Reviewing my Boofshelf Part 4: “War on Terror, Inc.” by Soloman Hughes

Review of War on Terror, Inc: Corporate Profiteering From the Politics of Fear Soloman Hughes (2008) Verso

Soloman Hughes is a good example of what proper investigative journalism is, as his long history of dedicated muck-raking makes clear. In the 230-or-so pages we are treated to a panoramic account of the burgeoning private security industry; from its humble beginning in the peripheries of crime and war logistics to its colonization of the entire ‘field of battle’ as well as domestic affairs.  As Hughes writes in the postscript:

“The security industry supplies troops on the battlefield, while also fighting a propaganda war through PR companies working on sensitive government contracts private airlines ferry prisoners between secret US prisons; contractors carry out interrogations in Guantanamo and Abu Gharib; ‘ intelligence corporations’ carry out security analysis for governments; private companies supply identity cards; security databases and surveillance systems to monitor ‘homeland’ populations; private companies also run the prisons and ‘control orders’ that can be used against those arrested in the new conflict.” (233)

The chapters show an impressive range of research. Chapter one deals with the commercialization of prison and asylum services, which has crept in since the conservative government in the 80s. The privatization of military facilities, including tactically crucial sites such as the Devenport dockyards (which refits nuclear submarines) by a Halliburton subsidiary, and later Halliburton. The private ownership of the Aldermaston nuclear base, firstly by Hunting-BRAE (who would go on to build military bases in Kosovo) and then by Serco, Lockheed and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, is also discussed.

Then, we have a chapter that focuses on the extensive private contracts tendered by Dyncorp, including combat against left-wing guerrillas in Columbia alongside crop spraying and reconstruction in Bosnia. Chapter six describes the chequered and fascinating history of mercenaries in the world. Then we have enquiries into private companies acting as PR agents for western powers, the use of private contractors in place of soldiers, the aforementioned ‘intelligence corporations’ – private companies who sell information for a profit – and finally the movement of private companies towards providing security and database systems for domestic governments, followed by a postscript.

The end of the Cold War is crucial to much of this narrative, as the changing nature of warfare coincided nicely with privatization. As Hughes writes:

“The planners believed that innovative, profit-driven firms would be better at changing the shape of the battlefield than hidebound senior officers….Using the private military companies would allow the political leadership to sake up the army command and shake off their attachment to old ideas like the need for ‘overwhelming force’.” (61)

Heavyweight neo-cons are also central to the story. Playing a particularly important role is Dick Cheney, who pushed strongly for the privatization of the British services mentioned above, and can be found both exaggerating the threat of war and accruing immense financial returns from his UK ventures and, of course, the ‘war on terror’.

Three crucial matters are discussed in detail, interwoven amongst the detailed case studies and myriad examples of corporate profiteering.  First is the stunning incompetence, corruption and brutality of many of the private contractors mentioned in these pages.  Secondly, there is the capacity for private contractors absorb potential scandals and make warfare more palatable.  Finally, there is the ‘revolving door’ between government and industry, which perpetuates this dangerous arrangement.

As to the first point, the poor safety and environmental hazards created by the privatized nuclear plants, the brutality of the Group 4 security guards towards asylum seekers and the callousness of Blackwater are all on display throughout the book. These stories, however, are hardly the most distressing. For example, Dyncorp’s reconstruction mission in Bosnia, fronted by a man accused of repeated sexual misconduct, was characterized by allegations of trafficking and the use of prostitutes for which they escaped prosecution via legal immunity from their contractor status. Another example involves CACI International, a private company that supplied interrogators to Iraq, who contributed considerably to the brutality of Abu Gharib, as evidenced by official reports which “made clear that contractors ad been involved in the abuse, and that a private firm had been the military’s tool for bringing torture” to the prison. (192) In particular, Group 4 should be singled out for the sheer consistency of their shortcomings, which include losing defendants during transit to trials, failing to monitor individuals they have been contracted to keep tabs on, and falsifying records about suspect movements.

Second is the apparent benefits that accrue from using the private sector.  This is partly due to the seeming legal immunity that contractors typically enjoy.  In the above case, “the contractors were able to melt away….the contractors – exempt from military discipline and largely beyond the reach of ordinary law – removed their staff, sacked a few, and continued with their business.” (195) The Halliburton-owned dockyards discussed above meant that the problem of nuclear military waste “kept the problem at arms length from the government” with plans to get rid of one type of waste “lost in a maze of subcontracting that made no sense.” (51). The use of private sector firms also means that, in addition to whatever lucrative job prospects it opens up in the future, governments have an easier way to wage war and ‘nation-building’. As the author argues while discussing Clinton’s increasingly untenable desire to use US forces overseas:

“…after Somalia, Cinton’s government began increasingly to contract out the nation-building work to private companies. This meant that the US could indeed sponsor nation-building, but that if its involvement in complex local issues led to deaths or other scandals, there would be less political cost to the US military machine…By privatizing nation-building, the Clinton administrations had managed to hide problems of corruption, incompetence and violence….the failure to the private sector in Iraq were predictable from events in Haiti, Colombia, or the former Yugoslavia; but precisely because the work had been hived off to the private sector, they were not part of the national political conversation.” (74-5)

Along similar line, “British foreign secretary Jack Straw thought that using armed corporations would ‘be cheaper and [certainly] quicker than attempting to train national forces..” (169) Despite this continued and at times seemingly blind optimism, contractors have of course, in the long term, resulted in escalating costs and compromised missions, as the Iraq experience detailed here shows clearly.

The revolving door is the next issue, and it is here described in gory detail.  As well as the standard fare of buying up former government officers, military figures and intelligence elites for corporate boards, there are some remarkably high profile examples.  William Hague, for example, is employed by Terra Firma, a company relying on the privatized military bases.  After resigning as home secretary “[David] Blunkett became a consultant to Entrust, a US firm seeking work from the identity card scheme.” (216).

So, all in all, this is a very good book.  The research is frequently original, and juxtaposition of so many issues makes a number of truths clear. While attention to private armies has been increasing of late, as in Jeremy Scahill’s “Blackwater” and various other less high profile titles, it’s good to see this focus broadened to a number of other areas. It also does what a good investigation should do, which is create an entirely new angle from which to view events, in both foreign and domestic matters.  Identity cards, for example, are a political issue driven partly by private interest, as a small snippet of the story makes evident. After 9/11:

“The contractors sensed an opportunity, and began encouraging the government to commit to the identity card.  At the best of times, the New Labour administration found it hard to resist the call of business lobbyists, and the identity card was no exception.  The Labour government and the commercial lobbyists discovered a mutually supportive relationship: the contractors offered pre-packaged solutions to warfare, welfare and security issues, while the government offered long-term contracts. IN 2002, SEMA was a financial contributor to the Labour Party, and also ran all of Labour’s membership databases…As the government dithered about introducing the identity card, SEMA decided to put its influence to work, commissioning surveys showing popular support for the scheme, and launching a campaign to lobby MPs.” (216)

While more work needs, to be done, Hughes has opened up a new vista of inquiry and made some starling findings.  If the present political debate and activism around war and security is to be of any relevance whatsoever, it seems imperative to take heed.

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