Thursday, March 20, 2008

We Have Nothing to Fear Except Our Own Contractors!

Associated Press Writer Ramesh Santanam may have hit on the perfect story to launch the fifth year of our military presence in Iraq:

A U.S. House committee chairman has begun an investigation into the electrocutions of at least 12 service members in Iraq, including that of a Pittsburgh soldier killed in January by a jolt of electricity while showering.

Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Wednesday he has asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to hand over documents relating to the management of electrical systems at facilities in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, died Jan. 2 of cardiac arrest after being electrocuted while showering at his barracks in Baghdad.

Also Wednesday, Maseth's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Allegheny County Court against KBR Inc., the Houston-based contractor responsible for maintaining Maseth's barracks.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and costs, alleges that KBR allowed U.S. troops to continue using electrical systems "which KBR knew to be dangerous and knew had caused prior instances of electrocution."

There certainly has been more than enough to keep Waxman busy lately, and once again it all seems to be coming down to what our "contractors" are doing and how well they are doing it. At least these guys are not being called "contractors" as a euphemism for "mercenaries!"

I make this point having just read David Bromwich's excellent essay, "Euphemism and American Violence," in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Bromwich is far from the first to explore how those in power cover up their cruelties with euphemisms. This was one of the major points made in George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language;" but Bromwich traces acknowledgement of the practice all the way back to Tacitus. (I cannot resist an essay that invokes ancient Greece or Rome in its first sentence!) Needless to say, the specific "American Violence" that Bromwich has in mind involves our presence in Iraq. His two paragraphs about "contractors" provide some of the most penetrating analysis of the mentality that got us into this mess in the first place:

A far more consequential euphemism, in the conduct of the Iraq war— and a usage adopted without demur until recently, by journalists, lawmakers, and army officers—speaks of mercenary soldiers as contractors or security (the last now a singular-plural like the basketball teams called Magic and Jazz). The Blackwater killings in Baghdad's Nissour Square on September 16, 2007, brought this euphemism, and the extraordinary innovation it hides, suddenly to public view. Yet the armed Blackwater guards who did the shooting, though now less often described as mere "contractors," are referred to as employees—a neutral designation that repels further attention. The point about mercenaries is that you employ them when your army is inadequate to the job assigned. This has been the case from the start in Iraq. But the fact that the mercenaries have been continuously augmented until they now outnumber American troops suggests a truth about the war that falls open to inspection only when we use the accurate word. It was always known to the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Defense that the conventional forces they deployed were smaller than would be required to maintain order in Iraq. That is why they hired the extracurricular forces.

Reflect on the prevalence of the mercenaries and the falsifying descriptions offered of their work, and you are made to wonder how much the architects of the war actually wanted a state of order in Iraq. Was this as important to them as, say, the assurance that "contracting" of all kinds in Iraq would become a major part of the American economy following the invasion? We now know that the separate bookkeeping and accountability devised for Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and similar outfits was part of a careful displacement of oversight from Congress to the vice-president and the stewards of his policies in various departments and agencies. To have much of the work of this war parceled out to private companies, who are unaccountable to army rules or military justice, meant, among its other advantages, that the cost of the war could be concealed beyond all detection. What is a contractor? Someone contracted to do a job by the proper authority. Who that hears the word "contractor" has ever asked what the contract is for?

Presumably, one answer to that final question is Representative Waxman; and more power to him in getting at that answer! If he has read Santanam's story, he will probably have the presence of mind to invite Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris to testify. Presumably, she will feel just as strongly about telling the Congress the same thing she told the Associated Press:

"I expected that if I lost one of my sons (in the war), it would be due to an IED or firefight," Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I never expected to hear he would be electrocuted, that something so senseless happened to him."

More importantly, however, I hope that she informs Waxman's committee of her first hand experience with being a "victim of euphemism:"

Harris said the military initially did not tell her that her son was electrocuted, and then told her he died "with a small electrical appliance in the shower." Only later did she learn the truth, she said.

John McCain, if you are reading this, I hope it will give you an appreciation that "straight talk" needs to be more than the name of a campaign bus!


Hoosier84 said...

Too often quality insight is wasted on bad information. When someone claims the 180,000 contractors in Iraq a 'mercenaries' they are

1. Using a derogatory term which trivializes a serious issue,

2. Ignoring a internationally-recognized legal definition in the interests of sensationalism, and

3. Ignoring the reality of who the contractors really are and what they do.

Using ‘mercenary’ in any sort of academic context is silly. Why don’t we use the ‘egghead’ term when discussing academics in any sort of serious manner? ‘Quacks’ for doctors? ‘Ambulance Chasers’ for the legal profession?

And can an Iraqi doing security in Iraq truly be called a ‘mercenary’? What if the Iraqi is pouring concrete on a reconstruction project? If not, then 120,000 of those 180,000 ‘mercenaries’ are not mercs after all. The overwhelming majority of the rest of the contractors are providing support functions for the U.S. military. The reality is hidden by too many academics and pundits who know better: less than 2,000 are Americans doing private security work in Iraq (mostly diplomatic security under State Department’s WPPS contract).

Too many smart folks looking at this industry rely on highly unreliable and partisan sources like the award-winning (!) best-seller author Jeremy Scahill. Too few bother to look at reality.

Doug Brooks

Stephen Smoliar said...

I decided that it was more appropriate to reply to this comment with a new
; but I think that any subsequent discussion would probably be further informed by yesterday's Mother Jones
by Bruce Falconer and Daniel Schulman.