Even if it is for sale, Judge Adam Arseneau wouldn't buy Iraq. Too much of a fixer-upper.
Who's getting killed. Who's making a killing.
Take a brick, throw it up in the air, and catch it with your forehead. How'd that feel? Now imagine how Halliburton feels after seeing this movie.
The new hard-hitting documentary from Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism) on the onerous subject of war profiteering, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers is a scathing examination into the disturbing private subsidization of the American military that will drop jaws on all sides of the political spectrum.
Facts of the Case
Iraq for Sale takes a tough, detailed examination into so-called "war profiteer" companies deployed in Iraq to subsidize the military; private corporations that provide food, water, fuel, services, and protection to various government agencies during wartime. Such corporations are often found to possess ludicrous, no-bid contract deals, overcharge government agencies for services rendered by ludicrous amounts, and provide little to no accountability for any misfortune or tragedy that may befall any of its employees.
Huge billion-dollar corporations like Titan, CACI, Blackwater, and KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton) all have deep ties to the military, and are usually founded and run by senior retired military personnel, which gives them influence throughout Washington to land massive, no-bid contracts where costs run over, services are slipshod, and untrained civilians are put into harm's way.
The war in Iraq has been privatized to an extent that no other war in history has ever been. There are currently 100,000 private civilian contracts currently working in the Middle East, hired by the American government to subsidize the military in all aspects from food supply, infrastructure, communication, transportation, even personal protection. The only task that remains solely in the hands of the military, it seems, is the actual killing part. In an ever-increasing strategy of cost-cutting and downsizing, the modern American military complex is nowhere near as self-sufficient today as it was in yesteryears, depending heavily on private contractors on an unprecedented scale.
This "selling out," as it were, is not necessarily a problem in of itself. American ideology and capitalistic values would tend to suggest that the free market should dictate over the needs of a nation, and that privatization of government issues is a natural, necessary function of modern capitalism. On the other hand, corporations exist solely to make a profit, and when they get involved in issues that are normally entrusted to governmental oversight, conflicts of interest can arise. Soldiers who act unprofessional can be court-martialed; private contractors get sent home and hired by another corporation.
In Iraq for Sale, we have an interesting conundrum of cost cutting at the expense of human lives. As the government gets more and more dependent on private contractors to pick up the slack, what level of accountability exists for these private contractors to uphold the same moral responsibility we place onto our government? They are, after all, businessman out to make money and that is their first and final goal. However, for war profiteers, cutting costs usually means endangering lives, whether intentional or unintentional.
Iraq for Sale is a ruthlessly effective documentary, and the key to its success is the calm, effortless, and relaxed way it presents damning factoid after shocking revelation, reeling the viewer with insurmountable evidence. Within a scant 90 minutes, a surprisingly persuasive amount of evidence is presented to the viewer, and all without resorting to lower forms of name-calling or muckraking. There are no outlandish suggestions of conspiracies, no left-wing accusations, just simple, solid, damning evidence. The film strings the dramatic violins now and again, but only for style points.
Charts and pie graphs flow past the viewer with stomach-wrenching efficiency, interlaced with horrendous photos from Abu Ghraib prisoners being humiliated by private contractors free from the military chain of command. Staggering revelations emerge, like how, thanks to "cost-plus" expenditures, it is standard practice for private contractors to destroy and burn an $80,000 truck in the desert and bill the government rather than replace a single blown tire. Or how grunt soldiers are reprimanded by their superiors for doing their own laundry in sinks rather than submitting the laundry to the contractors for processing, which returns the clothes poorly washed and bills the government $100 per load. Or testimony from private contractors about running completely empty convoys through war-torn Iraq, putting their lives in danger in order to bill the government for "services rendered."
At no point does the film suggest that all contractors be forced out of the equation, or that the privatization of war in of itself is a bad thing, which is to the film's credit. It only observes, and rightly so, that private corporations are not patriots and that much legislation and reform and accountability are required components to make the equation work. Iraq for Sale is too sensible to make unrealistic demands; it only points out the glaring inconsistencies, problems, and shortcomings of the current model, and challenges the viewer to get involved in solving them. After all, these are our tax dollars being squandered inefficiently by corporations given private, no-bid contracts without voter consent. It may be true that the private corporation and the military are forever entwined, but that's no reason why soldiers should have to pay $45 for a six-pack of Coca-Cola. That's just insanity.
There is an undeniable lack of accountability for war profiteering occurring on a blatant scale, and considering the widespread media attention of Halliburton over billing the federal government well over a billion dollars, it seems a reasonable assumption that the federal government, for whatever reason, is tolerating such actions. With over $70 million awarded to Blackwater by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, our dependence on private contractors does not seem to be going away any time soon.
Since it's funded and distributed entirely outside the studio system on the donations of interested parties, I was impressed to read about how the filmmakers actively encourage interested parties to host grassroots screenings of Iraq For Sale, a concept most studio executives would find scandalous at best, illegal at worst. In fact, almost every film on DVD sold today specifically forbids anyone to do exactly this in the opening FBI warning-noticeably absent in Iraq For Sale. Greenwald and his team call this an "essential distribution structure needed for long-term social change," and they just may be onto something. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and these filmmakers want to capitalize on the best that guerrilla marketing has to offer.
Despite being thrown together fairly quickly, Iraq for Sale has a solid technical presentation, with solid black levels, good color tones, and respectable detail. As with all documentaries, the quality of the material varies depending on the source—some material looks to be straight streaming video clips from the Internet—but overall, no complaints, except that it would have been nice to see an anamorphic transfer. We get a surprisingly effective 5.1 presentation in English (a 2.0 Spanish track is also available) with good heft, nice bass response, good environmental use of the rear channels, and solid dialogue levels.
Iraq for Sale has a nice offering of supplementary features for a single-disc DVD, including a full-length audio commentary with filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who augments his own film quite effortlessly, balancing between factoids and production tales. A 20-minute abridged version of Iraq for Sale is also included, which gives a concise and compressed overview of the salient points which can be used for organizational purposes, or for those people with really short attention spans. My favorite feature, "Important Votes" is a 25-minute excerpt of key Senator and Congress votes being held on the subject of war profiteering and, even more damning, a list of politicians who voted for and against each bill. Also included is "The Invisible Workforce" is a five-minute featurette on Third Country Nationals traveling from around the world to come to Iraq for work. Such nationals make up a significant portion of the private contractor, and ultimately are paid significantly less than American contractors for performing more dangerous jobs. A fast four-minute behind-the-scenes "making of" featurette interviews cast and crew regarding the creation of Iraq for Sale, and we also get a four-minute featurette on Brave New World's "Open Door Training Program," creating opportunity for first-time filmmakers. Some trailers round out the material—not bad!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I found Iraq for Sale to be a convincing and forceful documentary, but it spends a little too much time with the families of the grieved, airing frustrated accusations towards the private companies that hired their loved ones. Their stories are heart-wrenching, and they certainly have my respect and sympathy, but their overuse in the film gives me pause. The implication that any companies intentionally send their men and women into harm's way for "profit" seems a bit farfetched to me.
I have little doubt that companies like KBR have their pockets deep into the American government and exhibit some cartel-esque behavior. I can even believe these companies are using civilians in an improper fashion, but what would they have to gain by deliberately trying to kill their employees? It is callous to think about in such businesslike terms, but at the very least, such actions would mean a lot of extra paperwork and re-hiring and revenue lost—not something any company would want.
Fifteen years ago, the ratio of private contractors to troops was 1 to 60. Currently, the ratio sits at roughly 1 to 3. The 21st century is rapidly seeing a blurring between nation and corporation on the battlefield, and without a clear set of guidelines and accountability laid out, who knows what trouble lies ahead for the division between combatant and noncombatant? And can the nation's coiffeurs take the repeated bilking of billions of dollars into the hands of private corporations at the expense of our own soldiers?
Even the most hawkish of conservatives cannot deny the questions being raised here require addressing, and soon. Gut-wrenchingly effective, Iraq for Sale is a well-made and compelling documentary.
Fascinating + eye-opening = not guilty.
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