Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Military Privatization

[Just found this post from a few weeks ago orphaned in my 'drafts'. Thus the out-of-date news story.]

I've got some mixed opinions about military contractors in Iraq. I think it's manifestly clear that the unaccountable triggerhappiness of some of the mercenaries private security contractors has made the task of victory tougher and more dangerous for constitutional American forces. On the other hand, the privatization of many support operations to contractors like KBR has raised the standard of living at US bases in Iraq to unimaginable levels. I lived and ate better in Iraq than I could even dream of on a base in the US. Behind the build-your-own panini line, Mongolian barbeque and ice-cream sundaes, however, some truly worrisome safety issues have come to light (from CNN, via hilzoy).
Thousands of buildings at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have such poorly installed wiring that American troops face life-threatening risks, a top inspector for the Army says.

"It was horrible -- some of the worst electrical work I've ever seen," said Jim Childs, a master electrician and the top civilian expert in an Army safety survey. Childs told CNN that "with the buildings the way they are, we're playing Russian roulette."

Childs recently returned from Iraq, where he is taking part in a yearlong review aimed at correcting electrical hazards on U.S. bases. He told CNN that thousands of buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan are so badly wired that troops are at serious risk of death or injury. He said problems are "everywhere" in Iraq, where 18 U.S. troops have died by electrocution since 2003.

Most of these bases were built by the much-maligned KBR, which has been such a liberal punching-bag I instinctively want to defend it. But I've seen how they operate, and so this story is all too believable. KBR keeps costs low by employing "third-country nationals" or TCNs, mostly from South Asia and the Philippines. I've got no problem with these guys cooking my dinners and cleaning my bathrooms, in fact I'm quite grateful for it. But if they're going to be wiring my hooch and plumbing my showers, KBR ought to be expected to hold them to first-world safety standards. And the contractor's non-apology makes sympathy difficult:

What is important to remember is the challenging environment in which these issues exist.

The electrical standards in Iraq are nowhere near those of Western or U.S. standards. Add to this the challenges that exist in a war zone. We have been and remain committed to fully cooperating with the government on this issue.

Except that we're talking about bases that KBR has built from the ground up, powered by grids built by KBR and fed by generators supplied by KBR. I don't honestly know what they're trying to pull.

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