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US MILITARY'S EXPANDING WAISTLINE What will Obama do with KBR?
By Pratap Chatterjee
President Barack 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 United States
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, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root and once
a subsidiary of Halliburton.
If 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 former vice-president Dick
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 once 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 the September 11, 2001 attacks, 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 alleged 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 11-story building at the far corner of Crystal
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, million-dollar alleged 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
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 20 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 US Army, all they got was a
14-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 truck
drivers who make the dangerous 12-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 25 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".
Privatizing the US Army
KBR has grossed more than $25 billion since it won a 10-year contract in late
2001 to supply US troops in combat situations around the world. As of April
2008, the company estimated that it had served more than 720 million meals,
driven more than 400 million miles on various convoy missions, treated 12
billion gallons of potable water, and produced more than 267 million tons of
ice for those troops. These staggering figures are testimony to the role KBR
has played in supporting the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other
countries targeted in former president George W Bush's "global war on terror".
And in the first days of the new Obama administration, the company continues to
win contracts. On January 28, 2009, KBR announced that it had been awarded a
$35.4 million contract by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the design and
construction of a convoy support center at Camp Adder in Iraq. The center will
include a power plant, an electrical distribution center, a water purification
and distribution system, a waste-water collection system, and associated
information systems, along with paved roads, all to be built by KBR.
How did the US military become this dependent on one giant company? Well, this
change has been a long time coming. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, a
consortium of four companies led by the Texas construction company Brown &
Root (the B and R in KBR) built almost every military base in South Vietnam.
That, of course, was when Lyndon B Johnson, a Texan with close ties to the
Brown brothers, was president. In 1982, two years into Ronald Reagan's
presidency, Brown & Root struck gold again. It won lucrative contracts to
build a giant US base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a former
In 1985, General John A Wickham drew up plans to streamline logistics work on
military bases under what he dubbed the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program
(LOGCAP), but his ideas would remain in a back drawer for several years. In the
meantime, Dick Cheney, as secretary of defense in the administration of the
elder George Bush, loosed the American military on Iraq in the First Gulf War
in 1991, and hired hundreds of separate contractors to provide logistics
The uneven results of this early privatizing effort left military planners
frustrated. By the time Cheney left office, he had asked Brown & Root to
dust off the Wickham LOGCAP plan and figure out how to consolidate and expand
the contracting system.
President Bill Clinton's commanders took a harder look at the new plan that
Brown & Root had drawn up and liked what they saw. In 1994, that company
was hired to build bases in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, as well as to take over
the day-to-day running of those bases in the middle of a war zone.
By the time Donald Rumsfeld took over as secretary of defense under the younger
George Bush, he had embraced the revolution that Wickham had begun, and Clinton
and Cheney had