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[casi] Military "privatization" = Iraq disaster

New York Times, August 12, 2003
Thanks for the M.R.E.'s

A few days ago I talked to a soldier just back from Iraq. He'd been in a
relatively calm area; his main complaint was about food. Four months after
the fall of Baghdad, his unit was still eating the dreaded M.R.E.'s: meals
ready to eat. When Italian troops moved into the area, their food was "way
more realistic"  and American troops were soon trading whatever they could
for some of that Italian food.

Other stories are far worse. Letters published in Stars and Stripes and
e-mail published on the Web site of Col. David Hackworth (a decorated
veteran and Pentagon critic) describe shortages of water. One writer
reported that in his unit, "each soldier is limited to two 1.5-liter bottles
a day," and that inadequate water rations were leading to "heat casualties."
An American soldier died of heat stroke on Saturday; are poor supply and
living conditions one reason why U.S. troops in Iraq are suffering such a
high rate of noncombat deaths?

The U.S. military has always had superb logistics. What happened? The answer
is a mix of penny-pinching and privatization  which makes our soldiers'
discomfort a symptom of something more general.

Colonel Hackworth blames "dilettantes in the Pentagon" who "thought they
could run a war and an occupation on the cheap." But the cheapness isn't
restricted to Iraq. In general, the "support our troops" crowd draws the
line when that support might actually cost something.

The usually conservative Army Times has run blistering editorials on this
subject. Its June 30 blast, titled "Nothing but Lip Service," begins: "In
recent months, President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have
missed no opportunity to heap richly deserved praise on the military. But
talk is cheap  and getting cheaper by the day, judging from the
nickel-and-dime treatment the troops are getting lately." The article goes
on to detail a series of promises broken and benefits cut.

Military corner-cutting is part of a broader picture of
penny-wise-pound-foolish government. When it comes to tax cuts or subsidies
to powerful interest groups, money is no object. But elsewhere, including
homeland security, small-government ideology reigns. The Bush administration
has been unwilling to spend enough on any aspect of homeland security,
whether it's providing firefighters and police officers with radios or
protecting the nation's ports. The decision to pull air marshals off some
flights to save on hotel bills  reversed when the public heard about it 
was simply a sound-bite-worthy example. (Air marshals have told
that a "witch hunt" is now under way at the Transportation Security
Administration, and that those who reveal cost-cutting measures to the media
are being threatened with the Patriot Act.)

There's also another element in the Iraq logistical snafu: privatization.
The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers
into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the
Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized
system its first major test in combat  and the system failed.

According to the Newhouse News Service, "U.S. troops in Iraq suffered
through months of unnecessarily poor living conditions because some civilian
contractors hired by the Army for logistics support failed to show up." Not
surprisingly, civilian contractors  and their insurance companies  get
spooked by war zones. The Financial Times reports that the dismal
performance of contractors in Iraq has raised strong concerns about what
would happen in a war against a serious opponent, like North Korea.

Military privatization, like military penny-pinching, is part of a pattern.
Both for ideological reasons and, one suspects, because of the patronage
involved, the people now running the country seem determined to have public
services provided by private corporations, no matter what the circumstances.
For example, you may recall that in the weeks after 9/11 the Bush
administration and its Congressional allies fought tooth and nail to leave
airport screening in the hands of private security companies, giving in only
in the face of overwhelming public pressure. In Iraq, reports The Baltimore
Sun, "the Bush administration continues to use American corporations to
perform work that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups can do
more cheaply."

In short, the logistical mess in Iraq isn't an isolated case of poor
planning and mismanagement: it's telling us what's wrong with our current
philosophy of government.

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