Doing More with Less (Hassle) - Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)

Chapter 7. Doing More with Less (Hassle)

IT WAS THE TODDLERS WHO DID IT … TEETHING, SLOBBERING, paste-eating, ungovernable, ever-dependent tots. In the decade that followed the Gulf War, preschool kids ended up being among the most effective shock troops in the assault on the last remaining constraints keeping us from going to war all the time. The little darlings were terribly dear. Not dear as in cuddly, but dear as in expensive. They demanded resources. A Pentagon study in 1995 figured it cost $6,200 per toddler, per year, to provide day care for the youngest military dependents. And there were 575,000 preschool children in US military households around the world. As an employer, the military had to accept all those dependents as its responsibility; they were an enormous chapped-bottom drag.

The demographics of our Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps had changed drastically since the Vietnam War. By the mid-1990s, twenty years after we had gotten rid of the draft, the all-volunteer military was steadier, more professional, more able, more educated; it was also more reflective of the civilian world at large. The number of women in uniform, for example, had increased exponentially. Well over half of the nation’s servicemen and -women were married. And like the rest of the country, which by the mid-’90s had been enjoying relative peace and ample prosperity, the military was part of a national wave of fecundity.

But as in the country at large, having kids didn’t automatically give military families an Ozzie and Harriet makeover. The number of single parents raising children alone had trended up on military bases as it had all over. Two of every three soldiers had spouses who worked full-time outside the home. And so something like 80 percent of the preschoolers on the military’s dependent list needed full-time day care so Mom and Dad could keep the family afloat. Not only that, but military parents had come to expect a reasonable safety net for their children. “Military people stay in the service because they like being part of something special,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, John M. Shalikashvili, in May 1995. “They won’t stay long, however, if families aren’t treated well.”

Long experience taught that open-ended deployment could be crushing to military families: instances of child abuse, substance abuse, divorce, and check kiting at commissaries all increased. It didn’t take the broad survey by researchers at the US Army Research Institute for Behavioral Sciences to convince commanders that “family separation” was a main reason for enlisted troops and officers alike to leave the service.

“Sir,” one Air Force sergeant stationed in Germany told a Pentagon researcher, “we are ready to go anywhere as long as you take care of our families.”

The House and Senate had passed legislation that set up all sorts of standards for how the military was supposed to handle its tots, but then they badly underfunded the provision of those services. Much of the money needed to make up the gap came from base commanders raiding their tiny pots of nonappropriated funds, leaving unmarried soldiers to bitch and moan that the kiddies were stealing the money intended to keep up bowling alleys, golf courses, and other recreational goodies. If the best hope for commanders was robbing from the base bowling alley, the Pentagon’s stated aim of meeting 80 percent of the military-family child-care demand by 1999 (up from a mere 52 percent in 1995) was clearly beyond reach.

And these goals took into account only the troops on active duty. What about all those Guard members and reservists? In the Gulf War, more than a quarter million had been called up; 105,000 had been shipped to the Saudi desert for months. And thirty-one days into active-duty deployment, the benefits kicked in for those soldiers: health care, housing allowances, employer reimbursements, tuition credits … day care!

This was a tremendous headache to the Pentagon planners. The operative budgetary mandate in the 1990s was to reprioritize the shrinking defense budget to get back to the important business of weapons procurement and modernization. In the ten years after 1985, the procurement budget had dropped from $126 billion to $39 billion and represented a paltry 18 percent of total defense expenditures. Sure, the active-duty force had been pared by nearly 30 percent and a few bases had been closed, but that didn’t come close to solving the problem. How were we supposed to ensure our Last-Superpower-on-Earth superiority when just the overhead cost of keeping our standing army milling around was swallowing between 40 and 50 percent of the Pentagon’s annual cash allotment? The budget gurus still couldn’t find the money for really great new bombs and invisible planes and impenetrable tanks, not to mention some sprucing up of the greatest and most expensive unusable arsenal the universe had ever known—our nukes. “In other words,” yet another Pentagon-sponsored task force lamented in 1996, “Department of Defense support infrastructure has remained largely impervious to downsizing.”

There was only one glimmer of hope for peeling away some of this impervious-to-downsizing overhead. It was a technocratic little solution that had morphed in just a few scant years—and without much forethought—from a slightly distasteful option of last resort to the last viable remedy: Outsourcing. Privatization. Civilian Augmentation. In other words, can’t we get someone in here who doesn’t come with day-care costs? “Without such an initiative,” said the Pentagon Task Force study, “DoD may not be able to procure the new weapons systems and technological edge needed to ensure the continuing military preeminence of the United States in the coming century.”

In fact, the privatization idea became so alluring to the military in the mid-’90s that they even tried it on day care itself. The Navy funded pilot programs to use private contractors to provide day care in Norfolk, Virginia, and at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The private sector was always better at controlling costs, wasn’t it?

In dozens of studies commissioned and funded by the Pentagon or the separate branches of services in the early ’90s, it was generally taken as an article of faith that the private sector did things cheaper. Those task forces, after all, were manned by a rotating phalanx of corporate executives (many retired military) from companies like Boeing and Westinghouse and General Electric and Perot Systems and Bear Stearns and Military Personnel Resources Inc. (a generic-sounding name, but one worth remembering), salted with some active-duty generals and maybe a few think tankers. After small-scale private-contractor deployments to accompany US military missions in the early 1990s in places like Haiti, Somalia, and Rwanda, the Pentagon was looking to go big. The 1996 Defense Science Board Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization, to take the most important example, didn’t waste a lot of energy weighing the question of private versus public cost consciousness, they just went for the hard sell:

The Task Force believes that all Department of Defense support functions should be contracted out to private vendors except those functions which are inherently governmental, are directly involved in warfighting, or for which no adequate private sector capability exists or can be expected to be established.… The Task Force is convinced that an aggressive Department of Defense outsourcing initiative will improve the quality of support services at significantly reduced costs … could generate savings of up to $7 to $12 billion annually by fiscal year 2002—resources which then would be available for equipment modernization.

The private sector is the primary source of creativity, innovation, and efficiency in our society, and is more likely than government organizations to provide cost-effective support to the Nation’s military forces.

The grand-scale cotillion debut for the privateers would be the Balkans. Private for-profit companies had provided food service, garbage collection, and water bearing for previous missions, but in Bosnia they’d do almost everything, and in huge numbers. When twenty thousand US soldiers were sent to help keep a fragile peace among the Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats, who had been fighting a bloody three-way war in the former Yugoslavia, an equal number of private company employees went with. They were employees of DynCorp and Brown & Root Services Corporation (whose parent company, Halliburton, was run by former secretary of defense Dick Cheney), corporations that were themselves under contract with the United States Department of Defense. Brown & Root employees built the barracks where US soldiers bunked, made sure they were fed, their clothes and bedding laundered, their recreational needs seen to, their mail delivered, their e-mail working. DynCorp’s biggest contract was from the State Department, to provide a private police force to support the larger UN mission and to train the local constabulary in Western law enforcement. But DynCorp also had a smaller contract with Defense for things like maintaining US military aircraft in Bosnia.

Brown & Root proved wanting in the “innovation” department when it came to the procurement of construction materials for the barracks. It turned out they were flying sheets of plywood into Bosnia from the United States, thus transforming each $14 sheet into an $85.98 sheet. Not that this hurt their bottom line. The company did show itself to be remarkably agile (if not timely) in fiscal reporting; overruns had raised the payout on their Army contract from $350 million to $461 million. One of the big drivers in the cost overrun was their “Management and Administration” line item, which came in $69 million over budget, an impressive 80 percent overrun. It apparently took a lot of layers of Brown & Root management and administration to turn a $14 sheet of plywood into an $86 sheet of plywood.

Brown & Root might not have been all that cost-effective, but it did fulfill its contractual obligations. The soldiers at the thirty-four base camps the company serviced in Bosnia, Croatia, and Hungary were generally well pleased with the PXs stocked with American grocery items, and the cafeterias’ twenty-four-hour food options. “Sandwiches, soups, and beverages are always available,” the General Accounting Office crowed a few years into the big Balkan contract. “Unit officials in Bosnia said that the quantity and quality of the food is so good that personnel are gaining weight.” Oh, good!

For a full appreciation of the “innovation and creativity” that a private American company was able to bring to bear in Bosnia, DynCorp is worth considering. In the field of contractor support of overseas US military operations, DynCorp’s reputation for ingenuity was already separating it from the pack. Consider, for instance, the portrait painted by the employees of the aircraft maintenance hangar that DynCorp operated at Camp Comanche in Dubrave, Bosnia. Ben Johnston, a helicopter mechanic who retired from the military into a much higher paycheck for doing the same job under the DynCorp contract, was pretty quickly disturbed by what he saw. As he recounted to a reporter from Insight magazine:

There was this one guy who would hide parts so we would have to wait for parts. They’d [DynCorp foremen] have us replace windows in helicopters that weren’t bad just to get paid. They had one kid over there who was right out of high school and he didn’t even know the names and purposes of the basic tools. Soldiers that are paid $18,000 a year know more than this kid, but this is the way they [DynCorp] grease their pockets. What they say in Bosnia is that DynCorp just needs a warm body—that’s the DynCorp slogan. Even if you don’t do an eight-hour day, they’ll sign you in for it because that’s how they bill the government. It’s a total fraud.…

It was a rougher crowd than I’d ever dealt with. It’s not like I don’t drink or anything, but DynCorp employees would come to work drunk. A DynCorp van would pick us up every morning and you could smell the alcohol on them.

And picture this scene: a fellow DynCorp maintenance man, a trencherman, nearly four hundred pounds by Johnston’s estimate, at work on a Black Hawk helicopter. He “would stick cheeseburgers in his pockets and eat them while he worked,” Johnston said. “He would literally fall asleep every five minutes. One time he fell asleep with a torch in his hand and burned a hole through the plastic on an aircraft.”

“The bottom line is that DynCorp has taken what used to be a real positive program that has very high visibility with every Army unit in the world and turned it into a bag of worms,” the site supervisor told the same Insightreporter.

And yet general corporate malfeasance and pedestrian bilking was not what truly bothered Johnston; what truly bothered him was the slimiest bag of worms in the DynCorp locker: it was a common practice among the contract workers at Comanche to buy themselves live-in sex slaves from the local Serbian mafia. The men boasted about it openly around the hangar and invited coworkers home to meet their new “girls.” Some of these girls were said to be as young as twelve. By the time Johnston was hip to what was going on, a few sex slavers in the Camp Comanche crew had already been caught by local cops, but it hadn’t changed anything. The Army asked DynCorp to remove the workers whose crimes had been uncovered, and DynCorp management hustled the men out of Bosnia within forty-eight hours and then back to the States, asserting its “zero-tolerance policy” for this sort of criminal behavior.

The manager of DynCorp’s European operations seemed certain that the company’s quick and decisive action was a feather in its cap with their favorite new client, the US Army. “We were able to turn this into a marketing success,” he bragged, as the company took pains to make sure the unsightly news never became public.

A DynCorp manager sent to suss out the damage the sex-trafficking scandal had done to the company’s reputation found the Army supervisors mainly worried about the quality of the work being done. Whatever the morons on the DynCorp payroll were doing off-hours was a DynCorp problem. Outsourcing maintenance meant outsourcing the headaches that come with maintenance workers too, right? Besides, the Army lawyers had told military investigators that neither Bosnian law nor US law applied to the contractors, so the Department of Defense had no authority to prosecute any crimes private contract workers committed over there, and therefore no responsibility for them either. Thank God.

And so nothing changed. A few of their colleagues had been shipped out, but DynCorp workers on the Comanche crew still bought sex slaves and talked openly about it on the shop floor. One starred in a sex tape on which two young girls were heard to plead with him to leave them alone. DynCorp management looked the other way. When one of the DynCorp police monitors working for the United Nations insisted on investigating the rampant sex-trafficking in the Balkans, she was reassigned to a desk job, and when she refused to back off, she was fired without cause. At the Comanche hangar, DynCorp employees bragged, according to Johnston, about “how good it was to have a sex slave at home,” and about selling them back to Serbian mafia bosses at a discount when they got tired of the same girl night after night.

According to a later UN investigation, one worker at DynCorp’s Camp Comanche readily admitted to buying a young woman at a nightclub run by a Serbian mob boss named De Beli (“the Fat Boy”). The worker told the US Army investigators that he bought the Moldovan teenager for $740. And the Fat Boy had thrown in an Uzi as a parting gift. This girl was pretty typical of the sex-trafficking victims in Bosnia. She’d left home on the promise of a job as a waitress in Italy and then found herself sold into prostitution in Hungary and later in Bosnia. That relationship was fairly tame among the foreign nationals buying sex slaves in Bosnia. The Moldovan girl said she woke up at his house every day with a new toy and 20 deutschemarks on her pillow. The DynCorp guy even gave her back her passport before he dumped her and left the country.

The most egregious example, as far as Johnston was concerned, was that Comanche worker who was prone to falling asleep with a burning blowtorch. He “owned a girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old. It’s a sick sight anyway to see a grown man [sexually involved] with a child, but to see some forty-five-year-old man who weighs four hundred pounds with a little girl, it makes you sick.”

Johnston’s Bosnian-born wife also met a few of the young girls. “They didn’t like to talk a lot,” she said. “They were very sad.”

“You could see them [the sex slaves] right out the window [of my house],” Johnston said. “Playing with other children. A lot of them are so young, they would play with other kids, and you could see them riding bikes and stuff like that.”

DynCorp, thank you for small miracles, didn’t get any day-care contracts, but the company did real damage in the Balkans. “The Bosnians think we’re all trash,” Johnston said. “It’s a shame. When I was there as a soldier they loved us, but DynCorp employees have changed how they think about us. I tried to tell them that this is not how all Americans act, but it’s hard to convince them when you see what they’re seeing. The fact is, DynCorp is the worst diplomat you could possibly have over there.”

“Although a system of contractors for hire might seem reasonable to supplement and support U.S. military presence,” wrote Kathryn Bolkovac, the DynCorp police monitor who was fired, “the outcome has been the creation of a band of mercenaries—a secretive, unregulated, well-paid, under-the-radar force that is larger than the U.S. Army.”

So how did we get to the place where private American citizens representing us—men whose salaries were paid by the US government—could cut this greasy, lawless swath through the Balkans with no real consequences for the criminals, or for DynCorp itself? The company’s zero-tolerance policy continued to be little more than a marketing slogan. In 2004, a videotape of the company’s contract workers raping local underage girls had reportedly surfaced near a DynCorp facility in Colombia. And in 2010, DynCorp employees at a police training facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, were believed to have procured drugs and prepubescent boys for the gratification of some prominent local men. A cable to US State Department officials from our ambassador to Afghanistan is suggestive of just how little things had changed in ten years. “An investigation is on-going, disciplinary actions were taken against DynCorp leaders in Afghanistan, we are also aware of proposals for new procedures, such as stationing a military officer at [Regional Training Centers], that have been introduced for consideration. (Note: Placing military officers to oversee contractor operations at RTCs is not legally possible under the current DynCorp contract.) Beyond remedial actions taken, we still hope the matter will not be blown out of proportion.”

This slide to full-on, consequences-be-damned privatization of military functions—in all its unaccountable gory glory—wasn’t inevitable: it didn’t have to happen this way. And it wasn’t inexorable either; you can trace it to specific decisions, made for specific, logical reasons. But this is how snafus happen—there isn’t enough debate, there isn’t enough chivalry toward the virtues of the old system we’re killing for efficiency’s sake. And then bad things happen.

To understand how we got to DynCorp and the prepubescent boys in Kunduz and the sex slaves in the Balkans, it helps to revisit the red-letter day of August 2, 1990. That was the day Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait. That was also the day the Pentagon had circled on its calendar for the rollout of the George H. W. Bush administration’s big new deep thoughts about reengineering American military power to fit a post-Soviet world.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell had been scrambling for months to head off what they were convinced was a rash congressional assault on the nation’s defense budget. The Pentagon imagined enemies at the gate. Talk on Capitol Hill was all about the “peace dividend”: the Soviet Union was slain. We’d won the Cold War. It was time to do what we did after every big war: draw down the number of troops, pare the defense budget, reroute tax dollars to domestic spending. Powell decided to get out front with his own plan for downsizing. He’d been proposing to Cheney for months a manpower reduction of 25 percent, which—even factoring in a big jump in research and development of new weapons technology—allowed for some minimal but calculable givebacks. “I wanted to offer something our allies could rally around and give our critics something to shoot at rather than having military reorganization schemes shoved down our throat,” Powell later wrote.

Cheney was a latecomer to the idea that the military budget could be at all whittled. His friends in the old Team B Soviet-hysteria business were still preaching wild-eyed tales of the USSR coming back and maybe stronger—like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies. But by August 2, 1990, Cheney was on board. The president would give a speech that day laying out America’s new national security strategy. Then a delegation from the Pentagon would brief Congress (in secret) on the details of this bold new plan to demobilize and restructure the US military machine for a post-Cold War world.

When August 2 rolled around, though, Saddam stole the day’s headlines by rolling his 700 tanks and 100,000 soldiers into Kuwait. August 2 wasn’t going to be a big deep-thought day for anyone. “Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and I went to supersecure Room S-407 in the Capitol to pitch the [new plan] to leaders of the Defense Department’s congressional oversight committees,” Powell wrote of the August 2 briefing. “But all we heard was, yeah, sure, right. But what’s going on in Kuwait?”

Who wanted to pay attention to policy and planning for the next century when there was a real fight brewing right now in the Persian Gulf?

The shooting war that followed did the US Armed Forces more public relations good than a dozen presidential speeches or a hundred congressional briefings. Our military dazzled. The First Gulf War was all Powell could have hoped for: a clear mission, explicit public support, and an overwhelming show of force. It was fast—the ground assault lasted just a hundred hours, the troops were home less than five months later. It was relatively bloodless for the away team—fewer than two hundred American soldiers were killed in action. It was cost-effective—happy allies reimbursed the United States for all but $8 billion spent. And it was, withal, a riveting display of our military capability, almost like it was designed for TV. Americans, and much of the world, watched a Technicolor air-strike extravaganza every night. The skeptics were forced to stand down; our military had proved beyond doubt or discussion that we were the Last Superpower Still Standing.

By the end of the Gulf War, there wasn’t much room for kumbaya talk about George H. W. Bush’s New World Order, where the rule of law would replace the rule of the jungle and lions would lie down with lambs. Turns out our new operating metaphor was that there were lots of lions now, everywhere, but they were still cubs. Our job was to make sure they didn’t grow up to be fierce, capable predators. All that stuff about the Gulf War being a path to world peace took a backseat to more politically rousing rhetoric about … danger.

Saddam became Exhibit A, filed under Post-Cold War Planet, Possible Snags: “America must possess forces able to respond to threats in whatever corner of the globe they may occur,” Bush said in his speech the day after Saddam invaded Kuwait. “Even in a world where democracy and freedom have made great gains, threats remain. Terrorism, hostage-taking, renegade regimes and unpredictable rulers, new sources of instability—all require a strong and engaged America. The brutal aggression launched last night against Kuwait illustrates my central thesis: Notwithstanding the alteration in the Soviet threat, the world remains a dangerous place with serious threats to important US interests.”

That sort of tough talk certainly put the bounce back in Dick Cheney’s step. He’d had to give up on having the Soviets as a real enemy, but he and deputies like Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby went to work constructing a rationale for refitting the US military for this new New World Peril. “If we choose wisely today, we can do well something America has always done badly before,” Cheney would say, “we can draw down our military force at a responsible rate that will not end up endangering our security.”

The basic idea was that in this dangerous world, where threats to our national security could rear up in the Middle East, or the Korean Peninsula, or even in the Americas, we had to be ready to move quickly, and maybe into more than one place at a time. Think of it as a two-fisted game of intercontinental Whac-A-Mole. “Highly ready and rapidly deployable power projection forces,” Cheney wrote, “including forcible entry forces, remain key means of precluding challengers.”

If, in 1990, the new mission for the US military was stopping the emergence of any challenger anywhere in the world, the mission sure wasn’t shrinking, but budget pressures meant the active-duty force would have to. Cheney and company hit on what seemed like a simple and rational way to squeeze dollars without squeezing military capability: do more with less. Take the Gulf War, for example. So many of the soldiers shipped to the Persian Gulf were simply there to handle the care and feeding of the fighting troops. Did the cooks at the base in Saudi Arabia need to be US Army? The maintenance workers? The electricians? The plumbers? Did it require a US-trained soldier to wash sheets and towels and skivvies? Couldn’t someone else do that? Not a bad idea, on the face of it.

Cheney started by reordering the architectural bureaucracy of the US military. He changed the so-called four pillars of military capability (readiness, sustainability, modernization, and force structure) to—voilà!—six pillars. Modernization became two pillars now—one for science and technology and one for systems acquisition (in other words, the pillar that was buying stuff from defense contractors became, instead: buying stuff from defense contractors A, and buying stuff from defense contractors B). Cheney also invented a sixth pillar—and this was genius—called infrastructure and overhead. As if there was no infrastructure and overhead already in weapons acquisition or force readiness or any other part of the military. Cheney pretended that infrastructure and overhead could be sequestered in one part of the budget and cut, alone, without affecting anything else. “The Department must vigorously pursue reductions and management efficiencies in defense infrastructure and overhead,” Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Libby et al. wrote as they were on their way out of office. And how would this vigorous pursuit of reductions be executed? What they left in place for the business school wannabes of the next administration was a little something called the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (a defense program name that for once made sense: civilians augmenting the military).

The first private contractor under this program was signed on in 1992, during the last months of Dick Cheney’s tenure as secretary of defense. It was a company called Brown & Root Services Corporation. Four years later, while the contract was still in place, Cheney was making a very comfortable living as CEO of Brown & Root’s parent corporation, Halliburton. And after Vice President Cheney helped push us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the value of those contracts kept Halliburton stock bouncing happily along. You can read all the conspiracy you want to into that, but focusing on Cheney’s bank accounts misses the forest for the trees. In utterly nonconspiratorial point of fact, the merits of that big Halliburton contract—known by its acronym, LOGCAP—seemed so obvious to all concerned that the military’s congressional overseers never seriously discussed the possible downsides of handing over pieces of military budget line items to private contractors.

LOGCAP soon became the darling of technocrats on both sides of the political aisle. The program that began under the first President Bush grew enormously under President Bill Clinton. Tiny cohorts of civilian augmenters had been deployed alongside US troops before, “but it wasn’t until the U.S. led NATO forces into Bosnia in 1995,” wrote BusinessWeek, “that the entire private military industry came of age.”

The Clinton administration leaned hard on LOGCAP. Vice President Al Gore, who was vigorously reinventing government to be more responsive and empowering federal employees to find cost savings and generally imposing the kind of management efficiencies that get the profs at Harvard Business School all hot and bothered, held up the Pentagon’s LOGCAP program as a poster child for good governance. “Outsourcing or privatization of key support functions, with the strong prospect of lowering costs and improving performance, is under way under the leadership of the Deputy Secretary of Defense,” trumpeted Gore’s 1996 report on the streamlining of the Defense Department.

Some sections read like brochure copy for Cheney’s Halliburton: “LOGCAP has provided the Army with a highly flexible contractual means of providing quality of life services to troops deployed in some of the harshest environments in the world, without impacting its combat capability.”

It’s like they thought it was magic; you half expected the pages of that Al Gore report to shake loose a little glitter, a smiley face sticker or two.

In Clinton’s eight years in office—massive cost overruns and sex-slave scandals notwithstanding—the military’s program of privatization exploded. In 1992, the US Department of Defense did a few hundred million dollars’ worth of business with private contractors. By the time Clinton left office, the Department of Defense had executed more than three thousand contracts valued at about $300 billion. In fact, Defense had been contracting private vendors with such eager rapidity that nobody at the Pentagon could actually tot up the number of private workers who were on the military’s payroll (once removed). Maybe it was 125,000 people. Maybe closer to 600,000. Not quite sure.

They were unable to tell Congress or anybody else exactly how much was being doled out for training, security, or food services. But the Pentagon did have some other numbers to share that sounded good. Consider the savings, they told congressional committees: skilled local laborers hired to do plumbing or electrical work on overseas bases, for instance, were paid at least ten dollars an hour less than a soldier might be. And a company like KBR (Brown & Root had merged with another company to become Kellogg, Brown & Root, or KBR) could pay $1.12 an hour to an unskilled Croatian laborer, where an American soldier might cost $16 an hour, and leave the government on the hook for all those “quality of life” benefits like medical care and dental care and day care. Didn’t take a degree in finance to see the value in that.

The Clinton years saw some spectacular mission creep in outsourcing, too. By the time Clinton left office, Department of Defense privatization was a damn sight more than the effort to get twenty-four-hour Oscar Mayer products and cornflakes and Gatorade into PXs on forward military bases in Bosnia. The military had also outsourced pieces of information technology, data processing, payroll, mapping, aerial surveillance—even intelligence gathering.

Private American companies were providing military expertise and weapons training to countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. One particular beneficiary was a private company founded by a gaggle of recently retired US Army generals, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), “with a recognition that there is a great national resource in the retired military community,” as one of the principals said. “And if that talent could be brought together we could provide various military expertise in a variety of ways to our government.” Less modestly, MPRI described itself as “the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world.”

In 2000, MPRI (its many talents in tow) was bought for $40 million by a company called L-3, which envisioned a bright future for it. The company profile noted “changing political climates have led to increased demand for certain services … these programs tend to expand.” At that time MPRI was already training America’s future officer corps, having taken charge of key jobs in ROTC programs at more than two hundred universities. So pleased with MPRI were Clinton’s guys at Defense that they had basically handed the privateers the keys to what should be a public kingdom. In 1997, when the Pentagon wanted to overhaul its doctrine for working with private contractors, it outsourced the writing of that doctrine to a private contractor, MPRI.

It was like the old Baltimore pol/saloon owner who was asked if he should recuse himself on a pending question about how to regulate saloons:

Why would I do that?

The conflict of interest with the legislation regulating saloons.

I don’t see how that conflicts with my interests at all. I’m in that business myself.

Private contractors in general, and MPRI in particular, had not demonstrated that they had improved the dollar cost of doing US military business. In fact, the sort of huge cost overruns the government had encountered on Brown & Root’s original Balkan contract were the norm on even the most straightforward contracts. The Army, according to a 1997 investigation by the US General Accounting Office, “did not implement a systematic method of inspections to monitor contract performance. As a result, they could not ensure that the contractor performed work in accordance with contract provisions, used the minimum number of resources to meet the Army’s requirements, and furnished the appropriate level of support.”

In other words, nobody was sure exactly what we were getting for our money. Whatever the aggregate weight gain among the soldiers stationed in Tuzla or Slavonski Brod, nobody could tell if private contractors were more cost-effective, or more effective in general, than the military would have been, doing its own work. The soldiers flying the DynCorp-serviced helicopters that came out of the little chamber of horrors at Camp Comanche were certainly no safer. Neither was the local population, for that matter.

Meanwhile, all through the Clinton years, the stench at the center of the privatization experiment was obscured by all the Al Gore-created systems-efficiency nosegays about the flexibility and the streamlining and the sewage and solid-waste disposals and transportation grids and the generally empowering quality-of-life services at work in the fields of civilian augmentation and outsourcing. And so nobody in the Clinton administration ever really apprehended the acute and lasting problem of LOGCAP and the thousands of other small privatization ploys they unleashed; the acute and lasting problem was that they cut that mooring line tying our wars to our politics, the line that tied the decision to go to war to public debate about that decision. The idea of the Abrams Doctrine—and Jefferson’s citizen-soldiers—was to make it so we can’t make war without causing a big civilian hullabaloo. Privatization made it all easy, and quiet.

Like Reagan, President Bill Clinton had come to appreciate the merits of shifting ever-greater slices of difficult-to-sell foreign policy missions into the private sector. Unlike Reagan, who had secretly and illegally privatized military and fund-raising operations in support of the Contras, Clinton’s “outsourcing” allowed him to do much of what he wanted on the books, legally, as a matter of policy, but without the public much noticing. Take, for example, the Balkans.

Commander in Chief Clinton had inherited this disaster when he came into office in 1993. The bloodbath had begun in the George Herbert Walker Bush years, when, in the euphoria of the Soviet breakup, the state of Yugoslavia started spinning off its component parts with all the centrifugal force that ethnic and religious differences can muster. Roman Catholic Slovenia declared its independence, as did Roman Catholic Croatia, as did the ethnoreligiously mixed state of Bosnia. Bosnia’s population was part Muslim, part Eastern Orthodox Christian (Serbs), and part Catholic (mostly Croats). Slobodan Miloševic, incensed at having lost much of the Yugoslav federation he had just taken over, stirred his Serbian followers into a fury of paranoid ethnic and religious hatred, seized control of the Yugoslavian Army (JNA) and its arsenal, and began a series of punishing attacks on these new, internationally recognized sovereign countries.

The worst Serbian rampage was in Bosnia, where the JNA and bands of Serbian paramilitary thugs cut a vicious swath beginning in April 1992. The Serbs killed more than twenty-five thousand Muslims, along with many Bosnian Christians who tried to protect them; they burned out entire villages, tortured and killed Muslim leaders and intellectuals, and raped more than twenty thousand women and girls. All told, a million and a half Muslims fled their homes during the Serbian blitz. The Serbian strongman on the ground in Bosnia called it “ethnic shifting.” A US State Department Human Rights Report called it “ethnic cleansing,” and said that the killing “dwarfs anything seen in Europe since Nazi times.” Others called it flat-out genocide. The Serbs were undeterred by the world’s condemnation. They continued to shell civilians in the capital of Sarajevo, cluster-bombed other urban Muslim and Croat areas, and even shot down a plane carrying relief supplies into Bosnia. The Bosnian president lamented the “threat of extinction.”

But the Bush administration had its hands full and was determined to steer clear of this European war. Their shiniest new hero, Gen. Colin Powell, reportedly called Bosnia a “nonstrategic interest.” He wrote in a New York Timesop-ed, “The crisis in Bosnia is especially complex … one with deep ethnic and religious roots that go back a thousand years. The solution must ultimately be a political one.” Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, put it succinctly: “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Clinton had talked tough on Bosnia during the 1992 campaign. He said as president he would likely lift the UN-imposed arms embargo and help arm the Croatians and the Bosnians to fight the Serbs themselves. He also said he would order bombing runs on Serb artillery positions near Sarajevo and use military force to make sure relief supplies got to the Bosnian refugees. “I specifically would not foreclose the option of the use of force on that issue, because I’m horrified by what I’ve seen.”

“We lay great hopes in the new administration,” Bosnia’s foreign minister said a few days after Clinton’s election. “We hope they will fully understand the importance of the American role in halting the tragedy.” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel buttonholed Clinton at a public event a few months into his presidency and implored him to do something to stop this unfolding European disaster. And Clinton really wanted to do something, really wanted to fix this nightmare in the Balkans.

But by the time the president bent himself to selling to the American people the notion of using American power to halt the Serbian-run massacre in Bosnia, he was already taking hard knocks in the public arena. A series of air strikes, critics sniffed, was a hopeless tactic suggested by a national security naïf. Sen. John McCain, a hero pilot and the country’s most famous Vietnam prisoner of war, was leading the charge against. “Can you guarantee me that no American will be killed?” he asked a fellow senator who was supporting the use of air power.

In public, McCain was even more forceful. “Air strikes would frankly not affect the situation, unless—and this is a huge unless—we are prepared to commit ground troops in a prolonged military operation in Yugoslavia. And frankly, the polls show, by two to one margins, the American people even oppose air strikes.… I will not place the lives of young Americans, men and women, at risk without having a plan that has every possibility of succeeding, a way in, a way to beneficially affect the situation, and a way out, and we do not have that.” Clinton’s plan, said McCain, “has a hauntingly familiar ring to me. It was the same rationale we used to start the bombing of North Vietnam. That’s the way we got our fist into a tar baby that took us many years to get out of and twenty years to recover from.”

McCain was carrying a lot of water for the Pentagon in those days. Popular myth to the contrary, the American institution often least interested in going to war is the US military; it is especially wary of a war civilian leaders promise will be limited. “The use of force was controversial,” wrote Nancy Soderberg, Clinton’s deputy assistant for national security affairs, “and the strongest opponent was the Pentagon and Powell.”

The holdover chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, seemed to be aware that he was already a few points ahead of President Clinton in the earliest 1996 election polls, and that triple the number of Americans trusted General Powell in the arena of foreign policy than trusted the president. And he frankly judged Clinton as a bit too much of an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand academic. Long years on the national security watch had given the general a much stronger stomach than the new president when it came to absorbing the daily press accounts of prison camp survivors, or of homeless and starving Muslim and Croat refugees, or of the victims of Serbian artillery, snipers, and paramilitary knife-wielding thugs. Polite, slightly condescending, and occasionally testy was how Soderberg described Powell’s demeanor when he was engaged in steering Clinton and his national security team away from the “limited war” scenario of bombing runs followed by … more bombing runs. “Powell argued repeatedly that any such action would be tantamount to going to war with Serbia,” Soderberg wrote. “ ‘Don’t fall in love with air power because it hasn’t worked,’ [he said]. To Powell, air power would not change Serb behavior, ‘only troops on the ground could do that.’ ”

“Time and again he led us up the hill of possibilities and dropped us off on the other side with the practical equivalent of ‘No can do,’ ” Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright wrote in her memoir. “After hearing this for the umpteenth time, I asked in exasperation, ‘What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?’ ”

“I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell wrote of that moment.

“The Pentagon,” wrote Soderberg, “dragged its feet developing the military plans for Bosnia and raised numerous objections.… Senior military leaders were quick to point out that any such deployment would require a call-up of reserves, which would be politically unpopular, especially for a new president wanting to focus on domestic issues so early in his term.”

Meanwhile, some in the press were throwing down the gauntlet. “Nobody in Clinton’s administration has yet explained, simply and plainly, what America’s interests and objectives in the Balkans are,” the Economist editorialized. “[President Clinton] will have to do better than say that he has thought things over carefully. He will have to tell a puzzled people, with no great desire to put its children in harm’s way, why he is doing precisely that. It is, by a long way, the greatest test yet of whether he is up to the job.”

With his public approval ratings already sinking under the weight of policy fumbles like gays in the military and a failing health-care initiative, Clinton decided to take a pass on his Balkans test. In this game of chicken with the Pentagon and mouthpieces like McCain, Clinton blinked. Clinton managed to commit the US military to a fairly impotent “no-fly zone” operation, and applauded the UN-formed “safe zones” in the Balkans, but other than that he sat back and watched while Miloševic and Serb warlords continued to grind down the Croats and the Bosnians, and then taunt the West. The Serbs waved off calls for peace plans or other diplomatic overtures. “Bosnia never existed,” said one of Miloševic’s deputies, “and it will never.” The nastiest general in the Serbian Army, Ratko Mladic, who would kill seven thousand Muslim men and boys (civilians all) in Srebenica, warned that if the Americans and their allies ever did try to stop them, “they would leave their bones in Bosnia.… If [the West] bombs me, I’ll bomb London. There are Serbs in London. There are Serbs in Washington.”

Even with a villain like Mladic to help his case, President Clinton never really expended much effort on the politically costly task of convincing the American public of the need to arm the Bosnians or Croatians, or the need to unleash American air power on Miloševic and the Serbs, or the need to put US boots on the ground. Instead, he found a way to do something without the necessity of making any vigorous public argument for it, and without much involving his own balky Pentagon. Thank you, MPRI!

It happened like this: In 1994, a little more than a year into Clinton’s presidency, the Croatian minister of defense asked Washington if he might, in spite of the UN arms embargo, get some help—like, say, weapons or training or a leg up in gaining admission to NATO. The Pentagon referred the minister (a native Croatian with a successful Canadian pizza business; well-spoken and serious, he was) to an outfit down the road in Alexandria, Virginia, called Military Personnel Resources Incorporated. A few months later, MPRI signed a contract with the Croatian government—sanctioned in advance by the US Departments of Defense and State—called the Democratic Transition Assistance Program. By early 1995, a cadre of former US generals, including a former Army chief of staff and a former head of US Army, Europe, together with retired line officers and NCOs, began “training [Croatian] officers in basic leadership skills and an understanding of where they fit into a democratic society,” according to an MPRI spokesman. “We teach general management, training management. We teach how to do planning, programming, the budgeting process, which is new to them.”

By the time MPRI’s “democratic transition assistance” work in Croatia got under way, the Clinton administration had already given a tacit go-ahead to other countries (particularly Iran!) to arm the Bosnians too. For allowing the flow of arms to Bosnia through its ports and across its airspace, the Croatians got a cut that added up to about 30 percent of the Iranian weapons shipments. While under the tutelage of MPRI, the Croats also bought a billion dollars’ worth of tanks and assault helicopters from the old Warsaw powers. And then they put them to good use.

In August 1995, about half a year after MPRI took up their instruction at the Petar Zrisnki Military Academy in Croatia, the Croats launched an offensive called Operation Storm. The objective was to take back a former Croatian region called Krajina, which the Serb Army had violently seized a few years earlier. Within a week, the Croat Army had routed the Serbs, surprising everyone in the Balkans, and the world. “The lightning five-pronged offensive, integrating air power, artillery and rapid infantry movements, and relying on intense maneuvers to unhinge Serbian command and control networks, bore many hallmarks of U.S. Army doctrine,” a reporter in Krajina wrote at the time. “It was a textbook operation,” said a British colonel in charge of UN troops in Krajina, “though not a [Yugoslav Army] textbook. Whoever wrote that plan of attack could have gone to any NATO staff college in North America or Western Europe and scored an A-plus.”

Suspicions for training up the Croatian Army into a lethal, Western-style fighting force naturally fell on MPRI, but the contract generals took pains to remind anybody who asked that the company was just there to provide “democratic transition assistance” and not to plan battles or game out wars. Clinton didn’t appear to care one way or another about MPRI’s actual role in Operation Storm. He was giddy with the result. “I was rooting for the Croatians,” the president wrote in his autobiography. “It was the first defeat for the Serbs in four years, and it changed both the balance of power on the ground and the psychology of all the parties. One Western diplomat in Croatia was quoted as saying, ‘There was almost a signal of support from Washington. The Americans have been spoiling for a chance to hit the Serbs, and they are using Croatia as their proxy to do the deed for them.’ ” Clinton apparently agreed with the diplomat’s assessment enough to quote him, and proudly.

After four years of assuming Western impotence, if not outright approval, Miloševic finally felt the noose tightening. Within weeks of the Croat victory at Krajina, in the face of ever more energetic NATO air strikes, and with the prospect of facing a newly armed (American-trained and -supported) coalition of Bosnians and Croatians, the Serb leader knuckled under. He came to the negotiating table to sign a deal that ended his genocidal four-year rampage.

So it was soon after the peace accords were signed that those twenty thousand American peacekeepers—who would be joined by twenty thousand private citizens under contract to provide support services—arrived in Bosnia and Croatia as part of an international force to keep Miloševic and his Serbian military under heel. And did Clinton have a hard time selling that manpower commitment to the American people? He did not. He was helped greatly by—what else? Outsourcing. Clinton had only had to make a minimal call-up of Guard members and Reserves. “An Army planner told us they could have asked the national command authority to increase the force ceiling and reserve call-up authority,” according to a US government audit of the Bosnian operation. “However, because they had LOGCAP as an option, it was not necessary to seek these increases to meet support needs.”

It was also not necessary for a skittish and unsure president to put himself on the line seeking a real show of public support for our mission. And Congress didn’t take a stand one way or the other. The president simply shipped American troops off to a possible war zone and both houses of Congress offered a mealy vote of almost-approval, expressing reservations about the president’s policy but agreeing to support “the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who are carrying out their missions in support of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina with professional excellence, dedicated patriotism and exemplary bravery.” The Clinton administration got this not-quite-approval approval largely because it assured Congress that the mission would be short and limited.

More than three years later, there were still thousands of American troops in Bosnia. And when Miloševic’s Serbian Army started menacing a new target in former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Clinton had a game plan at the ready. NATO started up another bombing campaign and the president prepared to deploy an entirely new contingent of US soldiers to keep the peace in yet another former Yugoslavian state. “How could the U.S. military find a way to provide the logistics for its forces, without calling up reserves or the National Guard, while at the same time helping to deal with the humanitarian crisis that the war had provoked?” asked Peter W. Singer in his book Corporate Warriors. “Simple: the U.S. military would pass the work on to someone else.… Instead of having to call up roughly 9,000 reservists, Brown & Root Services was hired.”

Cheney’s little “augmentation” program had proved a godsend to the Clinton administration. “It is often necessary to use LOGCAP in these missions,” noted the Government Accounting Office report on Bosnia in 1997, “because of the political sensitivity of activating guard and reserve forces.”

That political sensitivity is there for a reason. Mounting an overseas military operation should force a national gut-check about wars that presidents might otherwise rush us into. It lessens the possibility of stranding our military in conflicts the country doesn’t support or, worse, doesn’t care about. Having a work-around for that political sensitivity must have felt like genius to those who wanted war without the hassle, but even in the short run, that work-around had clear unintended consequences. Not only was there little public debate about the merits of a major American deployment, there was also less pressure to bring the mission to a quick conclusion. American peacekeeping troops were in the Balkans for more than eight years, without the general public much noticing. Even at the time of the initial deployment, little more than a third of the country was closely following the story; only a fifth understood the details of the US contribution to the international peacekeeping force. The American public, according to a Pew Research Center poll, was much more interested in a recent blizzard and a weekend-long federal government shutdown. Eight years into the Balkan mission, the American public was even less engaged.

“Deploying LOGCAP or other contractors instead of military personnel can alleviate the political and social pressures that have come to be a fact of life in the U.S. whenever military forces are deployed,” wrote Lt. Col. Steven Woods in his Army War College study about the effects of LOGCAP. “While there has been little to no public reaction to the deaths of five DynCorp employees killed in Latin America or the two American support contractors from Tapestry Solutions attacked (and one killed) in Kuwait … U.S. forces had to be withdrawn from Somalia after public outcry following the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu.…

“Additionally, military force structure often has a force cap, usually for political reasons. Force caps impose a ceiling on the number of soldiers that can be deployed into a defined area. Contractors expand this limit.” To infinity and beyond, in other words, with a pay-to-play pop-up army.

By the time Bill Clinton left office in 2001, an Operation Other Than War, as Pentagon forces called them, could go on indefinitely, sort of on autopilot—without real political costs or consequences, or much civilian notice. We’d gotten used to it.

By 2001, the ability of a president to start and wage military operations without (or even in spite of) Congress was established precedent.

By 2001, even the peacetime US military budget was well over half the size of all other military budgets in the world combined.

By 2001, the spirit of the Abrams Doctrine—that the disruption of civilian life is the price of admission for war—was pretty much kaput.

By 2001, we’d freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.