What Will Obama Do With KBR?
President Obama will almost certainly touch down in Baghdad and Kabul in Air Force One sometime in the coming year to meet his counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he will just as certainly pay a visit to a US military base or two. Should he stay for breakfast, lunch, dinner or midnight chow with the troops, he will no less certainly choose from a menu prepared by migrant Asian workers under contract to Houston-based KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton.
If Barack Obama takes the Rhino Runner armor-plated bus from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone, or travels by Catfish Air's Blackhawk helicopters (the way mere mortals like diplomats and journalists do), instead of by presidential chopper, he will be assigned a seat by US civilian workers easily identified by the red KBR lanyards they wear around their necks.
Even if Obama gets the ultra-red carpet treatment, he will still tread on walkways and enter buildings that have been constructed over the last six years by an army of some 50,000 workers in the employ of KBR. And should Obama chose to order the troops in Iraq home tomorrow, he will effectively sign a blank check for billions of dollars in withdrawal logistics contracts that will largely be carried out by a company once overseen by Dick Cheney.
Questions for the Pentagon
If Obama wants to find out why KBR civilian workers can be found in every nook and cranny of US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, he might be better off visiting the Rock Island Arsenal in western Illinois. It's located on the biggest island in the Mississippi River, the place where Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk nation was born. The arsenal's modern stone buildings house the offices of the US Army Materiel Command from which KBR's multibillion dollar Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program contract (LOGCAP) have been managed for the last seven years. This is the mega-contract that has, since September 11, 2001, generated more than $25 billion for KBR to set up and manage military bases overseas (and resulted, of course, in thousands of pages of controversial news stories about the company's war profiteering).
Even more conveniently, Obama could pop over to KBR's Crystal City government operations headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, just a mile south of the Pentagon and five miles from the White House. On Crystal City Drive just before Ronald Reagan National airport, it's hard to miss the KBR corporate logo, those gigantic red letters on the eleven-story building at the far corner of Crystal Park.
Many people who know something about KBR's role in Iraq and Afghanistan might want Obama to question the military commanders at Rock Island and the corporate executives in Arlington about the shoddy electrical work, unchlorinated shower water, overcharges for trucks sitting idle in the desert, deaths of KBR employees and affiliated soldiers in Iraq, alleged million-dollar bribes accepted by KBR managers and billions of dollars in missing receipts, among a slew of other complaints that have received wide publicity over the last five years.
But those would be the wrong questions.
Obama needs to ask his Pentagon commanders this: Can the US military he has now inherited do anything without KBR?
And the answer will certainly be a resounding no.
Keeping a Volunteer Army Happy
Tim Horton is the head of public relations for Logistical Supply Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, the biggest US base in that country. He was a transportation officer for twenty years and has a simple explanation for why the army relies so heavily on contractors to operate facilities today:
"What we have today is an all-volunteer army, unlike in a conscription army when they had to be here. In the old army, the standard of living was low, the pay scale was dismal; it wasn't fun; it wasn't intended to be fun. But today we have to appeal, we have to recruit, just like any corporation, we have to recruit off the street. And after we get them to come in, it behooves us to give them a reason to stay in."
Even in 2003, the US military was incredibly overstretched. For the Bush administration to go to war then, it needed an army of cheap labor to feed and clean up after the combat troops it sent into battle. Those troops, of course, were young US citizens raised in a world of creature comforts. Unlike American soldiers from their parents' or grandparents' generations who were drafted into the military in the Korean or Vietnam eras and ordered to peel potatoes or clean latrines, the modern teenager can choose not to sign up at all.
As Horton points out, the average soldier gets an average of $100,000 worth of military training in four years; if he or she then doesn't re-enlist, the military has to spend another $100,000 to train a replacement. "What if we spend an extra $6,000 to get them to stay and save the loss of talent and experience?" Horton asks. "What does it take to keep the people? There are some creature comforts in this Wal-Mart and McDonald's society that we live in that soldiers have come to expect. They expect to play an Xbox, to keep in touch by e-mail. They expect to eat a variety of foods."
A quarter-century ago, when Horton joined the Army, all they got was a fourteen-day rotational menu. "We had chili-mac every two weeks, for crying out loud. What is that? Unstrained, low-grade hamburger mixed with macaroni. Lot of calories, lots of fat, lots of starch, that's what a soldier needs to do his job. When you were done, you had a heart attack."
Today, says Horton, expectations are different. "Our soldiers need to feel and believe that we care about them, or they will leave. The Army cannot afford to allow the soldier to be disenfranchised."
When I visited with him in April 2008, Horton took me to meet Michael St. John of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the chief warrant officer at one of Anaconda's dining facilities. St. John led me on a tour of the facility, pointing out little details of which he was justly proud--like the fresh romaine lettuce brought up from Kuwait by Public Warehousing Corporation (PWC) truck drivers who make the dangerous twelve-hour journey across the desert, so that KBR cooks have fresh and familiar food for the troops. Stopping at the dessert bar St. John explained, "We added blenders to make milkshakes, microwaves to heat up apple pie, and waffle bars with ice cream." The "healthy bar" was the next stop. "Here," he pointed out, "we offer baked fish or chicken breast, crab legs, or lobster claws or tails."
"Contractors here do all the work," St. John added. He explained that he had about twenty-five soldiers and six to eight KBR supervisors to oversee 175 workers from a Saudi company named Tamimi, feeding 10,000 people a day and providing take-away food for another thousand.
"They do everything from unloading the food deliveries to taking out the trash. We are hands-off. Our responsibility is military oversight: overseeing the headcount, ensuring that the contractors are providing nutritional meals and making sure there are no food-borne illnesses. It's the only sustainable way to get things done, given the number of soldiers we have to feed."
Horton chimes in: "I treat myself to an ice-cream cone once a week. You know what that is? It's a touch of home, a touch of sanity, a touch of civilization. The soldiers here do not have bars; all that is gone. You've taken the candy away from the baby. What do you have to give him? What's wrong with giving him a little bit of pizza or ice cream?"
Between a chili-mac military and a pizza-and-ice-cream military, the difference shows--around the waistline. Sarah Stillman, a freelance journalist with the website TruthDig, tells a story she heard about a PowerPoint slide that's becoming popular in Army briefings: "Back in 2003, the average soldier lost fifteen pounds during his tour of Iraq. Now, he gains ten."
Stillman says that the first warning many US troops receive here in Baghdad isn't about IEDs (improvised explosive devices), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or even EFPs (explosively formed projectiles). It's about PCPs: "pervasive combat paunches."