The Washington Post has finally published its much-anticipated article on the role of contracting in the national security apparatus.
There was a lie floating around a long time ago that contracting would save us money, but that one was debunked way before the Post got there — any idiot could look at the GS pay scale and the salaries routinely posted by corporate recruiters and see that contracting was going to be expensive. But the Post article tries to articulate a more subtle point as well: there’s something disturbing about so much of our national defense being in the hands of corporations and private parties rather than public servants.
The most obvious problem with that, of course, is political influence. It would be unseemly and, I’m pretty sure, felonious for the CIA to contribute to presidential campaigns. But when General Dynamics does it, it’s free speech. And I’m sure you can think of other problems with this scenario.
I don’t hate the contractors, of course — many of my closest friends are contractors. Like everyone else, they’re just out to make a buck. And I recognize that corporate contracting was a quick, flexible way to hire thousands of new employees at a time when we really, really needed them, without going through the tedium of the federal hiring process, which, no joke, “can involve as many as 40 steps and 19 signatures” for each new hire.
Nonetheless, I have concerns.
- Intel and defense contracting create a “brain drain” on the military. The taxpayer pays to train combatants, technicians, linguists, and analysts and screen them for security clearances. In some cases that’s over half a million dollars for a new enlistee or officer. That person gets out four or five years later and is snatched up by a corporation that will pay him twice as much — and why not? The company still comes out ahead, because someone else is footing the bill for training and selecting its labor pool. Meanwhile the military is left with a smaller pool of human resources and is forced to spend more on retention — although the salary war is one it can never really win — and training new hires.
- Contracting hurts contractors. At the height of the war in Iraq, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi wrote a lurid but on-point article documenting the way contract workers are left out in the cold when they’re injured in the line of duty:
Wolfpack washed its hands of Russell Skoug. The insurance policy he had been given turned out to be useless – the company denied all coverage, beginning with a $72,597 bill for his stay in the German hospital. Despite assurances from Wolfpack chief Mark Atwood that he would cover all Skoug’s expenses, neither he nor the insurance company would pay for the $16,000 trip in the air ambulance. Nobody paid for the operations Skoug had in Houston – as many as three a day, every day for a month. And nobody paid for his subsequent rehab stint in another Houston hospital – despite the fact that military law requires every company contracting with the government to fully insure all of its employees in the war zone.
For decades our deal with soldiers — including all the mechanics and geeks who help the trigger-pullers do their job — was, We’re asking you to knowingly risk life and limb for your country. And if your number is called and you have to make that sacrifice, we’ll take care of you and your family. Forever. God knows we haven’t always done this perfectly — we certainly screwed over a lot of Vietnam vets — but that’s the fundamental deal, and the public, when it has a mind to, can enforce that deal. What deal does Russell Skoug have with Wolfpack, Inc? And who will enforce it for him?
- Contracting enabled us to respond to a newly perceived national emergency after 9/11. But it has also enabled us to engage in limitless, semi-declared, undiscussed warfare for nearly a decade. Because of contracting, our country has never had to have the difficult public conversation about whether we really wanted this war. We’ve never had to decide whether we wanted to expand our military or our intelligence agencies or nationalize certain industries of re-institute the draft — all the things you do when you’re holding a real war. We’ve never talked about it, and so, as I wrote once before, people don’t take it seriously.
We’ve made war a frivolous thing, a thing you can throw money at when it gets annoying, a thing you don’t have to get involved in. A lot of the superheated rhetoric about “our troops” from both the hawks and the doves comes out of some serious alienation and otherization of the military and the war effort in general. In World War II, everyone was involved. Everyone had a son or a brother in the fight, and they were all fighting, not for money, but for a cause they believed to be worth a great national sacrifice.
Contracting gives us the labor pool we need to fight a war — but that labor pool is less and less obligated to public service, and more and more allied to salary and limited liability. And often it isn’t even American. The Army mess cook is gone, replaced by an unskilled laborer from Bangalore; base security is provided by private guards from Uganda. Again, I don’t begrudge those people their jobs, and my memory is that most did them honorably. But they’re hirelings, henchmen who let us feel good about “projecting power” around the world while never really putting any skin in the game.
All right, I’m done here. After one more Robocop joke.
Omnicorp — Good business is where you find it!