Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Cost of War~Toy Soldiers and Debt Slaves

The cost of the Iraq war in dollars is now literally being dumped onto the shoulders of soldiers who are fortunate enough to have come back from Iraq without paying the ultimate cost of losing their lives. Veterans returning home from Iraq are now being billed by the Pentagon for a "debt of service." Via Crooks & Liars, this article from a couple of weeks ago reports that veterans are getting billed for government property that was lost or damaged while they were serving in Iraq.

One such case involves former Army Specialist Brian Rodrigues who served in Iraq as a combat engineer. Rodriguez "started getting bills for $700 for lost or damaged government property this summer. Although he was discharged some four years ago, bills recently arrived demanding payment, but giving no details on what or why -- nor do they offer a way to dispute the charges." This is happening to other veterans as well. According to a goverment report in 2006 "more than 1,000 soldiers [are] being billed a total of $1.5 million. "

These "debt of service" bills could put the furtures and financial stability of theses veterans and their families at risk. Rodriguez is trying to challenge the bills that he has received from the Army, but in the meantime he "will be reported to credit agencies next month." The article also quotes veterans' advocate Tod Ensign who describes what Rodriguez and others like him are facing: "They'll just pound him and call him, call his employers, and make his life as miserable as they can until he pays up." Ensign believes that this is "part of the military's push to be run more like a business."

This has been going on for some time. According to this Washington Post article from April 2006, soldiers are being billed for payroll "errors," as well as lost or damaged equipment. The post article states that the "underlying problem is an antiquated computer system for paying and tracking members of the military. Pay records are not integrated with personnel records, creating numerous errors. When soldiers leave the battlefield, for example, they lose a pay differential, but the system can take time to lower their pay." The system is so bad that it listed 400 soldiers killed in action as owing money to the government.

The post article quotes former Army finance officer Michael Hurst who studied the issue as saying that this problem resulted from a "complete leadership failure." Hurst says the military should have began to address this problem years ago.

I suspect that this is more than just a leadership failure, that it is, in fact, yet another symptom of a broken a system. How else can one explain why, in a country with the most powerful military in the world and in a country that spends as much on the military and defense as we do, troops are returning from war to face a financial crisis caused by a defunct military computer system that cannot accurately handle basic payroll functions and coordinate that with effective tracking of troops that have died or have been injured. With the billions we spend on defense there is no excuse why our military's computer systems should be so outdated and riddled with systemic problems such as these.

I'm still not exactly sure how the bills for equipment shortage fit into all of this except that the military is unable to keep an accurate track of battlefield injuries and integrate that with an accurate adjustment of inventory of lost or damaged equipment. Whatever the exact relationship between the inventory and payroll computer problems, it is evident that the basic IT infrastructure of the military has been in need of a significant overhaul for a long time. Either way, the fact these underlying deficiencies in the computer system were not addressed at an earlier point and the fact that basic computing and payroll systems are so outrageously deficient this far into the war points to more than just a leadership failure. In my opinion an ongoing failure of this sort has as much, if not more, to do with a system in which billions of dollars are wasted in a contracting system that is nothing but an egregious war-profiteering scheme and in which the Defense Department has prioritized privatization and the interests of private corporations over the well being of the nation's military.

In short, this phenomenon, which has been labeled by critics as "financial friendly fire," is just one more example of the troops becoming the victims of small government and free market ideology, an ideology whose core tenets include the belief that privatization, in the form of turning as many sections and functions of the federal government as possible over to private companies, is cheaper and more efficient in any context, including once effective and efficient functions of the US military. This process has proven to be, not only a massive transfer of tax payer money over to private corporations, but a practice that has caused incalculable damage in the Iraq war and one that has overwhelmingly contributed to the ever spiraling cost of the war from the very beginning. Thus, billions have been wasted that should have been put to better use in keeping basic military infrastructure up to par. But perhaps more to the point, this system creates a disincentive to insure that our military is efficiently funded and that funds are allocated in the most effective way.

Financial friendly fire is part of an ongoing list of atrocities that have resulted from this uber-privatization of the system. Troops returning from war are also dealing with inadequate healthcare and underfunded veterans' services, and troops in combat have been dealing with deficiencies in adequate and proper equipment. As early as 2003, for example, when problems with equipment shortages facing the troops were becoming apparent, Paul Krugman noted:

Military corner-cutting is part of a broader picture of penny-wise-pound-foolish government. When it comes to tax cuts or subsidies to powerful interest groups, money is no object. But elsewhere, including homeland security, small-government ideology reigns. The Bush administration has been unwilling to spend enough on any aspect of homeland security, whether it's providing firefighters and police officers with radios or protecting the nation's ports....There's also another element in the Iraq logistical snafu: privatization. The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized system its first major test in combat - and the system failed.

(Emphasis mine). The war in Iraq has already costed us about $500 billion and is estimated, under the best of circumstances, to cost over a trillion dollars. A significant amount of that cost can be traced to the privitization of services once performed by the government and the military that have been handed over to private companies. In his article "The Bushites have Outsourced our Government to their Pals," Jim Hightower writes:

Since the BushCheney regime took office, Halliburton's government contracts have increased by a stunning 600%, including more than $10 billion in Pentagon contracts - many of them awarded without the fuss and muss of competitive bidding.

In return, Halliburton has delivered gas-price gouging, contaminated food and water, and a consis-These are our "savings" from privatization A 2006 federal audit of $1.7 billion in Pentagon purchases found that taxpayers were soaked for excessive fees from contractors and for tens of millions of dollars in waste. One reason was "poor contracting practices." Such as? The audit reports that 92% of the contracts were awarded without verifying that the contractors provided accurate cost estimates, and 96% of the work was inadequately monitored. 2 Hightower Lowdown June 2007 tent pattern of overcharges. It has been caught hiring Third World laborers to do its grunt work in Iraq, paying them as little as $5 a day, and then billing Uncle Sam more than $50 a day for each worker. In a February analysis of $10 billion in waste and overcharges by various contractors in Iraq, federal investigators found Halliburton responsible for $2.7 billion....

Hightower notes that "people see Halliburton as the face of privitized war in Iraq," but Halliburton is only one of many such contractors whose billions of dollars in profits amount to a rape of the US treasury and an outright theft of money from taxpayers through privatization, which has been the foundation of the Bush administration's handling of the war (as well as many domestic and intelligence activities):

Given the rampant corruption and waste that marks such policies, I cannot view these "debt of service" bills as anything but actions that are forcing the troops to directly pay for part of the financial cost of the war through the type of negligence that is produced by and that sustains a system that has created and maintained the enormous profits of these private contractors. This financial friendly fire may not be the result of a deliberate scheme to transfer part of the financial cost directly to the troops, but this did not occur in a vacuum. The underlying problems that have caused these computing and billing failures, combined with patterns of deficiencies in equipment, the veterans' healthcare system, and other veterans' services, along with unchecked waste and an alarming lack of accountability, amount to nothing less than gross negligence and are the inevitable result of a deliberate policy of favoring privatization over what is best for the military and the troops at any cost.

In fact, the Bush Administration has pushed its love for privatization so far that it now relies heavily ona private mercenary army to carry out its mission in Iraq. In January 2007 Jeremy Scahill noted that in his State of the Union speech Bush addressed "the very issue that has made the war's privatization a linchpin of his Iraq policy - the need for more troops." Scahill writes:

The president called on Congress to authorize an increase of about 92,000 active-duty troops over the next five years. He then slipped in a mention of a major initiative that would represent a significant development in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian Reserve Corps." Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush declared.

This is precisely what the administration has already done, largely behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional input, with its revolution in military affairs. Bush and his political allies are using taxpayer dollars to run an outsourcing laboratory. Iraq is its Frankenstein monster.

The Los Angeles Times reported in July 2007 that "the number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns." According to the State and Defense department figures obtained by the Times, "[m]ore than 180,000 civilians - including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis - are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts" a fact that "shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq - a mission criticized as being undermanned."

The Bush Administration has deliberately relied on private contractors and increasing privatization in general, not only as a means to supplement needed forces, but as a means to avoid accountability and oversight of the ways in which it allocates competing resources, addresses competing priorities, and carries out its policies. This privatized corporate shield from accountability prevents the Bush Administration from having to insure that the military's infrastructure and equipment needs are up to par and from having to deal with fallout from its failures. Having a private military force that is equal to or outnumbers US military personnel means that you don't have to care as much about what is happening to the people you send to fight your wars and that operations can be carried out without the bothersome interference of government and public accountability. After all, where does the overhaul of a computer system with systemic problems that handles basic personnel functions that are essential for the effective operation of the military fall on the list of priorities when so much of the occupation and other military functions can be outsourced to private companies who will be paid with tax payer dollars?

The Bush administration's belief that it should not be held accountable for anything is no doubt a significant part of the reason that the Bush Administration will not hold defense contractors and companies like Halliburton accountable for their war-profiteering even while the troops are going into debt because of a defunct computer system. If the military needs the estimated 1.5 million dollars that it has billed veterans for, then the Bush administration should go after the war profiteers and recover the billions in tax payer money that they have stolen and wasted.

But Bush's politicized Justice Department has never had any intention of doing this and "has opted out of at least 10 whistle-blower lawsuits alleging fraud and corruption in government reconstruction and security contracts in Iraq, and has spent years investigating additional fraud cases but has yet to try to recover any money."

This Boston Globe article from June of this year further points out:

The government's reluctance to join in any of the civil suits has sparked allegations of political interference.

One witness, Alan Grayson , a lawyer who represents several whistle-blowers, told the House subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security that the Justice Department has been stonewalling and dragging its feet in investigating the whistle-blowers' claims of fraud.

"In our fifth year in the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has not litigated a single case against any war profiteer under the False Claims Act," Grayson said....

Historically, the False Claims Act has served as an important tool in recovering money defrauded from the federal government. Last year, it was used to return more than $3 billion in domestic cases, but has recovered only about $6.1 million from Iraq since the war began. Those recoveries, however, were the result of settlements between the Justice Department and two contractors -- not civil lawsuits or prosecutions.

(Emphasis mine). Thus, do we really have to wonder why it is that only $6.1 million dollars in settlements has been recovered out of the possible billions in waste and over-priced services that the Bush Administration could recover from these greedy, war-profiteering bastards but the Pentagon is billing veterans for an estimated $1.5 million. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that these war profiteers have a lot of friends and influence:

Outfits like Halliburton, DynCorp, Blackwater, L-3, Titan, Custer Battles, Triple Canopy, and Wackenhut are reaping billions of our tax dollars doing military work that the Bush-Cheney Pentagon has outsourced. Not coincidentally, nearly all of these corporations are big-dollar donors to Republicans and/or are run by executives with tight GOP ties.

(Emphasis mine). Kurt Vonnegut once wondered about the inhumanity of those who would make the preposterous claim that criticizing the way this war has been handled and the basis upon which it was launched endangered the morale of the troops when soldiers were already "being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas." Maybe that was only the beginning. Now thousands of rich kids' toy soldiers are coming home to be the rich kids' debt slaves.

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