Saving Private Profit: The Outsourcing of War

In July of 2000, yachtsmen who were deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic Ocean might have been surprised to see a Canadian transport ship, loaded with soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers, more than 300 containers of ammunition and other valuable military equipment, steaming in lazy circles, going nowhere. The Katie, the ship in question, wasn’t owned by the Canadian government, nor was it operated by the Canadian Navy. It was being sailed by a “P.M.F.”-or private military firm.

P.W. Singer, in Corporate Warriors (Cornell University Press, 2003)-a book that I cannot recommend too highly-writes that “due to a financial dispute between two subcontracting agents, the ship began sailing around in circles outside of Canadian waters. Until the matter was resolved, the ship refused to make the delivery, essentially holding about one third of the entire Canadian army’s equipment and soldiers hostage. The standoff lasted for almost two weeks, during which time this sizable chunk of the Canadian military’s inventory was unavailable, solely because its leadership had privatized transportation to save a minimal amount.”

The American military is in similar shape. It can neither move itself nor supply itself unless serviced by gigantic private corporations on which it depends for thousands of indispensable functions. Food, water purification, electrical generation, construction of roads, bridges, mail delivery, medical services, land-mine clearance, communications and scores of other tasks are no longer done by the American military, but are jobbed out to multinational corporations which, in turn, job them out to subcontractors.

Even the Reserve Officers Training Corps, found on hundreds of college campuses, is no long run by service personnel but by the employees of contractors who wear Army uniforms but are not subject to military discipline. Some of the most advanced, technically complicated weapons in the American military are being maintained by private contractors. “The maintenance and administration,” Mr. Singer writes, “for such strategic weapons as the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-117 stealth fighter, the KC-10 refueling aircraft, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and numerous naval surface warfare ships are all privatized.”

Elsewhere, Mr. Singer writes of “the reversal of long-standing weapons purchasing requirements. The mandate once held that the military had to be able to achieve self-sufficiency in maintaining and operating new weapons systems within 12 months of their introduction. The new norm, however, is that instead of the military planning to do the job itself, weapons systems’ contracts generally include service elements, detailing civilian-provided lifetime technical support.” Thus, the United States military is in a situation not dissimilar to a poverty-stricken African kleptocracy, which swaps diamonds or oil for modern war machinery that would rot and fall to pieces without the personnel to maintain and operate it.

When a soldier does substandard work or fails in his duty, he or she is punished-and rightly so, since dereliction and incompetence can bring on death and disaster. When a private contractor fails-and they do-lives may be lost, but there is little the government can do other than sue. To save money, P.M.F.’s cut costs by scrimping on quality and competence. Mr. Singer gives an example that should scare the hell out of the men and women on active duty with the armed services:

“DynCorp’s contract with the U.S. military for aviation support is an egregious example of such cutting corners with staffing. Among the personnel the firm reportedly assigned to the maintenance of U.S. combat aircraft were employees whose only previous work experience was as waitresses, security guards, cooks and cashiers. As one DynCorp mechanic working on the contract writes, ‘We have people working on aircraft with absolutely no aviation experience nor ground-equipment skills.'” Mr. Singer tells his readers that there is reason to believe that an unknown number of service people have died in air accidents resulting from faulty private-sector maintenance. So the question arises: Who is killing more of our people in Iraq? Iraqi guerrillas? Or Halliburton, through its Brown and Root Services subsidiary? Are the answers to those questions bound up in the vague, perfunctory and unsatisfactory investigations of the death of our service people by the Pentagon?

The objections to “outsourcing” national defense and safety are so many and so grave that it takes a book like Mr. Singer’s to adequately cover them all. But for starters, Mr. Singer reports there is no evidence that outsourcing is less expensive than keeping the work inside the government. Even when there is competitive bidding for these multibillion-dollar contracts, it’s pretty much of a joke. At best, the process of awarding contracts should be looked upon as a competitive divvying-up of the boodle. Who awards these contracts? Generals and connected politicians. Who heads the companies who get the contracts? Ex-generals. Thus, every official handing out the bonbons is a future employee of bonbonees.

Nor is there any evidence that P.M.F.’s do the work-i.e., defend the nation-better than the armed services, and a lot of reason to believe that they make the country not only more vulnerable to attack, but to defeat. I repeat: vulnerable to defeat . P.M.F. personnel have taken the place of what were once rear-echelon support troops who sometimes have been called upon to drop their soup ladles and screwdrivers and grab their weapons. Mr. Singer points out that this is what happened at the Battle of the Bulge, as well as what happened 50 years later to American forces at Mogadishu in Somalia.

In such critical moments, do the contractor or subcontractor employees-an unknown number of whom are not Americans-fight? Or do they say “We quit!” and run for the exits? Contractors are not subject to being shot for deserting their posts. It must be a morale booster to our fighting forces to have a bunch of civilians in their rear telling them, perhaps not even in English, “I got your back.”

In this connection, it must be emphasized that these commercial warriors do not take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution; they are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Discipline. These people are not in the battle area for reasons of patriotism, love of country, or dedication to freedom and democracy. They are there for the money. If, at any moment, the danger outweighs the money, they will bolt and run, betraying our people and causing their deaths.

Speaking about the morale of our people, what happens as it gradually dawns on our young men and women that they are being paid one-tenth of what the mercenaries around them are getting?

Private military firms are global and, though some of them may have their origins in the United States, they have no loyalty to it. Mr. Singer offers examples of subsidiaries of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton working for “rogue regimes” like Libya “in violation of U.S. Government sanctions.” Which comes first, country or free market? The motive of the men running these companies is profit, not patriotism. They are traitors by the very definition of their institutional situation. They don’t even have an incentive to do their work well and quickly-after all, the longer the war, the bigger the profits. Thus, to Halliburton and the other companies involved in the work, our current war on terrorism has turned out to be the Comstock Lode. In the last few years-during both the Clinton and Bush II administrations-these companies have been awarded well over $300 billion in contracts.

This doesn’t begin to cover the objections to privatizing the military. The practice allows the government to hire private armies to do things that Congress has forbidden the official army to do. Such seems to be the case in the ever-worsening nightmare in Colombia. Since these companies are staffed by personnel trained at great public expense, the heaviest costs are borne by the taxpayers-not the P.M.F.’s, who simply get the profit. Yet another objection is that the companies are not only putting American military know-how at the service of others, they are also transferring military technology to people who may, in the not too distant future, use it against us.

Finally, and most seriously of all, violence must be a government monopoly. It is intolerable to think of private parties having any control over armed forces and police in a democracy. Yet they now do in America. Without the cooperation of the “War-Marts,” as they are sometimes called, the American military cannot fly, sail or march. We have made it much easier than ever before to pull off some kind of coup d’etat, and I don’t put it past the neocon elements to contemplate such a thing if the wrong Democrat were to find a way to get elected to the Presidency.