Chatterjee, Pratap. Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. New York: Nation Books, 2009. Pp. xvi + 284. Hardcover, $26.95.
Halliburton, through its former subsidiary KBR, handled a large portion of the logistics of the building and supplying of bases, for the Iraq war. The bases in question are luxurious, with extravagant meals, and for the cost to taxpayers they should be. An Army officer explains; “How else can a volunteer army be retained?” Meal preparation and housekeeping—picking up after the soldiers—is managed by the corporation and actually done by so-called “Third Country Nationals,” from the Philippines, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Hiring local people was deemed too dangerous. Not surprisingly, Halliburton collected major profits from their contracts. The out-sourcing strategy described was developed and promoted by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, before Cheney became President of Halliburton. The justification, of course, is that it makes no sense to have trained army recruits working in the kitchen or painting barracks. In any case, Rumsfeld was committed in principle to a lean Army, and Third Country Nationals can be paid a prevailing Third World wage, much lower than that of a US soldier. Much of the book is about waste and purported fraud, undoubtedly promoted by sole source bidding and cost-plus-fixed-fee contracts. Beyond the cost, the situation on the ground appears to have gotten out of control: trafficking of those Third Country Nationals, civilian drivers sent into combat sites without protection, and female employees being raped are among the most visible symptoms. The book, however, makes it difficult to understand exactly what happened because many sections consist of a fairly detailed allegation of a wrong committed by Halliburton or KBR followed by a one paragraph response from a company spokesperson disputing the claim. A recurrent theme is the people working for Halliburton/KBR; who, given a choice, would want to work in battle-torn Iraq? Many who went did not have a real choice. This is not a pretty story. It does show the military-industrial complex at its worst—who in the government wants to take on a corporation formerly lead by the Vice-President of the United States, especially one staffed in many cases by former colleagues? It also shows the new model for the military, ceding essential logistics to civilian companies, just as weapons development and manufacturing are. A final lesson, already well publicized, is that things in a distant battleground can get very bad without effective oversight. A different, I presume more positive, book could have been written about how Halliburton actually did get those bases built quickly, in a difficult place, with a difficult staff.