Halliburton, Blackwater, no-bid contracts—the privatization of the war in Iraq is hardly news anymore. But Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, a new documentary on the financial and ethical excesses of private military contractors, still hits home. The film argues that a handful of contractors—Blackwater USA, CACI International , Halliburton, Titan, Parsons, Dyncorp International, and Transatlantic Traders—are over-charging the government for shoddy work, and that they’ve endangered the lives of American soldiers and private citizens in their pursuit of profit. The documentary also discusses how ex-military and ex-government workers head up these companies and use their connections with key players in the Senate and the House to win contracts without going through the standard bidding process.
The film is the latest release from Robert Greenwald, who previously directed or produced films such as Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, and Uncovered: The War on Iraq.
As with his previous films, Greenwald has continued his grassroots, activist approach to promoting his work. Approximately 3,000 people donated $25 or $50 to help pay for the production of the film through Greenwald’s website. Fans are encouraged to take action by writing their representatives, and Greenwald claims that fans have taken the initiative to organize 5,000 screenings of the film in homes and meeting halls worldwide.
The exorbitant amount of private companies operating in Iraq—and the cash our government is spending to hire them—is astonishing. As one interviewee explains, “There are over 100,000 contractors working in Iraq, Kuwait, and the surrounding area.” Many of Greenwald’s interview subjects echo this point. “The war in Iraq has been privatized more than any other war in history,” a woman says off-camera. Another off-camera interviewee claims, “Forty cents out of every dollar Congress controls now goes to private contractors.”
Most stories on contractor corruption have focused on big-ticket items like oil shipments and construction projects. But Iraq for Sale reminds us that many of the military’s most mundane functions have been assumed—and mishandled—by private companies. Take, for example, water. Ben Carter, a former water purification specialist for Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), unsuccessfully fights back tears as he admits that the vast majority of KBR’s water treatment plants in Iraq may have produced unchlorinated or contaminated water. Soldiers who drank or bathed in the water “might not come home with a bullet wound, but a lot of them will come home with pathogens in their blood because of Halliburton.”
Even food and laundry services are cause for suspicion, according to former soldiers interviewed in the film. For example, the outspoken former U.S. Army National Guardsman Sergeant Millard says that KBR, which operated Army mess halls in Iraq during his service there, refused to implement a 24-hour serving schedule, even though it might have deterred mealtime attacks by insurgents. He also criticizes KBR’s handling of soldiers’ laundry. “[The contractors] get $99 a bag, for a bag of laundry that I could wash at home for three dollars. And everything still feels grimy,” he says, adding, “If you don’t know KBR, you’ve never been to Iraq.”
The film illustrates the blatant wastefulness of contractors with testimonies about Halliburton executives ordering any faulty materials—including brand-new trucks and SUVs—to be thrown into a “burn pit” to be destroyed instead of being fixed. And the kicker, according to the film, is that stock for Halliburton has quadrupled in value since the war started. For the record, Halliburton says the film includes “yet another rehash of inaccurate, recycled information.”
Greenwald dedicates substantial screen time to Abu Ghraib, by interviewing detainees and former interrogators—both civilian and military—about operations at the prison. CorpWatch executive director Pratap Chatterjee says that at the time of the abuse scandals, up to half of the interrogators at the prison were private contractors. Two former detainees, a small businessman and an electrical engineer, report that they were beaten, urinated upon, and sexually abused by men in civilian clothes. Yet to date, no contractors have been accused of abusing prisoners.
One of the most crucial moments in the film is when a reporter confronts president Bush at a press conference by asking, “In regards to private military contractors, if the code of military justice does not apply to these companies in Iraq, and I asked your secretary of defense this also, what law does govern their actions?” Bush is unable to answer the question, and in true form, he laughs it off and says he’ll have to check with his people.
What really drives Greenwald’s message are testimonies from parents like Donna Zovko, who talks about how angry she is that her son, Jerry, died in Fallujah during an insurgent attack while driving trucks owned by Blackwater that allegedly were not armored. But as Greenwald’s interviewees point out early on in the film, the U.S. Army had no sufficient infrastructure to handle basic troop needs like food, laundry, and housing from the get-go, not to mention things like helicopter and tank maintenance.
So that brings up many questions: How could we have fought this war without private contracts? How can this government afford to pay contractors the padded bills we’re currently paying them? When we do finally exit Iraq, how many years will it take to pay off our debt, and will that debt be for sale, too?
Starz Cinema aired the film July 14, and the film is now available on DVD. For additional information about interviewees, a full source list, and a montage of clips showing Greenwald unsuccessfully requesting interviews with company higher-ups, visit Greenwald’s website.