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).