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Plowshares into Profits


Originally published 1:55 p.m., October 11, 2006
Updated 4:51 p.m., October 26, 2006

Robert Greenwald Comes to Town to Premiere Iraq for Sale

by Sam Kornell

IraqForSale.jpgNear the end of Robert Greenwald’s furious new documentary Iraq for Sale, an unidentified female voice tells us, “Iraq is the most privatized war in history.” While that may be a stretch — armies staffed by hired mercenaries go back before Alexander the Great — Iraq is at least the most profitable war in history. Today, there are thousands of private American military contracts split among more than 150 private firms in Iraq. In July 2004, Halliburton (the Texas company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney) alone had contracts worth $11,431,000,000. Most of these contracts go toward logistical, “passive” support, from base, bridge, and prison building to food preparation, laundry service, and transportation. But more and more private contractors in Iraq are engaged in “active” work. They are armed, in combat zones, and doing work traditionally conducted by the military — the training of Iraqi soldiers, security management, interrogation, and the like Iraq for Sale is partly about how all of these companies acquire their contracts. Their means not only raise ethical and legal concerns, but also contravene the basic tenets of the free-market philosophy that’s espoused by the conservatives in control of the White House and the Congress. Companies such as Halliburton and Blackwater are benefiting from no-bid contracts and cost-plus contracts that assure the more a company spends, the more it makes. So bad is this miasma of corruption and collusion that it is hard to disagree with one former Halliburton contractor who characterizes what he saw in Iraq as “a legal way of stealing from American citizens.”

War profiteering has been well covered in the press (albeit to little apparent political effect), and Greenwald does a fine job of reiterating the rampant corruption, the flagrant squandering of U.S. tax dollars, and the questionable business/government connections. What haven’t been so well covered are the troubling issues involved in the contracting out of “active” military roles to private companies and citizens. Unfortunately, Greenwald does little more than suggest the larger problem.

There are an estimated 100,000 civilian contractors and 20,000 private security forces in Iraq. Together, they dwarf all non-U.S. forces combined. But it’s unclear what system of justice applies to military contractors. Neither American military law nor criminal law has clearly relevant statutes or jurisdiction. In their absence, the laws of the host country — in this case Iraq — would appear to take precedence. But one of the quiet undertakings of the Coalition Provisional Authority was to include a clause in the Iraqi legal code that indemnifies American civilians from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Consequently, private contractors exist in a legal vacuum.

Private military contracting clearly pays high political dividends. It means, in the case of Iraq, that the U.S. government can conduct a protracted war against an elusive and deadly enemy without instituting a draft. It will also likely mean that, sooner or later, American troops will begin to be drawn back, and their withdrawal will be made possible in large part by the private security forces that stay behind to look after American interests. And it allows — ominously — private security forces to distance the process of military engagement from the government under whose oversight the war is ostensibly being waged. Iraq for Sale does not fully explore the implications of the state of affairs now facing us in Iraq, which is, essentially, the profusion of mercenaries with guns working for the U.S. government on foreign territory without any particular institutional oversight. But it does raise the issue, and in so doing it performs a valuable service, which is to extricate the way the U.S. government is waging war in Iraq from the veil of patriotic rhetoric with which it has clothed itself.

Greenwald offers an exercise in sustained fury that convincingly arrives at one ineluctable conclusion: American citizens are not being served by the policies of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq. As one interviewee puts it, “It’s corrupting and it’s corrosive. Their greed goes against our grain.”

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