Spoils Of War

John Freeman
3 min read
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In the last three years, Iraq became the largest recipient of American foreign aid in U.S. history. What do we have to show for it? Power outages and fuel shortages in every major Iraqi city, and even less oil production than under Saddam Hussein.

In this dazzling work of reportage,
Los Angeles Times reporter T. Christian Miller shows how the U.S.’s failure to secure even the most basic functions of society have less to do with soldiers or the generals and much more to do with outsourcing the rebuilding phase in Iraq to corporate America.

The Iraq War, Miller notes, has the greatest contractor-to-soldier ratio of any conflict in American history, and that’s not an accident. Miller traces this shift to the White House of George H.W. Bush, when then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney began advocating for a greater role for corporations in the military. He succeeded, and when the Iraq War started in 2003, Halliburton, Cheney’s former employer, won more than half of the contract dollars up for grabs.

Contractors aren’t just paving roads, building bridges and repairing hospitals. They have taken over many of the activities the army once did for itself. They feed the soldiers, do their laundry, transport fuel, and in some cases even protect U.S. dignitaries and diplomats. By some count, there are over 25,000 contracted security forces—or soldiers of fortune—in Iraq.

This sounds good on paper—expose the army to less strain so it can do more across the globe—but it has been a disaster in the field. The huge amount of money available for rebuilding, and the speed with which it needed to be completed, created conditions ripe for abuse.

Halliburton overcharged for gasoline, subcontractors delivered trucks that did not drive or guns that jammed; one enterprising defense contractor named Custer Battles even doctored invoices so they could exceed profit caps in their contract. They also fought battles on their own volition. And they still got paid.

The most damning charge of all is that ordinary Iraqis and soldiers have had to pay the price for this incompetence and greed. When cowboy defense contractors shoot first and ask questions later, it fuels resentment against soldiers, who face more and more ambushes. The insurgency that has grown in part out of these feelings makes rebuilding that much more difficult. Twenty-two percent of each contract dollar spent in Iraq goes to security.

As Miller shows, that figure might only go up, as conditions have become so bad that U.S.-driven rebuilding projects have to disguise their origins, or face sabotage. Clearly, the Iraqis’ patience has worn thin, and it’s not just insurgents. Some of the angriest people are those working in the industries American capitalism was supposed to rescue. "Frankly speaking," said one Iraqi gas plant manager about Halliburton’s shoddy work, which costs the country millions of dollars in lost oil revenue every day, "I am not satisfied with [their] work … It has meant nothing for us."
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