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Perpetual Wars, Poor Returns for America
In 1962 the Pentagon contracted with a four-company combine known as RMK-BRJ to build every sea port, every airport, several military bases and the American embassy in South Vietnam. It was one of those no-bid, no-audit, no-problem contracts that makes the Pentagon every lucky contractor's magic kingdom.
In 1966, a 34-year-old Republican representative from Illinois stood on the House floor and, citing the RMK-BRJ consortium, justly condemned President Johnson's administration for handing out illegal contracts to friends and campaign supporters. "Under one contract, between the U.S. Government and this combine, it is officially estimated that obligations will reach at least $900 million by November 1967," the representative said. The sum would be equivalent to $5 billion today. "Why this huge contract has not been and is not now being adequately audited is beyond me. The potential for waste and profiteering under such a contract is substantial." Why the RMK-BRJ contract wasn't being audited shouldn't have been such a mystery to the representative, one of the sharpest on Capitol Hill. Democrats dominated Congress with a 295-140 majority in the House and a 68-32 majority in the Senate, their most crushing numbers since Franklin Roosevelt's first term. Deafness to critics is the privilege of supermajorities.
The indignant representative was Donald Rumsfeld, now the secretary of defense. That makes him responsible for the latest magic kingdom contracts -- the ones that have yielded $11 billion so far in revenue from the Iraq and Afghan wars to Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that's been doing work similar to RMK-BRJ's, plus feeding, housing and transporting troops around Iraq and the Middle East. Incidentally, Brown & Root (but not yet Kellogg) was part of the Vietnam combine. The minority representative playing Rumsfeld's role these days is Henry Waxman, the California Democrat. All Waxman has been hearing is the sound of Republicans making raspberries. Deafness is their privilege now.
Halliburton-type profiteering only seems like a Republican specialty. But the immutable law of war is that while unlucky people die, lucky ones make a killing. That's been true whether Gengis Khan was pillaging his way across Asia, whether Abraham Lincoln was saving the Union, or George W. Bush was saving the world. Party registration has never had anything to do with it other than to give the minority party, when it exists, a chance to seem relevant. Assuming that John Kerry had won the election last November, it's almost impossible to imagine that the list of 150 American contractors doing $49 billion worth of work in Iraq and Afghanistan would have changed substantially. (The Center for Public Integrity, www.publicintegrity.org, lists every contract by name and amount.)
Besides, Halliburton may be a juicy target, but it's as good as a foil. It keeps attention away from the heart of the issue. After World War II, which boosted America's GDP by 75 percent, Harry Truman needed to keep wartime booms going in peacetime. So he invented the national security state, or what Gore Vidal has aptly called "perpetual war for perpetual peace." One of America's most impressive achievements since then has been to make a killing on wars either by imagining them or outsourcing them. The cold war, the war on drugs and the war on terror have all been by and large psychological constructs at home. (The carnage in Vietnam was as real as it's been in Iraq, but both wars' justifications depended on deception. Bumper-sticker sympathies aside, neither made a dent in Americans' lifestyle.) Each war had bits of truth to go on. The Soviets had to be contained. Drug addiction can be a problem. Terrorists can pull off a spectacularly heinous coup once in a while. But does national purpose have to be mortgaged to these manias?
The Soviets reliably self-destructed, but we're still spending somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion a year on the war on drugs, an equal amount on the war on terror at home, and double those amounts on various wars abroad. It's helped GDP growth hum along. But the nation isn't any less addicted to drugs. It isn't any less paranoid at home. It has fueled violence and America-hatred abroad. And it's beginning to look like Iraq and Afghanistan are experiments in national dismemberment. For a people and a president so enamored of returns on investments, it's amazing how forgiving we've been of such colossally negative returns. Yet we persevere without a hint of learning from failure or attempting different strategies.
All this is a little simplistic, I know, but not nearly as simplistic as the bread and butter of every profiteer's dividends -- that patriotic daze and those armchair fears that, at this rate, are damaging the country more than any drugs or terrorists ever will.