Privatizing the military

Another bit of change we’re not going to see in the Obama administration is the Pentagon’s contracts with the former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, despite massive charges of waste, fraud and abuse. One is a class action lawsuit by sick veterans who say KBR was responsible for untreated drinking water and toxic smoke from polluted burn pits, as well as at least one soldier who was electrocuted in a shoddy base shower built by KBR contractors; KBR denies these allegations.

KBR’s connections with government go way back.  The founders of one of the parent companies, the brothers George R. Brown and Herman Brown and their brother-in-law Daniel Root, were the political sponsors of Lyndon Johnson.  Brown & Root was in financial trouble because it undertook to build a dam on land that it turned out the government did not own and which the Bureau of Reclamation has no authorization to approve.  The company financed Lyndon Johnson’s 1938 campaign for Congress so that he could get the law changed, which he did.  Brown & Root continued to sponsor Johnson, and he continued to use his influence to get them contracts and protect them from government investigations.

Halliburton Energy Services absorbed Brown & Root in 1962.  Richard Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton with zero apparent qualifications in between being Secretary of Defense and Vice President. Several years ago Halliburton spun off KBR as an independent company.

But KBR has gone beyond needing political influence for its no-bid contracts.  They say they are the only company with the capability to do the work that they do, and they have worked themselves into a position where this is true.   There are more employees of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which KBR is by far the largest, than there are U.S. uniformed military, and the Department of Defense does not have the manpower to replace them. Because of the position KBR has carved out over the years, there is no alternate bidder waiting in the wings.

We as a nation made a decision a long time ago that we would have a professional army rather than a citizen army.  I have great respect for the career military; it is they who by and large have fought and brought to light the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.  But the size of a professional military is limited by the number of volunteers who can be recruited.  Our government’s military ambitions – maintaining a worldwide network of bases, pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan – exceed those limits.  So we have to depend on private contractors who are not subject to military discipline and who are motivated by profit as much as patriotism.  This will not change until we reduce the scope of those ambitions.

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