Thursday, August 27, 2009

Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers [movie review]

* Released theatrically and on DVD in 2006
You don't have to be an American to get caught up in the outrage a documentary like Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers will provoke. Released in 2006, it presents a disturbing probe into the employment of private U.S. contractors in the Iraq war and how greed and incompetence from these companies have proliferated the American war effort. Director Robert Greenwald is no stranger to muckraking docs - he took on Wal-Mart in Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price (2005), Fox News with Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism (2004) and previously looked at the Iraq conflict in a broader sense with 2004's Uncovered: The War On Iraq.
The film is loaded with unsettling details that focus on private companies like Titan, Halliburton, KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary), Blackwater and CACI. All have strong ties to the Republican Party and conflicts of interest abound. Former Vice President Dick Cheney used to be the CEO of Halliburton. The CEO of Blackwater at the time of this film's release had donated over two million dollars to Republican candidates. Massive contracts in the billions are handed out with little or no competitive bidding, with the beneficiaries more often than not being Republican Party cronies. Blackwater infamously landed a large contract from FEMA to assist with security in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we all know how smoothly that effort went.
Blackwater also plays a large factor in the emotional heart of the film, although for the worst of reasons. Families of former Blackwater employees, who were killed, their bodies desecrated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, deliver angry testimonials of the company's negligence and emphasis on profit over the welfare of their employees. Former Blackwater employees also offer up similar rebukes, including criticisms that workers were frequently put into dangerous situations, including one example where a group of truck drivers were told to deliver goods through an area that was widely known to be hostile. And was.
The Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal garnered a heap of bad press for the military, but an underreported fact is that an estimated half of the prison's interrogators were employed by CACI and thereby not held to the same accountability as standard military personnel. Linguists/translators were hired off the street by Titan with apparently minimal requirements, some barely even having a grasp of English. To think that these hires were entrusted with assisting in gathering sensitive information, that in some cases had potentially life or death consequences, is staggering.
Halliburton, who specialize in Iraq's rebuilding effort, gets the brunt of criticism and deservedly so. A former employee is brought to tears as he recounts his efforts to inform his superiors that the clean water he was in charge of providing to the military was actually contaminated. His complaints fell on deaf ears. Halliburton's contracts function on what's called a "cost-plus" structure, so whatever amount they end up spending they then get that expense back in full, in addition to a profit margin. Think that system got abused? Here's just a few examples: they billed the U.S. government $100 each for a regular load of laundry, convoys of trucks were sent out completely empty while being billed for carrying full loads, Halliburton employees get treated to lavish vacations at expensive resorts and $80,000 trucks are discarded and replaced instead of having simple maintenance to replace an old oil filter or have a flat tire changed. In some cases the vehicles are actually torched and left at the side of the road. And again, the U.S. government is footing the bill for all of it.
The film really doesn't suffer from the fact it's three years old. If you've paid attention to the news then the fact that there's wasteful spending in Iraq doesn't constitute a shocking revelation - it's the details and personal stories that inspire the anger towards these heartless corporations that exploit misery into opportunity. And all the while, Congress turns a blind eye as a result of powerful lobby group influence and the U.S. military establishes a new low as far as their oversight and accountability standards.
The documentary is quite one-sided (how could it not be?), but Greenwald does make an effort to give the companies and their rich CEO's a chance to defend themselves, which they reject. One of the funniest clips in the movie is of then-president Bush being asked a question on the accountability of these private firms and his cavalier response, complete with inappropriate humour as he tap dances his way through it, eventually finishing with him essentially shrugging his shoulders and not being able to answer the query.
Greenwald succeeds in delivering yet another provocative and ambitious examination into the ugly side of corporate America (by way of the Middle East). Clearly not enough people saw this movie though, as I don't recall any large outcry in the past three years south of the border over the issues tackled in this movie and one assumes the wasteful spending in Iraq (and let's not forget Afghanistan) continues. Unfortunately, the people who need to see this film, the same types of people who were giving Bush a positive approval rating throughout his entire presidency, will be the ones least likely to view it.
Rating: 9/10