Book Reviews

Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict

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Over the years, I’ve read a number of books on the private mercenary industry and the use of military contractors in the so-called “War on Terror.” Most often, these books have focused on one or two companies–for example Blackwater–and used them to draw conclusions about the industry as a whole.

Rolf Uesseler’s Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict takes a different approach and focuses on the industry as a whole and uses short case studies of specific companies in order to illustrate broader points. Instead of focusing solely on the “War on Terror” and the most recent wars of the United States, Uesseler takes a much broader view and looks at private military companies around the world. This may owe to the fact that the book was translated from German, but whatever the reason, it offers a welcome break from the typically U.S.-centered literature on the topic.

Uesseler examines how governments, intelligence agencies, private companies, warlords, drug cartels, and rebel groups have come to rely on private military companies to support a wide variety of activities. Private corporations use them to support resource extraction and to police sweatshops, states use them to prop up weak governments and enforce their rule, and intelligence agencies use them to facilitate illegal arms trades. States also use private military corporations to circumvent national laws. For example, a state can hire a private military contractor to fight a war or support one side in a war without needing to officially enter the conflict.

Through all of these activities, private military companies often operate in a legal gray area. The pursuit of profit is their main goal and all other concerns–including law–are often superseded by this goal. That is why in countries like Iraq we see mercenaries run amok–all the companies really care about is the constant flow of lucrative contracts. In many cases, there are no local laws that govern the conduct of mercenaries–as was initially the case in Iraq when they were granted immunity from prosecution–and the countries that send contractors often have little legal oversight of their activities. Moreover, in many cases private military companies subvert democratic notions and are able to conduct their activities with limited oversight and transparency.

In addition his examination of the contemporary activities of private military corporations, Uesseler also includes a brief overview of the historical evolution of mercenaries. He looks at their origins in Ancient Greece through the French Revolution when they largely went out of favor. However, with the end of the Cold War, they have experienced a resurgence. This resurgence is owed to many factors, among those Uesseler highlights a security vacuum with the collapse of the Cold War, conflicts in the Third World, a national energy policy in the United States that demands access to oil regardless of the cost, the increasingly technological orientation of warfare and militaries’ inability to keep up with the technological advances of the private sector, and similar technological gains in the intelligence sector.

Overall, Servants of War is one of the most comprehensive books on private military corporations. It’s very thorough and well-researched, and while that is good, it does make for reading that is a bit on the dry side of things. You will certainly walk away having learned a lot, but there are sure to be times when you wished the author wrote in a more engaging style. Nevertheless, it’s an important book that deserves to be read, especially by those who consider themselves anti-war.

Rolf Uesseler, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, (Soft Skull Press, 2008).

Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be

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The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be is the latest in a long line of books that make a case that progressive politics–and not conservative politics–have a long history of making positive change in the United States. In it, author Michael Lux–a Democratic strategist and former advisor to Bill Clinton–argues that conservatives have been on the “wrong side” of the issue since the United States’ founding.

In the opening sentence of his introduction, Lux writes that “American history consists of one long battle between the forces of reaction and the defense of wealth and power, on one hand, and the forces of progressivism and community, on the other.” It’s a thesis that makes sense if one looks at the history of the United States and Lux offers a number of examples through which he proves his assertion. He discusses the founding of the country and the discussions over how to organize government, the debate over slavery, the Bill of Rights, the right to vote, and other major debates in the country’s history. In each case, he identifies the “progressives”–for example those wanting to extend the right to vote to women–and the “conservatives”–those who sought to maintain the status quo.

Overall, Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be is a fairly simple book. It offers some basic historical arguments that counter the idea that the United States is and always has been a conservative country. They are the kind of arguments that you might share with your conservative, but somewhat sympathetic relative–nothing too detailed, but just enough to add some weight to what you might argue yourself. Often times, the arguments gloss over complex details and oversimplify, but that’s largely inevitable for any book that aims to cover such a broad period.

Unfortunately, while Lux simplifies history, I’d argue that he also repeatedly emphasizes the actions of politicians and “great thinkers” over those of the folks working on the grassroots to make the changes that he talks about possible. At times he does mention movements–for example the abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights movement–but he tends to over-emphasize the contributions of the leaders. He argues that progressive social change needs both a strong movement and strong progressive political leaders in the final chapter, but the emphasis is clearly on the leaders.

This isn’t too surprising, given that the back of the book contains blurbs by former Democratic Party politicians, strategists, and activists. In the final chapters, Lux makes it clear that he sees the history of progressive politics in the United States to be the history of the Democratic Party. He argues that Democrats have led–or perhaps responded to movements demanding–progressive changes over the years. While this is certainly true to an extent–Democrats are more “progressive” than Republicans–they have hardly been harbingers of radical change. Lux is willing to offer some minor criticisms of Democrats–they are too cautious and they have been unwilling to undertake bold political changes–but he is quite forgiving. He encourages people to support them even after he gives a fairly extensive critique of how they have failed repeatedly in recent years on major issues.

Overall, Lux’s book is pretty basic. Some of the historical arguments are interesting, but I didn’t really get too much out of it. More often than not, I found myself frustrated with the simplicity of the history. Lux’s book–if it was read widely by Democratic politicians and activists–might inspire some to take stronger stands, but I can’t imagine too many outside the party gaining much from his book. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States makes a more convincing case regarding the power of the left to make social change and does so in a far more inspiring manner.

Michael Lux, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, (Wiley, 2009).

The Nation Guide to the Nation

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For anyone that has traveled–or has browsed through bookstores–you’ve likely seen the large number of resources dedicated to publicizing tourist traps and offering the so-called “insider” information about any number of cities. The Nation Guide to the Nation takes that approach and highlights historical sites, projects, bookstores, and other places and events that would interest leftist travelers.

The book is divided into five sections–“Culture,” “The Media Gallery,” “Organize!,” “Goods and Services,” and “Social: Connecting”–that catalog a wide variety things pertaining to “the left” in the United States. In the introduction, the editors write that this book is for:

“People of the left-liberal-radical persuasion (the kind of people who read The Nation) who find themselves in some red state backwater hungering for kindred spirits, for community, for folks who’ll help them organize an antiwar rally or a fund-raiser or a peace march or a discussion group or a food co-op.”

That said–it certainly has the potential to deliver on its goals. Whether you are travelling and want to check out some new and inspiring projects (for example, food cooperatives, radical printers, or independent media centers) or wanting to find people in your own to work with, its resources are helpful. For the most part, they are organized logically using broad categories and then smaller categories to narrow down the listings even more. My only complaint is that it might have been easier to organize resources by state in some sections so that people could find out about new things in their own area. Nevertheless, the breadth of the listings are impressive–it contains projects of different political persuasions including anarchists, socialists, and more traditional liberals. Moreover, these projects cut across a wide variety of areas covering everything from organizing hubs to green architects. I’d say that while there are obviously some things left out that could have been added, the book largely succeeds in being a catalog of the left.

Even if you aren’t planning to go anywhere soon to check out new places, the book can be a helpful resource. It catalogs some of the best of the leftist websites on the Internet, indentifies organizations working for social change, and identifies places where you can purchase goods produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner. Reading about places in far away cities–or even interesting websites–could easily inspire readers to take on new projects in their own areas.

Overall, The Nation Guide to the Nation is a good introduction to left and progressive politics in the United States. From its exploration of art collectives to websites, the book lists a wealth of resources, a number of which are almost sure to be new to any reader who picks up the book regardless of how long they have been involved in leftist politics.

Richard Lingeman and the Editors of The Nation, The Nation Guide to the Nation, (Vintage, 2009).

Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11

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Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11

Activists and scholars have been arguing for years that negative representations of minorities in US-based commercial media has contributed to how the public perceives any group. The first feature film in the US, The Birth of A Nation, is a good example of the role that racist depictions of Blacks contributed to public lynching in the early part of the 20th century.

This is the fundamental argument that author Jack Shaheen has been making for years as it relates to media depictions of Arabs with his groundbreaking book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which documents how Hollywood has portrayed Arabs. Years later the book was made into a documentary and now Shaheen has written a sequel, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11.

Guilty is important on two levels. First, it tracks Arab depiction in Hollywood films and US entertainment TV shows since 9/11. These depictions since 9/11 have continued to disproportionately represent Arabs in a negative light, quite often as terrorists. Some examples that Shaheen looks at are the movies Click (2006), Final Destination 3 (2006), The Kingdom (2007), Team America (2004), and Transformers (2007).

Each of these films has stereotypical representation of Arabs, most often as terrorists with overt depictions of bearded sultans who are driven by lust and greed. In the movie Click there is a brief encounter with a wealthy Arab with the main characters in the film. An Arab actor does not play the Arab businessman and his White counterparts cannot pronounce his name. At one point the main character in the film says are you asking me to design an “Arabian hoochie house?” This brief exchange suggests that Arab men have no respect for women. In the movie Transformers, Arabs are helpless in the face of an alien invasion and must rely on the US military to protect them.

Shaheen also includes US television programming in his analysis of popular media depictions of Arabs since 9/11, since a similar pattern exists. In a chapter entitled “TV’s Arab-American Bogeyman,” the author demonstrates that Arab characters are depicted in very negative ways. The popular FOX network show 24 uses Arabs as terror suspects repeatedly and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has White wrestlers always beating an Arab wrestler named Hasan. One reason why these depictions contribute negative public perceptions of Arabs is because they never show “Arab American women and men doing what normal Americans do in their daily lives.”

The second reason why Guilty is an important book is because of how the author makes the link between these media stereotypes and the treatment of Arabs and Arab Americans in the real world. Shaheen always comes back to what these racist depictions of Arabs mean to everyday Arabs and Arab Americans, which is to say that hate crimes and discrimination have been on the rise since 9/11.

Guilty does an excellent job of weaving the actual treatment of Arab Americans in the US since 9/11 and how media depictions create a climate for this negative treatment. Anyone who wants to understand the relationship between media and racism would find this book valuable. Those who care about the civil rights of Arab Americans would do well to read this important and timely book.

Jack Shaheen, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11, (Olive Branch Press, 2008).

The Scavengers’ Manifesto

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Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson know that the United States is an incredibly wasteful society. They write, “The freedom to generate waste and not worry about what happens to it is what powers the economy.” As long as companies keep producing, waste will continue–waste that the adventurous can reclaim for their own needs.

In The Scavengers’ Manifesto Rufus and Lawson invite readers to explore the fringe world of scavenging. The authors share numerous examples of things they have found: furniture, home decorations, food, and even a working iPhone. They’ve been scavenging for years and argue that it can be a liberating experience. Aside from saving a lot of money, they write that scavenging has changed how they experience things–it’s made them more patient, made them more observant, and given their lives a sense of surprise and uncertainty that is often missing from the predictable routine of consumer capitalism.

To be sure, there is truth to what Rufus and Lawson write. Aside from their numerous examples, over the years I’ve subsided for long periods of time on food gleaned from dumpsters, groceries purchased with the bottle deposits from found bottles, and wild plants picked in parks. At various times, this very website has been updated from computer hardware that was scavenged in the trash. That said, there are plenty of options out there at a variety of different comfort zones.

The authors are right that many may be put off by dumpster diving and to those folks they offer a number of helpful tips: attend and organize clothing swaps, purchase your clothes second hand, attend lectures with receptions afterwards for free food (you might even learn something), yard sales, and other ideas. It mentions resources like FreeCycle (a community devoted to exchanging goods for free) and CraigsList. It makes a point to define scavenging in a broad sense, ostensibly to hook people on the idea. So, while I’m not sure that someone that cuts coupons and vows never to pay full price is really a “scavenger,” I do understand the logic of classifying them as such. They also include a twelve-point set of “commandments” for scavengers that helps to remove the association of scavenging with lawlessness. Rufus and Lawson argue that once you give it a chance, you will likely be hooked.

Unfortunately, the book is a little vague on the political reasons for scavenging. While it talks about the abundance of waste in the United States, in never really develops this into a full-blown critique of environmental destruction. Similarly, it never talks about how much food is wasted and the number of people that go hungry each day. For me, the political reasons have always motivated scavenging, as they have for many others that scavenge. The authors write a bit about the freegan movement (http://www.freegan.info)–an anti-consumerist philosophy that advocates scavenging and minimal corporate work–but they largely leave out the politics.

Overall, The Scavengers’ Manifesto is an intriguing book. Aside from practical tips, it offers a few chapters on how scavengers have been portrayed historically, a look at the spiritual aspects of scavenging, and even a somewhat tedious chapter on biology and scavenging.

For many, it will be eye-opening look into an incredibly wasteful society and what can be gleaned from this waste.

Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson, The Scavengers’ Manifesto, (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009).

Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City

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Last week, I read about a proposed urban farm project that purportedly would transform the vacant, abandoned lots that make up much of Detroit’s inner city. Businessman John Hantz wants the City of Detroit to donate the vacant property. Hantz envisions the farm as a “destination” for locally grown produce that creates jobs within the city. However, this venture makes no mention of neighborhood buy-in. Community gardeners there have their doubts. And, its proposed equestrian recreation area doesn’t seem targeted to the youth from nearby neighborhoods. So, I have to wonder, is this urban farm plan really saving grace for Detroit’s inner city or just one more way for capitalist white America to profit off the backs of Detroit’s poor, urban, African American residents?

A month ago, I might not have even raised this question. That was before I read Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City by Luke Bergmann. While a graduate student in anthropology, Bergman spent three years living in Detroit, studying incarcerated youth. His studies yielded more than a degree and a dissertation. He became deeply emotionally involved with several of the boys and their families.

Before telling the tales of two of these boys, Duke and Rodney, Bergmann provides the reader an excellent historical review of Detroit, from its founding more than 300 years ago through today. Today, Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. The freeways of the late 1940s and early 1950s bulldozed residential neighborhoods and black owned businesses. Fires spawned by the July 1967 Detroit Rebellion and subsequent urban renewal ventures destroyed the fabric of community even further.

Once a city of hope for African Americans (think Motown), Detroit now offers nothing but despair, as its urban residents as the system continues it pillage: law enforcement, the courts, the prison industrial complex and media-fueled consumerism continue to squeeze what profit they can from the people living here. On a personal level, the result is a heartbreaking, vicious cycle of poverty where the only means of survival is selling drugs and the only relief, using.

However, Bergmann finds that within this hopeless landscape, community does continue to connect. The center of connection is the neighborhood liquor stores, primarily owned by white, Chaldean Americans. Not only destinations for liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, these stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in the inner city. They also function as social hubs. And, while legal retail activities take place within, illegal drug sales take place right outside.

As Bergman tells the stories of Duke and Rodney, he does more than spin a good story–or make excuses for their “poor choices.” He shows why the choices they make are rationale reactions to the environment in which they live.

Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, says, “Luke Bergman sometimes risks life and limb to bring us firsthand the lives of young people who mainstream media and academic research have ignored–except for the occasional crime story or impersonal policy brief. Getting Ghost is a journey worth taking, though you may want to grab hold along the way.”

Luke Bergmann, Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City, (The New Press, 2008).

Che: A Graphic Biography

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I’ve never really read much about Che Guevara, but have always been curious about his life and politics. I’ve been interested due both to his iconic status–his image is everywhere–as well as his influence on the so-called “New Left” in the United States in the 1960s. Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography provides a quick-and-easy introduction to Guevara’s life that gives biographical details, historical context, and political analysis.

Che: A Graphic Biography helps to explain why Guevara has become a world renowned figure. Ultimately, Rodriguez concludes that Guevara’s celebrity status owes to his life becoming a symbol of standing up to U.S. imperialism. Before presenting that conclusion, Rodriguez describes the important chapters of Guevara’s life, discussing his tour of Latin America and the influence it had on his political development, his involvement in the Cuban revolution, his work spreading revolutionary politics in Africa and Latin America following the Cuban revolution, and his death while attempting to organize a revolution in Bolivia. Throughout this history, the book inevitably discusses the tension between Guevara and Cuba’s Marxism and the free-market capitalist ideology of the United States. It does a good job talking about how the United States sought to suppress revolutionary movements in Cuba and Latin America generally while also touching on Cuba’s attempts to forge alliances with Marxist governments around the world. If there is one downfall of the book, it is that Marxism is receives relatively little detailed exploration and that there is only limited critical assessment of Guevara’s politics.

While the book is short at around 100 pages and can’t get into all of the details of Guevara’s life and times, it more than makes up in it for its readability. For someone not terribly well versed in Latin American politics and history, the book successfully presents enough information to give a sense of what was happening while at the same time keeping the narrative flowing. Moreover, the brilliant illustrations present Guevara in a compelling light, making it easy to follow and breaking up the text for less than frequent readers.

The book also contains an essay by Sarah Seidman and Paul Buhle titled “Che Guevara, Image and Reality” that looks at the commodification of Guevara’s influence and his relationship to revolutionary politics. It looks at how Guevara influenced and was used by a variety of anti-imperialist movements while also providing a critical look at how his image has been used outside of its political context on a range of consumer products.

Overall, Che: A Graphic Biography is well worth reading for those curious about why Guevara has become such an iconic figure and for those interested in learning about revolutionary movements.

Spain Rodriguez, Che: A Graphic Biography, (Verso Books, 2008).

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

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This is part of Atlantic Monthly’s series: “Books that Changed the World” in which several different authors write biographies of influential books. I don’t know about the other books in the series, but this book was very short (144 pages). I was able to read through the whole thing in just a few days.

Wheen is also the author of a biography of Marx, and as with his biography of Marx, in his work on Das Kapital Wheen spends a lot of time making fun of Marx’s personality quirks, but ultimately comes down on Marx’s side on most of the issues.

Wheen blows up a lot of the mythology surrounding Marx on both sides by focusing on his all too human foibles (very much similar in tone to Mark Steel’s lectures on Karl Marx–viewable on Youtube here). Far from being a dedicated evil genius or a revolutionary Jesus Christ, Marx had a terrible time writing this book. He procrastinated endlessly, constantly lied to his publisher and his friends and told them it was almost finished when it wasn’t, and generally showed a remarkable inability to just buckle down and finish the thing.

As a result, only volume one out of an intended six volumes was completed during Marx’s lifetime. Therefore, as Wheen emphasizes, despite the tendency of Marx’s disciples to make dogma out of his work, no complete bible of Marx’s theory exists.

Another one of Wheen’s main points is that Marx intended Das Kapital to be a work of art rather than purely a work of economics. Instead of simply writing a straight forward economic text, Marx throws in so a great deal of humor, irony, literary and poetical allusions. I’ve got to say, based on Francis Wheen’s description of it, Das Kapital doesn’t sound half bad as reading material.

Lastly, as you would expect, Wheen spends a significant amount of time analyzing the ideas in Das Kapital.

Wheen believes that although Marx may have failed as a prophet, he was extraordinary as an analyst. That is, although the communist revolutions may not have happened exactly as Marx had predicted, Marx was still able to give an excellent analysis of how capitalism functioned, and what it’s inherent instabilities were.

Wheen goes on to assert that although Marx’s theories have been unfairly maligned in the West, much of Marx’s analysis has been subsequently vouched for by mainstream economists. In fact Wheen argues that Keynesian economics, with it’s belief that capitalism unregulated and left to its own devices is inherently unstable, is very similar to Marx’s own analysis.

Although this book was originally published back in November of 2007, one year ahead of the economic meltdown, recent events have made this subject much more relevant now than it was when it was first published. In fact, Time magazine, of all places, just recently published an article that raises the question: Was Marx’s critique of capitalism right after all? And here in Japan, Marx’s Das Kapital is enjoying renewed popularity as a Manga.

(Also, anyone interested should check out the NPR interview with Francis Wheen about this book.)

Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, (Grove Press, 2007).

Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory

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For those of us who consider ourselves anarchists or who are sympathetic to the idea of anti-authoritarian, bottom-up forms of organizing, it is occasionally frustrating that many of the books written on the topic are decades old. While there is much to learn from Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, the writings of Peter Kropotkin, or other classic anarchist texts, you can’t help but feel that they are rather dated and in many ways simply don’t apply to the current political situation. This is unfortunate because popular movements from the ground up–whether they call themselves anarchist or not–have been at the forefront of the most exciting political changes in the past decade.

In this context, Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory is a welcome addition to the writing on anarchism. Gordon’s purpose is not to argue the case for anarchism–he writes that case has been made well in two-hundred years of anarchist writing–but rather to explore “the development of anarchist groups, actions and ideas in recent years, and aims to demonstrate what a theory based on practice can achieve when applied to central debates and dilemmas in the movement today.”

It’s a book that is written primarily for anarchists or those who are knowledgeable about the movement, but it does offer a couple of introductory chapters that provide a quick introduction to the topic. Gordon argues that anarchism is a contemporary social movement that has an intricate political culture that revolves around shared political orientations. These include agreement on the use of direct action, decentralized and horizontal organizing, and shared political language emphasizing resistance to capitalism, the state, patriarchy, and domination. Gordon acknowledges that diffuse networks and constantly evolving thought characterize anarchism. The first chapter, “What Moves the Movement?” looks at many of the characteristics of the movement and its political activities while the second, “Anarchism Reloaded” examines anarchist ideology and how that has evolved over time. Gordon mixes his examination with relevant quotes from contemporary and historical anarchist literature as well as personal experience and succeeds in creating an exciting introduction to contemporary anarchism.

Following the introductory chapters, Gordon delves into some of the most serious debates in contemporary anarchist thinking–power, violence, technology, and the nation-state. In each of these sections, Gordon provides overviews of the current debate by frequently incorporating the thinking of various anarchist tendencies. After showing where the debate has taken place thus far, he offers his ideas for where it could go or how to advance the thinking. To be sure, these are just one anarchist’s ideas, but they often provide valuable insights that are worth considering. For example on the issue of violence, he writes that arguing over what constitutes violence is rather futile and that the real question to ask is when is violence justified. Never? Is it justified if it prevents greater violence? These questions are accompanied by numerous examples and grounded in a through knowledge of both past and contemporary anarchist theory as well as in modern anarchist practice. Of these issues, his discussion of Palestinian solidarity work and how it intersects with anarchist anti-statism is quite interesting, while his chapter on power–and the many problems associated with it–will likely resonate with many anarchists. Gordon examines how power functions, the problems that can occur when one group or individual holds a disproportionate amount of power, and other such issues.

The book does get a bit muddled at times and occasionally delves into theoretical territory that can try the reader’s patience. But those who stick through it will be treated to a book that is at once inspiring and shows that anarchism–far from being an “infantile disorder”–has the capacity to offer compelling answers to many of humanity’s most serious problems.

Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, (Pluto Press, 2008).

Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War

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When one hears the term “war profiteers” in relation to the Iraq War, the first things that come to mind are often the private contracting companies that have provided critical services to the military during the conflict. Of those companies, Halliburton is one of the most famous.

However, as journalist Pratap Chatterjee shows in Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War, what we have read in the media about Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) is only the tip of the iceberg. Halliburton’s actions go far beyond over-charging, they have in fact transformed the way the United States conducts warfare.

A History of Close Government Connections

Many of us know that former Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO of the company in the 1990s. During his tenure, Cheney dramatically increased the number of government contracts KBR had. He was a useful face for the company because he brought knowledge of how the government works and a wealth of connections to the company–a classic example of the “revolving door” between government and the private sector. However, Chatterjee shows that Cheney was not atypical and that KBR has always thrived off its connections with powerful politicians. Going back to World War II and the construction of warships, Chatterjee explains that KBR has profited greatly–and often dubiously–from its ties with the government (including questionable campaign contributions to Lyndon Baines Johnson). This history is rarely explored by the media and it was fascinating to read.

Meanwhile, as policies have changed at the Pentagon–specifically with regard to how soldiers are supplied in war–Halliburton/KBR has benefited. When former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ushered in a new era of privatization, it was Halliburton/KBR who stepped up to take on the task of feeding soldiers, setting up bases, delivering supplies, and doing other such tasks necessary for the war.

Profits, Wages, and Questionable Billing

The bulk of Halliburton’s Army explores the massive amounts of money that Halliburton/KBR has made during the “War on Terror” for providing logistical services to the military and how Halliburton/KBR has received–and continues to receive–those contracts.

To that end, Chatterjee paints a disturbing picture of government contracts handed out to a company that has been involved in a variety of objectionable practices ranging from kickbacks, bribes, and fraud to allegations of slave labor. Chatterjee looks at the inordinate number of “no-bid” contracts awarded to Halliburton/KBR without competition and how the company has used these contractors to overcharge the U.S. government millions of dollars. This includes everything from charging inflated prices for goods and services to running empty supply trucks across Iraq simply to make more money. Chatterjee also delves into the company’s labor practices, showing that Halliburton/KBR subcontractors have made extensive use of so-called “third country nationals”–workers who are from neither the U.S. nor Iraq–to perform work in Iraq. Halliburton/KBR’s subcontractors then pay these workers considerably less money than what U.S. or Iraqi workers would get paid and do so via a sliding-scale system based on nationality. Some of these workers are also victims of human trafficking and have been coerced into working in Iraq through false promises.

It’s also worth noting that Chatterjee reveals that Halliburton/KBR was building bases necessary for the U.S. invasions of Iraq in 2002 while the question of war was still being debated by the American public and theoretically by the government itself. This raises the disturbing possibility that contractors could be used to undermine the functioning of government.

A Useful Book for Understanding the Iraq War

Overall, Chatterjee’s examination of Halliburton/KBR makes for an incredibly revealing book. While the ins and outs of government contracting may get a little tedious at times, Chatterjee skillfully brings to light a number of previously unknown facts about Halliburton/KBR. If you are interested in understanding the role of private contractors in Iraq, you’d do well to read Halliburton’s Army along with Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Both books will help expand your understanding of not only the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but also the changing nature of warfare.

Pratap Chatterjee, Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War, (Nation Books, 2009).