud — like the fresh romaine lettuce brought up from Kuwait by Public Warehousing Corporation (PWC) truck drivers who make the dangerous 12-hour journey across the desert, so that KBR cooks have fresh and familiar food for the troops. Stopping at the dessert bar St. John explained, “We added blenders to make milkshakes, microwaves to heat up apple pie, and waffle bars with ice cream.” The “healthy bar” was the next stop. “Here,” he pointed out, “we offer baked fish or chicken breast, crab legs, or lobster claws or tails.”

“Contractors here do all the work,” St. John added. He explained that he had about 25 soldiers and six to eight KBR supervisors to oversee 175 workers from a Saudi company named Tamimi, feeding 10,000 people a day and providing take-away food for another thousand.

“They do everything from unloading the food deliveries to taking out the trash. We are hands off. Our responsibility is military oversight: overseeing the headcount, ensuring that the contractors are providing nutritional meals and making sure there are no food-borne illnesses. It’s the only sustainable way to get things done, given the number of soldiers we have to feed.”

Horton chimes in: “I treat myself to an ice-cream cone once a week. You know what that is? It’s a touch of home, a touch of sanity, a touch of civilization. The soldiers here do not have bars; all that is gone. You’ve taken the candy away from the baby. What do you have to give him? What’s wrong with giving him a little bit of pizza or ice cream?”

Between a chili-mac military and a pizza-and-ice-cream military, the difference shows — around the waistline. Sarah Stillman, a freelance journalist with the website TruthDig, tells a story she heard about a PowerPoint slide that’s becoming popular in Army briefings: “Back in 2003, the average soldier lost fifteen pounds during his tour of Iraq. Now, he gains ten.”

Stillman says that the first warning many U.S. troops receive here in Baghdad isn’t about IEDs (improvised explosive devices), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), or even EFPs (explosively formed projectiles). It’s about PCPs: “pervasive combat paunches.”

Privatizing the U.S. Army

KBR has grossed more than $25 billion since it won a 10-year contract in late 2001 to supply U.S. troops in combat situations around the world. As of April 2008, the company estimated that it had served more than 720 million meals, driven more than 400 million miles on various convoy missions, treated 12 billion gallons of potable water, and produced more than 267 million tons of ice for those troops. These staggering figures are testimony to the role KBR has played in supporting the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries targeted in President Bush’s Global War on Terror.

And in the first days of the new Obama administration, the company continues to win contracts. On January 28, 2009, KBR announced that it had been awarded a $35.4 million contract by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the design and construction of a convoy support center at Camp Adder in Iraq. The center will include a power plant, an electrical distribution center, a water purification and distribution system, a waste-water collection system, and associated information systems, along with paved roads, all to be built by KBR.

How did the U.S. military become this dependent on one giant company? Well, this change has been a long time coming. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, a consortium of four companies led by the Texas construction company Brown & Root (the B and R in KBR) built almost every military base in South Vietnam. That, of course, was when Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan with close ties to the Brown brothers, was president. In 1982, two years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Brown & Root struck gold again. It won lucrative contracts to build a giant U.S. base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a former British colony.

In 1985, General John A. Wickham drew up plans to streamline logistics work on military bases under what he dubbed the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), but his ideas would remain in a back drawer for several years. In the meantime, Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense in the administration of the elder George Bush, loosed the American military on Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1991, and hired hundreds of separate contractors to provide logistics support. The uneven results of this early privatizing effort left military planners frustrated. By the time Cheney left office, he had asked Brown & Root to dust off the Wickham LOGCAP plan and figure out how to consolidate and expand the contracting system.

President Bill Clinton’s commanders took a harder look at the new plan that Brown & Root had drawn up and liked what they saw. In 1994, that company was hired to build bases in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, as well as to take over the day-to-day running of those bases in the middle of a war zone.

By the time Donald Rumsfeld took over as Secretary of Defense under the younger George Bush, he had embraced the revolution that Wickham had begun, and Clinton and Cheney had implemented. At a Pentagon event on the morning of September 10, 2001, one day before three aircraft struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Rumsfeld identified the crucial enemy force his assembled senior staff would take on in the coming years:

 

“The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. This adversary is one of the world’s last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans, and beyond. With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk. You may think I’m describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world. The adversary’s closer to home. It’s the Pentagon bureaucracy. 

“We must ask tough questions. Why is DOD [Department of Defense] one of the last organizations around that still cuts its own checks? When an entire industry exists to run warehouses efficiently, why do we own and operate so many of our own? At bases around the world, why do we pick up our own garbage and mop our own floors, rather than contracting services out, as many businesses do?”

 

He outlined a series of steps to slash headquarter staffs by 15% in the two years to come and promised even more dramatic changes to follow. While the invasion of Afghanistan the following month was conducted by military personnel, Rumsfeld’s ideas started to be implemented in the spring of 2002. Indeed, the building of bases in Kuwait in the fall of 2002 for the coming invasion of Iraq was handled almost entirely by KBR.

Today, there is one KBR worker for every three U.S. soldiers in Iraq — and the main function of these workers, under LOGCAP, is to build base infrastructure and maintain them by doing all those duties that once were considered part of military life — making sure that soldiers are fed, their clothes washed, and their showers and toilets kept clean. While many stories have been written about the $80,000 annual salaries earned by KBR truck drivers, most of the company’s workers make far less, mainly because they are hired from countries like India and the Philippines where starting salaries of $300 a month are considered a fortune.

Outsourcing the Kitchen Patrol

The majority of KBR’s labor force, some 40,000 workers (the equivalent of about 80 military battalions), are “third country nationals” drawn largely from the poorer parts of Asia. In April 2008, I flew to Kuwait city where I spent time with a group of Fijian truck drivers who worked for a local company, PWC, doing subcontracting work for KBR.

My host was Titoko Savuwati from Totoya Lau, one of the Moala Islands in Fiji. He picked me up one evening in a small white Toyota Corolla rental car. The cranked-up sound system was playing American country favorites and oldies. Six feet tall with broad, rangy shoulders, short-cropped hair, and a goatee, Savuwati had been a police officer in Fiji. He was 50 years old and had left at home six children he hadn’t seen in four years. When he got out of his car, I noticed that he had a pronounced limp and dragged one foot ever so slightly behind him.

We joined his friends at his apartment for a simple Anglican prayer service. Deep baritone voices filled the tiny living room with Fijian hymns before they sat down to a meal of cassava and curried chicken parts and began to tell me their stories. Each had made at least 100 dangerous trips, driving large 18-wheeler refrigeration trucks that carry all manner of goodies destined for U.S. soldiers from Kuwaiti ports to bases like LSA Anaconda. They sleep in their trucks, not being allowed to sleep in military tents or trailers along the way.

Savuwati had arrived in Kuwait on January 14, 2005, as one of 400 drivers, hoping to earn $3,000 a month. Instead, his real pay, he discovered, was 175 Kuwaiti dinar (KWD) a month (US$640), out of which he had to pay for all his food and sundries, even on the road, as well as rent. Drivers were given an extra 50 dinar ($183) allowance on each trip to Iraq.

“I came to Iraq because of the large amount of money they promised me,” he said, sighing. “But they give us very little money. We’ve been crying for more money for many months. Do you think my family can survive on fifty KWD?” He sends at least 100 dinars ($365) home a month and has no savings that would pay for a ticket home at a round-trip price of roughly $2,500.

I did a quick calculation. For every trip, if they worked the 12-hour shifts expected of them, the Fijians earned about $30 a day, or $2.50 an hour. I asked Savuwati about his limp. On a trip to Nasariyah in 2005, he told me, his truck flipped over, injuring his leg. Did he get paid sick leave? Savuwati looked incredulous. “The company didn’t give me any money. When we are injured, the company gives us nothing.” But, he assured me, he had been lucky — a number of fellow drivers had been killed on the job.

The next day, I stopped by to see the Fijians again, and Savuwati gave me a ride home. I offered to pay for gasoline and, after first waving me away, he quickly acquiesced. As he dropped me off, he looked at me sheepishly and said, “I’ve run out of money. Do you think you could give me one KWD [$3.65] for lunch?” I dug into my pocket and handed the money over. As I walked away, I thought about how ironic it was that the men who drove across a battle zone, dodging stones, bullets, and IEDs to bring ice cream, steak, lobster tails, and ammunition to U.S. soldiers, had to beg for food themselves.

This, of course, is the real face of the American military today, though it’s never seen by Americans.

Obama’s Army

Pentagon commanders often speak of a “revolution in military affairs” when summing up the technological advances that allow them to stalk enemies by satellite, fire missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles, and protect U.S. soldiers with night-vision goggles, but they rarely explain the social and logistical changes that have accompanied this revolution.

Today, U.S. soldiers are drawn from a video-game culture that embraces computers on the battlefield, even as the U.S. Army bears ever less relation to the draft armies that did the island-hopping in the Pacific in World War II or fought jungle battles in Vietnam. Indeed, the personnel that Obama will soon visit in Iraq and Afghanistan is generally supplied with hot food and showers around the clock in combat zones in the same way they might be on a Stateside base — by workers like Savuwati.

Undoubtedly, an Obama administration could begin to cut some of the notorious fat out of the contracts that make that possible, including multi-million dollar overcharges. Obama’s potential budget trimmers could, for example, take whistleblowers inside KBR and the Pentagon seriously when they report malfeasance and waste.

But could Obama dismiss KBR’s army, even if he wanted to? Will Obama really be willing to ask American volunteer soldiers to give up the bacon, romaine lettuce, and roast turkey that they have come to expect in a war zone? And even if he could do so, those are only the luxuries. Keep in mind that, on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, every single item, from beans to bullets, is shipped using contractors like PWC of Kuwait and Maersk of Denmark. In the last two decades, the U.S. military has even divested itself of the hardware and people that would allow it to move tanks around the world, relying instead on contractors to do such work.

The White House website states that “Obama and Biden support plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000 Marines. Increasing our end strength will help units retrain and re-equip properly between deployments and decrease the strain on military families.” As part of the same policy statement, the site claims the new administration will reform contracting by creating “transparency for military contractors,” as well as restoring “honesty, openness, and commonsense to contracting and procurement” by “rebuilding our contract officer corps.”

Nowhere, however, does that website suggest that the new administration will work toward ending, or even radically cutting back, the use of contractors on the battlefield, or that those 92,000 new soldiers and Marines are going to fill logistics battalions that have been decimated in the last two decades. What we already know of the military policies of the new administration suggests instead that President Obama wants to expand U.S. military might. So don’t be surprised if the new LOGCAP contract, a $150 billion 10-year program that began on September 20, 2008, remains in place, with some minor tinkering around the edges to provide value for taxpayer money. KBR’s army, it seems, will remain on the march.

Pratap Chatterjee is the author of Halliburton’s Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. He is the managing editor of CorpWatch. A TomDispatch audio interview in which Chatterjee discusses KBR World can be heard by clicking here.

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