Even for those of you who didn’t watch the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, it will probably come as no surprise that the biggest, loudest, stompingest applause lines were those braying for our “heroes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The assembled Congressional pooh bahs couldn’t cheer hard enough or long enough to demonstrate their appreciation, and of course, their conspicuous patriotism in supporting those who defend the ‘homeland.’ To cap it off, the Republican response was delivered by a plastic female clone named Senator Joni Ernst, who wasted no time informing us that besides wearing plastic bread bags on her shoes (just a poor Iowa girl like us), she had served for twenty-three years in the Iowa National Guard, with time in Iraq. Ergo, a woman and a super patriot to boot.
Listening to all this, one would think that these hyper-nationalists would be falling all over themselves to demonstrate that not a single fighting hero would ever be abandoned by those sending them into danger. But one would be wrong. Just consider some of the cases found in NY Times reporter James Risen’s latest book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2014). What Risen reveals leads once again to astonishment and nausea at how truly scandalous was the conduct of that war from phony start to phony finish. The main point Risen makes is that the whole thing, including all the ancillary boondoggles connected with the overall ‘war on terror,’ was about making money—huge bundles of it, including pallets of hundred-dollar bills amounting to billions shipped by the New York Federal Reserve to Iraq on huge transport planes to disappear down the corporate gold mine that was Iraq. Here is how Risen sums up this initial caper to allegedly shore up the nation that ‘shock and awe’ had destroyed:
Today, at least $11.7 billion of the approximately $20 billion the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] ordered sent to Iraq from New York is either unaccounted for or has simply disappeared (p. 19).
But though this colossal waste of cash is breathtaking (just think how many schools it could supply, how many hungry kids it could feed), at least it didn’t directly affect the safety of the troops fighting the war. Other boondoggles were not as kind. Consider the fact, well known for years now, that Vice President Cheney’s company, Halliburton, and its then subsidiary, KBR, were given essentially no-bid contracts to supply the military with all the services that, when I was in the army, were done by we soldiers ourselves. A regular part of the service was KP, or kitchen duty, which everyone dreaded. So were laundry units and special units performing all the services and supply functions that a huge army needs to function. Not any more. In today’s privatized military, regular soldiers don’t do KP or any other kind of duty, including building army bases; nor does anyone else in the military. It’s all contracted out to private companies. And why? Risen provides the answer in one sentence: “KBR was the company that allowed America to go to war without a draft…It was the company that made it possible to prosecute wars of choice” (p. 143). Its personnel, over 50,000 of them, actually outnumbered the British Army in Iraq. Having gotten the government contract to provide military services by making a suspiciously low bid to beat out Raytheon and Dyncorp, KBR has since billed the U.S. government for upwards of $39 billion, refusing to even provide documentation for its billing. Risen gives them the same label given to the big banks, too big to fail; and why can’t they fail? partly because they provided after-retirement jobs to all those generals who were supposed to be monitoring their work. It was this—KBR’s virtual untouchability, even concerning the shoddy and often unsubstantiated work it provided—that led to real harm to American soldiers.
Risen tells us the story of what happened at Joint Base Balad near Baghdad, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, staffed by about 36,000 troops and contractors. Among its other duties, KBR operated the open burn pit at Balad, burning as much as 250 tons of waste a day through 2009. The trouble was, KBR didn’t separate its waste; rather, it simply burned everything, “from plastic bottles and food trash to computers, ammunition, oil, paint, medical waste, solvents, dead animals, batteries, appliances, and reportedly even amputated human body parts” (145). Balad was only one of several hundred such pits KBR operated throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, their daily black smoke spewing so much toxic particulate matter throughout the war zone that living under the poison brew became part of daily life for American troops. The Centers for Disease Control eventually tried to survey the possible damage, giving epidemiologist Steve Coughlin the job. By 2012, Coughlin had found a clear correlation between veterans exposed to the burn pits and those who had been or were being treated for asthma or bronchitis. The evidence seemed to show that KBR’s burn pits had, in fact, damaged the lungs of American soldiers. Several other studies found evidence to support this conclusion. War lung injury began to join PTSD and brain injury as one of the common medical problems of the modern military, so much so that beginning in 2008, hundreds of veterans brought lawsuits against KBR, “seeking damages for their exposure to the burn pits in Iraq” (147).
The problem was, the VA (Veterans’ Administration) and of course KBR had powerful incentives not to find any linkage between burn pits and lung damage: if the VA found a linkage, then it would have to pay benefits to the vets who suffered from it. So the VA, according to Coughlin, suppressed the evidence he had compiled. When he called in the inspector general, his supervisors at the VA became more intransigent, at one point citing him for insubordination. Eventually, he succumbed to the stress, and resigned from the VA. Even more pointedly, KBR was fighting its liability on the legal front. In February 2013, a Maryland judge dismissed the veterans’ joint lawsuit against KBR because, he ruled, KBR was working on behalf of the U.S. government, and so “could not be held liable for the effects of its war-zone operations” (150). Though Coughlin eventually testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight, asserting that the VA had suppressed his evidence and manipulated data, at the time of Risen’s writing, Congress had done nothing; not even when one veteran, Timothy Lowery, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease after telling his son that he believed he had been poisoned by working in Iraq.
Nor were burn pits the only liability attributed to KBR. In early 2008, Ryan Maseth was taking a shower in his army quarters in Baghdad. What was routine became a tragedy: Maseth was electrocuted and died while showering. Army officials at first suggested to his mother, Cheryl Harris of Pittsburgh, that it was her son’s fault: they said he had taken an appliance into the shower with him. A bit later they said her son’s death was caused by loose electrical wiring hanging down near the shower. Cheryl Harris didn’t buy either story, and eventually found that KBR, who had built the facility (hiring the cheapest workers it could get) where her son had died, had failed to update and ground the electrical wiring there. The death was then attributed by officials in Iraq to negligent homicide. But when this report got to Washington DC, the army’s Criminal Investigations Command reversed the finding, and informed Mrs. Harris that the death of her son had been “accidental.” Cheryl Harris continued to fight for justice in her son’s death, but KBR has refused to settle, at last report petitioning for its case to be settled by the Supreme Court. What this has revealed to Harris is that KBR is virtually untouchable:
“After Ryan died…I was told by a military person [name withheld] that ‘KBR runs Iraq.’ Every ounce of my being didn’t want to believe that statement was true. Today, the CID confirmed that statement and I have an in-depth understanding of how KBR does run Iraq, and in a sense controls the US Army CID [U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command]” (p. 152).
This and other instances cited by James Risen (himself under subppoena by the Obama Administration for refusing to reveal his sources in a CIA case) indicates the real hypocrisy at play on the night of the President’s State of the Union. Civilian officials fall all over each other in their race to demonstrate their zeal to support the troops, to celebrate their bravery and heroism, to take photo ops in their company. But when it comes time to actually pay for the damage they initiated, to hold to account the insider corporations they have indemnified from any responsibility (large contributions from such corporations seem to trump responsibility), they are the first to seek the exits. And the poor vets who thought their sacrifices were appreciated find out, once again, that the martial music may blare when the public spotlight shines, but in the dark night of their suffering, they are left silent, betrayed, and alone.