Plowshares into Profits

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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