If tomorrow Dick Cheney were to sprout red horns, a spiked tail, and the mark of the beast on his forehead, would anyone really be surprised? Wouldn’t our reaction be more akin to when Lance Bass or Rosie O’Donnell finally, publicly announced they were gay? (“Oh. Sure. Of course.”)
On one level, Robert Greenwald’s new film Iraq for Sale: the War Profiteers, elicits a similar reaction. Detailing the many crimes of corporations in the Iraq war—where increased strife means increased profits for Halliburton and friends—this 75-minute documentary is more confirming than surprising.
But that’s just one level of reaction, and truthfully, it’s the level we need to avoid lingering in: the placid cynic, the sad, wearied Good Guy. The liberal-arts-educated bleeding-heart who recognizes the equation Big Corporations = Evil Greedy Warmongers is as obvious as Dick Cheney = The Devil and 2 + 2 = 4.
Yes, yes—the world is going to hell in a Halliburton hand-basket. Ho-hum.
Cynicism is a corollary to sanity these days, no doubt, but it can only take us so far. And in a time of war, it is simply not good enough.
So when you sit down to watch Iraq for Sale—and you must—check your unruffled pessimism at the door. Wipe the sad-clown look off your face and wake the fuck up: this movie should enrage the hell out of you.
Iraq for Sale begins with a simple statement of fact: the Iraq war has been privatized to a greater extent than any war in history, i.e., anything and everything the government used to do in wartime is now being done by private companies. Services like laundry, food, housing, tank and helicopter repair, trucking, security, translation, and interrogation (yes, interrogation)—all have been contracted out to corporations, many of whom, the film argues, have leveraged enormous power on Capitol Hill through campaign contributions, cronyism, and what retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Petes calls, “the moral equivalent of insider trading.”
The result of all this? Business booms. War booms. Profit is prioritized over human life. America’s international reputation suffers. Civilian workers die. As Iraq for Sale goes on to detail, the moral implications, political damages, and human costs of this massive privatization experiment are as staggering as the big corporations’ ever-inflating bottom lines.
Claims on the short-list of atrocities perpetrated by the many corporate entities in Iraq: feeding the troops contaminated water and expired food; making them live in moldy tents that spur airborne respiratory infections (while contracting executives are put up in luxury suites); forcing troops to train contractors who eventually take over that soldier’s job, and do it less proficiently; price-gouging the US taxpayer with $45 six-packs of Coke and $100 laundry bills, and rigging the whole deal with a “spend more/make more” business strategy that has soldiers blowing up brand new $80,000 big rigs merely because they have a flat and no spare to change it.
But it gets worse. Much worse.
Among the estimated 100,000 private contractors working in Iraq, Iraq for Sale singles out three giants, and scrutinizes a handful of the personal tragedies left in their wake: Halliburton, Blackwater and CACI (pronounced “khaki”).
Let’s start with the Big Boy. With a US Vice President as their former CEO and over $18.5 billion in Iraq contracts, Halliburton is huge. Its name is now as recognizable as any in the northern hemisphere. But what about the name Tony Johnson? Steve Hulett? These are names of two civilian employees that Halliburton—through woeful negligence driven by calculated risks for the sake of profit—killed. The ubiquitous Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) hired both civilian truck drivers, Johnson and Hulett. Lured by six figures and the chance to help their country, the men signed up for short stints as drivers hauling fuel and supplies in Iraq. In the spring of 2004, their trucks were among a convoy that was ambushed on a “red road,” one closed to civilians due to high levels of danger. The day was April 9—the Christian holiday of Good Friday and the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. It was a day of obvious danger. Yet Halliburton/KBR sent them out in camouflage-painted trucks without weapons, without armor. The men didn’t even know what a “red road” was.
“KBR . . .” says a former contract truck driver in the film who survived the ambush, “Kill, Bag, Replace people.”
What Halliburton/KBR is to logistics in Iraq, Blackwater is to security. Private security is the second-largest armed presence in Iraq, outstripping the Brits and everybody else, and Blackwater is the biggest. The North Carolina firm was hired, to the tune of $21 million, to provide protection for former Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance Paul Bremer. Among the firm’s employees were Scott Helveston and Jerry Zovko. Both were killed in Fallujah, where they’d been sent in an unarmored vehicle, short-manned, into an almost certain death.
“The most dangerous setting on Earth. No rear gunman, no armored vehicle, not even a map,” Helveston’s mother says in the film. “That, to me, is negligent homicide.”
Last but not least, Iraq for Sale targets CACI. This company won a $60 million blanket contract for unspecified “intelligence services,” and was later implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. At Abu Ghraib, 50 percent of the interrogators were private contractors—civilians hired by CACI and placed under minimal supervision, in an unclear chain of command, with zero accountability to the US government. The rest is history.
Iraq for Sale producer/director Robert Greenwald is known for taking a filmic sledgehammer to other corporate giants, like Wal-Mart and Fox News. The veteran filmmaker’s lunging bluntness is evident in Iraq for Sale, too, but it’s not a fault. His movies are low budget and high anger. They use alternate distribution techniques to spread the films grass-roots style. Greenwald is not out to revolutionize his art or his pocketbook, but to revolutionize the politics and power structures of this country, one DVD at a time.
So remember these names: Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater, CACI—the true axis of evil in Iraq. And remember to not just watch this movie, but to do something about it: give the DVD to someone else, take your anger to the voting booth, write a fucking letter to your congressperson—something. For immobilized contempt never saved a life, let alone a country.
Iraq for Sale screens as part of KUCR’s “Issues and Dialog” series at the Universalist Unitarian Church, 3657 Lemon St., Riverside, (951) 827-5827; www.iraqforsale.org. Sun., 6 p.m. Free.
"It was totally preventable. There was absolutely no reason for us to be there. And we had no knowledge, and one of the first things that came across my mind was, a soldier came up to me and said, ‘Who are you guys? What are you guys doing out there? . . . They own that road out there.’"
—Edward Sanchez, former KBR truck driver and survivor of the Good Friday Massacre
"Within the first day that I was in Iraq I started to see just incredible waste and compromised safety standards. Within the first few days I was questioning the company that I agreed to go work for."
—Ben Carter, former Haliburton water safety expert.
Carter eventually found the water being supplied to troops was severely contaminated. He notified his supervisors who barred him from notifying the military and senior company officials about the untreated water he found was being supplied to US servicemen. KBR’s indifference to the contaminated water led Ben Carter to resign. Since leaving Iraq he’s spoken out about Halliburton, testified before the Democratic Policy Committee and worked to warn soldiers of the dangers of contaminated water.
"The head guys and the managers were staying in villas, townhouses, other exclusive places. And then they started moving us out of the base and into these villas, too. I mean, marble floors, mahogany woodwork—it was just beautiful, two living rooms, TV, the whole nine yards, catered food, BBQ’s once a week. We’d rent wave runners and go out and play in the water . . . "
—James Logsdon, former KBR truck driver
“I got that picture real early on that they got two classes of people in their eyes—the working class, the expendable lesser lives and then the upper class, which is in admin.”
—Stewart Scott, former labor foreman, KBR
"When I saw the military recruiters on my campus I thought that this would be an interesting change of pace. I thought I would take that semester off for training and kind of get out of my immediate situation and do something different."
—Aidan Delgado, SPC Army Reserve
" . . . everyone was getting sick. We were in these bunk beds so the person in the top bunk often was maybe a couple feet or a foot from this moldy tent and people were getting sick so it wasn’t even that it was gross to smell it, it was that it was unhealthy—and who’s getting paid for putting that tent up? You know, probably Kellogg, Brown and Root."
—Kelly Dougherty, 220th Military Police, National Guard