[18 January 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Governments that use [private military firms] must learn to recognize their responsibilities as regulators—and as smart clients. Their failure to do so thus far has distorted the free market and caused a major shift in the military-industrial complex. Without change, the status quo will result in bad policy and bad business.
—Peter Singer, “Outsourcing War” (1 March 2005)
Dubbed “the scariest guy in town” by Time magazine in December for his tenacious approach to congressional oversight, [Rep. Henry] Waxman has made no secret of his suspicions that Texas-based contractor Halliburton has been bilking the taxpayers for its work in Iraq.
—Katherine McIntire Peters, “Iraq contractors face increased scrutiny in new Congress” (3 January 2007)
As the Bush Administration revamps its means and ends concerning the Iraq War, the possibilities appear to be few: surging US troops and surging jobs for Iraqis, along with more troops provided by Nouri al-Maliki’s government and more “sacrifice” by Americans. The nature of this sacrifice has never been clear, as the war has, since its inception seemed a perverse sort of money-making venture. That perversion takes a couple of forms: first, billions of US dollars have been spent on the war while taxes have been reduced for the wealthy, and second, the US government has contracted private firms and paid them handsomely, often for shoddy or undone work.
Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers looks into such contracting by way of some specific stories. It begins with the deaths of two Blackwater Security employees, Jerry Zovko and Scott Helvenston, hired to escort Coalition Provisional Authority Chief Paul Bremer. Killed and publicly mutilated with two other contractors during 2004’s notorious “incident in Fallujah”, they here represent the problem of privatization; namely, its definitive lack of contextualization, understanding, and long-term planning. Contractors tend to be regarded as quick fixes, additions to the regular military with some expertise (many are ex-military, now paid much more for their services than before), working for operations that cut corners to ensure profits. One mother laments the circumstance of her loss, that the rage at her son was misplaced. “They were taught hatred for anyone who didn’t represent what they were taught to believe in”, she says. Worse, argues the film, no one prepared her son or his fellow contractors for what they found in Iraq, whether by equipment (“The vehicles should have been armored”) or cultural awareness.
The anger at the contractors works multiple ways. The military forces are perceived as enemies by occupied Iraq; and US troops (and their families) see other “support” contractors, such as Halliburton, as exploitative, charging too much for supplies and food. The contractors have become pervasive in the war “venture”, at nearly every turn accountable to no one (one soldier notes that even though their meal schedule allowed the enemy to target chow lines, KBR “wouldn’t go to a 24-hour feeding schedule… It saves them money because they get paid by how many soldiers they feed, not how many soldiers they save”). As Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of a dead contractor insists, “In Iraq, most of the men aren’t getting their protection. Men over there working for Blackwater are still dying. The world really needs to know what’s going on over there and we need to stop it. There has to be accountability.”
The number of contractors carrying weapons is troubling. According to Iraq for Sale (and Frontline‘s excellent Private Warriors), private contractors make up “the second largest armed force in Iraq”. That the military must be reinforced by such mercenaries in various fields suggests again that the American military is “stretched thin”. Perhaps more importantly, it indicates a particularly cynical attitude toward war-making within the administration, a combination arrogance, ignorance, and entrepreneurship. (Useful books on the subject of profiteering in Iraq include Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq by T. Christian Miller, P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who details the administration’s startling lack of cultural sensitivity from jump (see his appearance on Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria). The dysfunction, according to the documentary, is that errors and miscalculations are the norm. As Greenwald, speaking on the DVD’s worthy commentary track, says of Zovko and Helvenston’s deaths, “This was not an accident, this was a function of policy.”
Released simultaneously to a limited number of theaters and DVD in September 2006 (in an effort to influence the midterm elections, says Greenwald), the movie goes on to pick apart this policy. Its targets are large and sometimes seem easy, and the film has that low-tech, desktoppy editing look of Greenwald’s other films (including Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price). It’s not hard to feel sympathy for the anguished mothers of dead men (under an image of the moms at their sons’ graves in the making-of featurette, Greenwald says, “I really have tough days, you know, when you see stories that rip, that get to your heart. But ultimately,” he adds, “I get an incredible sense of pleasure that I’m being allowed to work on these films… that could make a bit of difference”). It’s also easy to be angry at the government’s sloppy outsourcing of “the mission” to private workers who have no accountability or Blackwater’s lobbying of Republican Congressional members to block investigation into the “incident”.
Still, the examples in this 75-minute film are numerous and outrageous, and all come down to money (this point is underlined in the film’s brief extras, apart from the commentary track, including C-Span footage of “Important Votes” on war profiteering amendments and “The Invisible Workforce”, about South Asian workers hired on the cheap in Iraq). As Greenwald says in his commentary, the corporate raison d’être is to “expand”, to make a profit. In Iraq, the model has achieved something like critical mass. Halliburton has a cost-plus arrangement, wherein it calculates the cost of the product, then includes an additional amount to guarantee profit. Along with Halliburton and its erstwhile subsidiary KBR, the US has also contracted CACI International and Titan interrogators, some employed at Abu Ghraib. As that facility’s onetime commander, former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, tells it here, CACI has no “chain of command” to keep methods in check, and anonymous interrogators remain beyond sanction or direct supervision by the military officers who were supposed to be in charge of the prison. (CACI‘s website includes a section that “Corrects False Information About Its Former Business in Iraq 2003-2004”.)
An interview with former Abu Ghraib detainee Hassan Al-Assawi—whose experience is certainly harrowing (“One of their strategies is to tie a rope around the penis and cut off circulation”)—is set within the context of the contractor-military structure. As Greenwald notes in his commentary, the film’s point is not to locate the “bad apple” or the “individual jerk”, but to analyze the profit-minded corporate system that produces and accommodates so many jerks, “the toll that that system takes”.For one instance, as Greenwald underlines in the commentary track, CACI’s interrogators’ manual features childlike drawings to illustrate methods, intimating the horrific lunacy of the system. Intercutting these pages with the famous photos of victims at Abu Ghraib denotes what Greenwald calls “the irony and the horror of teaching people how to torture by using happy faces.” (Former interrogator Joshua Casteel says, “We were interrogating like taxi drivers and pizza delivery guys.”)
As most viewers have observed, Greenwald’s movies are not subtle. But he makes the case, convincingly, that his corporate targets, so crass and outsized in their abuses, so sure they wield the kind of power that can never be contained by “oversight committees”,inspire and even necessitate such raucous protest. Watching footage of President Bush making jokes when asked by an audience member at Johns Hopkins in April 2006 to explain “what law governs [private military contractors’] actions, Greenwald stresses what he sees as a theme of the film, that “ideas have consequences, policies have consequences.” Bush shakes his shoulders and pretends to have no responsibility to the questioner.
The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has declared its intention to oversee the costs of the war, and in particular to look at private contracting. As Iraq for Sale illustrates vividly, the time is long past when such a course should have been taken.