Page 2 of 2 The US military's expanding
waistline What will Obama do with KBR?
By Pratap Chatterjee
implemented. At a Pentagon event on the morning of September 10, 2001, one day
before three aircraft struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Rumsfeld
identified the crucial enemy force his assembled senior staff would take on in
the coming years:
The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat,
a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. This
adversary is one of the world's last bastions of central planning. It governs
by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to
impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans, and beyond. With
brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts
the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in
uniform at risk. You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit
dictators of the world. The adversary's closer to home. It's the Pentagon
We must ask tough questions. Why is DOD [Department of Defense] one of the last
organizations around that still cuts its own checks? When an entire industry
exists to run warehouses efficiently, why do we own and operate so many of our
own? At bases around the world, why do we pick up our own garbage and mop our
own floors, rather than contracting services out, as many businesses do?
He outlined a series of steps to slash headquarter staffs by 15% in the two
years to come and promised even more dramatic changes to follow. While the
invasion of Afghanistan the following month was conducted by military
personnel, Rumsfeld's ideas started to be implemented in the spring of 2002.
Indeed, the building of bases in Kuwait in the fall of 2002 for the coming
invasion of Iraq was handled almost entirely by KBR.
Today, there is one KBR worker for every three US soldiers in Iraq - and the
main function of these workers, under LOGCAP, is to build base infrastructure
and maintain them by doing all those duties that once were considered part of
military life - making sure that soldiers are fed, their clothes washed, and
their showers and toilets kept clean.
While many stories have been written about the $80,000 annual salaries earned
by KBR truck drivers, most of the company's workers make far less, mainly
because they are hired from countries like India and the Philippines where
starting salaries of $300 a month are considered a fortune.
Outsourcing the kitchen patrol
The majority of KBR's labor force, some 40,000 workers (the equivalent of about
80 military battalions), are "third country nationals" drawn largely from the
poorer parts of Asia. In April 2008, I flew to Kuwait city where I spent time
with a group of Fijian truck drivers who worked for a local company, PWC, doing
subcontracting work for KBR.
My host was Titoko Savuwati from Totoya Lau, one of the Moala Islands in Fiji.
He picked me up one evening in a small white Toyota Corolla rental car. The
cranked-up sound system was playing American country favorites and oldies.
Six-feet-tall with broad, rangy shoulders, short-cropped hair, and a goatee,
Savuwati had been a police officer in Fiji. He was 50 years old and had left at
home six children he hadn't seen in four years. When he got out of his car, I
noticed that he had a pronounced limp and dragged one foot ever so slightly
We joined his friends at his apartment for a simple Anglican prayer service.
Deep baritone voices filled the tiny living room with Fijian hymns before they
sat down to a meal of cassava and curried chicken parts and began to tell me
Each had made at least 100 dangerous trips, driving large 18-wheeler
refrigeration trucks that carry all manner of goodies destined for US soldiers
from Kuwaiti ports to bases like LSA Anaconda. They slept in their trucks, not
being allowed to sleep in military tents or trailers along the way.
Savuwati had arrived in Kuwait on January 14, 2005, as one of 400 drivers,
hoping to earn $3,000 a month. Instead, his real pay, he discovered, was 175
Kuwaiti dinar (KWD) a month (US$640), out of which he had to pay for all his
food and sundries, even on the road, as well as rent. Drivers were given an
extra 50 dinar ($183) allowance on each trip to Iraq.
"I came to Iraq because of the large amount of money they promised me," he
said, sighing. "But they give us very little money. We've been crying for more
money for many months. Do you think my family can survive on fifty KWD?" He
sends at least 100 dinars ($365) home a month and has no savings that would pay
for a ticket home at a round-trip price of roughly $2,500.
I did a quick calculation. For every trip, if they worked the 12-hour shifts
expected of them, the Fijians earned about $30 a day, or $2.50 an hour. I asked
Savuwati about his limp. On a trip to Nasariyah in 2005, he told me, his truck
flipped over, injuring his leg. Did he get paid sick leave? Savuwati looked
incredulous. "The company didn't give me any money. When we are injured, the
company gives us nothing." But, he assured me, he had been lucky - a number of
fellow drivers had been killed on the job.
The next day, I stopped by to see the Fijians again, and Savuwati gave me a
ride home. I offered to pay for gasoline and, after first waving me away, he
quickly acquiesced. As he dropped me off, he looked at me sheepishly and said,
"I've run out of money. Do you think you could give me one KWD [$3.65] for
lunch?" I dug into my pocket and handed the money over. As I walked away, I
thought about how ironic it was that the men who drove across a battle zone,
dodging stones, bullets, and IEDs to bring ice cream, steak, lobster tails, and
ammunition to US soldiers, had to beg for food themselves.
This, of course, is the real face of the American military today, though it's
never seen by Americans.
Pentagon commanders often speak of a "revolution in military affairs" when
summing up the technological advances that allow them to stalk enemies by
satellite, fire missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles, and protect US soldiers
with night-vision goggles, but they rarely explain the social and logistical
changes that have accompanied this revolution.
Today, US soldiers are drawn from a video-game culture that embraces computers
on the battlefield, even as the US Army bears ever less relation to the draft
armies that did the island hopping in the Pacific in World War II or fought
jungle battles in Vietnam. Indeed, the personnel that Obama will soon visit in
Iraq and Afghanistan is generally supplied with hot food and showers around the
clock in combat zones in the same way they might be on a Stateside base - by
workers like Savuwati.
Undoubtedly, an Obama administration could begin to cut some of the notorious
fat out of the contracts that make that possible, including multi-million
dollar overcharges. Obama's potential budget trimmers could, for example, take
whistleblowers inside KBR and the Pentagon seriously when they report
malfeasance and waste.
But could Obama dismiss KBR's army, even if he wanted to? Will Obama really be
willing to ask American volunteer soldiers to give up the bacon, romaine
lettuce, and roast turkey that they have come to expect in a war zone? And even
if he could do so, those are only the luxuries.
Keep in mind that, on US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, every single item, from
beans to bullets, is shipped using contractors like PWC of Kuwait and Maersk of
Denmark. In the last two decades, the US military has even divested itself of
the hardware and people that would allow it to move tanks around the world,
relying instead on contractors to do such work.
The White House website states that "Obama and Biden support plans to increase
the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000 Marines.
Increasing our end strength will help units retrain and re-equip properly
between deployments and decrease the strain on military families."
As part of the same policy statement, the site claims the new administration
will reform contracting by creating "transparency for military contractors," as
well as restoring "honesty, openness, and commonsense to contracting and
procurement" by "rebuilding our contract officer corps".
Nowhere, however, does that website suggest that the new administration will
work toward ending, or even radically cutting back, the use of contractors on
the battlefield, or that those 92,000 new soldiers and Marines are going to
fill logistics battalions that have been decimated in the last two decades.
What we already know of the military policies of the new administration
suggests instead that President Obama wants to expand US military might. So
don't be surprised if the new LOGCAP contract, a $150 billion 10-year program
that began on September 20, 2008, remains in place, with some minor tinkering
around the edges to provide value for taxpayer money.
KBR's army, it seems, will remain on the march.
Pratap Chatterjee is the author of Halliburton's Army: How A
Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War.
He is the managing editor of CorpWatch.