Dragging on without an end in sight, the Iraq War invokes strong emotions in Americans who are yearning for the truth about why a war that they were told would end in less than a year has continued, now, for over four. Hoping to shed light on the war’s perpetuation, Robert Greenwald’s 2006 documentary Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers exposes the corrupt conduct of no-bid contract companies that are working under the auspices of “reconstructing Iraq,” and without regard to the taxpayer’s dollar, which funds their projects.
Immediately captivating, Iraq for Sale begins on a sympathetic note, emphasizing the personal impact the companies have had on American families. According to those featured in this film, their sons, brothers and fathers who worked for Blackwater died in Iraq because Blackwater did not take steps to ensure the safety of their loved ones. The second largest army in Iraq, Blackwater provides security for VIPs, most notably Paul Bremer when he was Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq.
Iraq for Sale begins with its focus on the deaths of Scott Helveston and Jerry Zorko, two men who wanted to help the United States win the war in Iraq, but also wanted to provide for their families. On 31 March 2004 Helveston and Zorko’s convoy was ambushed, and both were killed. The families blame Blackwater for its disregard for their employees’ safety, setting them in harm’s way of the Iraqi insurgents: “The vehicles should have been armored and they should have had ‘saws’ which are heavy belt-fed machines guns in each vehicle, which they didn’t have,” says one.
To offset the bad publicity from the Fallujah assault, Blackwater pumped money into right-wing lobbying groups, hoping, through their influence, to persuade Congress to not investigate, and of course, to maintain federal funding for Blackwater. The company was successful, as no investigation was carried out, and its funding rose from $774,906 in 2001 to $221.4 million in 2005.
Iraq for Sale then shifts its attention to another shocking news story: the hired interrogators at Abu Ghraib. Although by now probably everyone knows about Lynndie England, the American soldier notoriously caught on camera behaving unprofessionally toward prisoners, the documentary focuses upon CACI, a company hired by the Department of the Interior to do . . . “database work.” CACI and the military apparently determined that “database work” included interrogating prisoners. Former employees recall CACI’s failure to ensure its staff followed set rules surrounding interrogations. Janis Karpinski, the former Brigadier General, states, “The employer is in the US so that it can excuse the company if an interrogator [in Iraq] does not follow the rules.” Former CACI employees candidly recall torturing prisoners whom they knew were not threats. Yet CACI’s governmental funding rose from $.68 billion in 2002 to $1.62 billion in 2005.
Like CACI, TITAN, a company whose service is to provide translators, hired personnel quickly to fill these positions – the staff received little or no training. The TITAN translators replaced most military translators (leaving soldiers idle), and because they lacked training, many former employees speculate they provided misinformation, acting upon personal opinion rather than fact. Not surprisingly, TITAN’S federal funding rose from $.92 billion in 2001 to $2.05 billion in 2004.
Lastly, Iraq for Sale investigates KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR was hired to set up dining facilities and provide related necessary supplies to the army. Although this was traditionally a military role, KBR provides better pay to their workers than a soldier working the army canteen can earn. KBR, too, hired people quickly, often providing little or no training – it is left to military personnel to teach KBR’s newest employees. Think this is bad? It gets worse.
On 9 April 2004, KBR ordered several truck drivers to make deliveries on a route from Camp Anaconda to the airport that KBR management knew was deemed “black, closed, and/or red,” (‘black’ and ‘red’ meaning impassible and/or dangerous). One surviving driver recalls “bullets [coming] from everywhere,” while another remembers “[he] could hear a man… crying out for help, ‘I’m burning. I’m burning. Please don’t let me die in Iraq.’” These two employees place the blame for the ambush upon Halliburton, stating, “this is a case about Halliburton and KBR trying to make a profit at time of war and using civilians in an improper fashion.”
In addition to the real dangers soldiers face, the documentary investigates hidden hazards arising in their KBR-provided food and water. One former KBR employee states, nearly in tears, that the water KBR provides to US soldiers is “extremely contaminated,” housing diseases that could have permanent, disabling effects. The soldiers, living in tents, not the KBR employees living in much better quarters, drink and shower in this water. Also, KBR refuses to operate its mess hall on a 24-hour schedule; therefore, soldiers stand, vulnerable and hungry, in long lines for meals – lines with schedules well known to insurgents.
Halliburton does not invest much money into the goods and services provided to soldiers because they operate on the Cost-Plus system. The Cost-Plus system allows a company to be reimbursed and given a profit for any product that can be seen as justified. Because of this, Halliburton has been accused of overcharging the US Government, that is, taxpayers, up to one billion dollars.
Greenwald takes advantage of the Shakespearean method of storytelling by constantly escalating the story until the climax is reached at the 11th hour. Viewers first learn the deaths of Helveston and Zorko and feel sympathy for their families, but later the audience learns that they themselves (if they are American) are helping fund each one of these private companies.
In addition to invoking emotion, Iraq for Sale also tests the viewer’s intellectual stamina, packing in a lot of information within a 75-minute time span. Unfortunately, to do so, Greenwald must use many techniques that can be potentially deceiving. For example, when talking about politicians within the film, he frequently shows Senator Christopher Dodd (D – Connecticut) proposing his amendment to stop the private contractors. Then, when talking about each company’s political connections, the documentary almost exclusively shows ties within the current Bush administration and to former president, George H. W. Bush. The companies also appear to donate money primarily to right-wing lobbyist groups, and then because of it, Iraq for Sale implies the companies are not investigated. Viewers do not see Republican opposition toward these companies, nor does they see Democratic representatives, who support them.
Iraq for Sale clearly intends to convey these corporations as pure evil; when the audience sees companies’ profits rise exponentially within a time span, the screen background is black and the text and line graph is red, evoking the sense that these fast-escalating profits are blood money. To further emphasize corporate greed, 24-esque music plays at key moments. Although this documentary clearly illustrates a bias, Greenwald did attempt to present both sides: he requested interviews with representatives from each company, but each turned him down.
With the tight editing, Greenwald is able to present a lot of information from many sources in a short amount of time. Alas, we see only the fragments of each interview, when we know there is more to be said, more to be heard.
Overall, Iraq for Sale delivers. It provides its strong and shocking message that these private corporations are funded by US tax payers at the behest of both Republicans and Democrats, and they intentionally – and knowingly — cut corners at the apparently disposable cost of American and Iraqi lives.