May 30, 2006


Somewhere in Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22, the amoral capitalist Milo Minderbinder says "Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry."

At the time the book was written, this absurdity generated laughter. In retrospect, it turns out to have been prophetic.

The privatization agenda has advanced rapidly since 2001. Despite a major defeat in the case of Social Security, it continues to move “forward” in education and many former government services.

In their recent book The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy, Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich define privatization as the corporate effort to “undercut, limit, shrink, or outright take over any government and any part of the public sector that (1) stands in the way of corporate pursuit of ever larger profits, and (2) could be run for profit.” And nothing is sacred here.

Which brings us back to Milo. According to Kahn and Minnich, the US military is among the most privatized in the world. In fact, whatever one thinks about the war in Iraq, looking through the military lens can show just how far the privatization agenda has advanced and how dangerous it is.

Aside from the murky world of mercenary civilian “contractors,” many routine services provided in the past by military personnel are carried out by private corporations in Iraq and elsewhere. In late December 2004, this had tragic consequences when insurgents blew up a mess hall, killing 22 people.

Kahn and Minnich help fill in the blanks:

On December 23, Gwen Ifill interviewed retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He raised another question. “What mystified me when I heard about this, Gwen, was that even in maneuvers back in the Cold War days when you were just playing war, you got your chow and you dispersed, because in war, if an artillery shell hit you, you wanted them to kill two or three of four soldiers at most, not forty or fifty or sixty or eighty.

“And what’s clearly happened in Iraq is we violated our own rules about troop dispersion in wartime. I suspect it has to do with outsourcing. This mess hall, mess facility, chow hall was run by a contractor.

“Instead of security, what we saw was convenience and efficiency. But it just baffled me that this base and this chow hall, specifically…had been attacked before with rocket fire, with mortars. And we were still crowding these troops, not even staggering the schedules. It just astonished me.”

Efficiency in the interest of profit trumped safety. As the authors conclude, “Outsourced, contracted out: Feeding the troops had been privatized.”

Unfortunately, while the drive to privatization has clearly gone too far already, there is no end in sight.


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