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Is Waste (in Warfare) Immoral?

Our readership loves posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I love supplying them with posts about military contractors running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan. They love these posts because they hate contractors.

And I think I know why. We don't trust contractors. A military contractor’s goals only accidentally correspond to our nation's goals; a soldiers are deliberately the same. The public knows this, and despises contractors for the resulting waste, fraud and abuse.

This fundamental difference in motivation is the reason military contractors over-bill the government and the American tax payer.  A contractor’s goal is to earn a profit, as much profit as possible. Earning more means more success. If a contractor can get paid more for the same work, he will try to do that. From the government's perspective, he tries to make waste by wasting their money.

This presents a philosophical question: is waste immoral? By waste, I mean the misuse of resources, be it people, money or time, that keeps our nation’s military forces from accomplishing our strategic objectives.

I could make an argument that waste is illegal. Gross negligence is a legal term; when it comes to the Pentagon, one could argue that gross negligence in preparation, contracting and leadership allowed the waste of contractors. Gross negligence probably exists in every war, and it would be impossible to actually prosecute a case, but the terms exist. A legal argument doesn't go far enough, though, and is too unwieldy for this argument.

If wasting money costs Soldiers their lives, then the waste of military contractors violates our ethical values. Much like the "An On V Global Warming Debate", the problem here is one of scale. A single contractor hoarding money will only rarely cost soldiers their lives. But if the compound effect of thousands of decisions to waste money prolongs our current conflicts, then more Soldiers will die. The decisions of contractors in the early days of the Iraq war directly caused civilian casualties. The decision of contractors in the early years of the Iraq war directly harmed the functioning of the Iraqi government. The decision of contractors even today keep the entire military from fielding equipment as rapidly as possible. Contractors have then basically stolen money from tax payers, caused the death of Iraqis and Americans, and lied to the American people about their intentions.

Corporations exist to earn a profit by maximizing effort and specializing skills. In the vast scheme of America and the world, this is extremely beneficial. When confined to a legal and regulatory structure, violence can be almost completely eradicated from the capitalist system.

For contractors that legal and regulatory structure doesn’t exist. In the vacuum of war, the result can be tragic. The waste endemic in the system costs Soldiers and civilians in the warzone their lives. Corporations, if they were altruistically motivated, could make decisions that would cost money but save lives. They don't.

The actions of military contractors are, therefore, immoral and unethical.

seventeen comments

I totally agree with this post’s thesis: contractors, by monetizing warfare, are wasteful. Mixing up profit with our national security is a terrible idea.

But, the third to last paragraph is absolutely insane. I get what Michael is trying to say, but I think corporations, at times, do not care about hurting people. Health care.

I think the main argument against contractors, in my opinion, is that they are paid considerably more than soldiers who do the same job with greater oversight. It’s hardly ethical to advocate paying contractors to protect shipments through dangerous territory at rates in six figures when many military families are at or below poverty level.

I’m both a contractor and a soldier. I’ve seen Iraq and Afghanistan from both sides. I think this is a lazy thesis.

Granted, my “contractor” self is deeply informed and influenced by my “soldier” self. This may or may not apply to a pure civilian contractor.

Do I get paid FAR more in Afghanistan than I ever got paid in Iraq (for essentially the same work)? Yes. Do I bring the same level of commitment and quality of work with me? Yes. Does my status as a civilian contractor allow me to do things (read: do my job better and more easily) than I ever could when I was deployed as a soldier? A resounding YES.

More to the point, there are probably more contractors in SWA than soldiers. Painting any group that large as composed entirely of money grubbing, self interested, & lazy people is . . . well, a lazy thesis. It allows the accuser to categorize and write off an entire community without having to actually expend any energy knowing anything about that community. This post displays the same kind of thinking that lumps all Jews together as hook nosed secretive bankers who run the world as part of a secret cabal and drink the blood of Christian babies. Not trying to be overly provocative, but you get my point I hope.

There are retired SOF in theater doing critical work and taking real risks. I am not one of them, but I work with them periodically, and I would trust them with my life. These are not the Blackwater crazies – they are the Quiet Professionals they’ve always been. They are also “contractors”, and they are a credit to their country AND their company.

I travel regularly in a dangerous AO and ensure EOD techs have reliable and robust communications. I am on call 24 hours/day. I do not carry a weapon. I eat with Joe, I sleep with Joe, I work with Joe and I get rocketed with Joe.

There are, of course, a range of attitudes and job performance amongst contractors. But then again, there are some shitty soldiers over here too. Griping about contractors costing too much is, IMO, little more than sour grapes. Soldiers have no problems using the internet I provide, or eating the steak & lobster KBR cooks, or showering in the facilities that Fluor constructs and maintains for them. Why then, do some soldiers insist on begrudging us our salaries? Because they’re deployed against their will while we’re here voluntarily, and they’re jealous they’re not making as much money as we are. Period. End of story.

Lastly, the next time you complain that contractors get paid too much, sit down and do the math. The cost of recruiting, training, outfitting, and deploying a soldier plus the cost of providing services for the soldier’s family plus the potential cost of retirement should the soldier retire from the military, versus the cost of hiring some IT guy to fix computers in country for a couple years (or to pull guard duty, to borrow another commentator’s example). It is far cheaper to hire a contractor for non-combat missions and pay market prices for their salary than it is to bring a soldier in for every single thing the military needs to accomplish. A soldier potentially costs the taxpayer millions of dollars, when all the DoD really wants is a job done for a discreet period of time. It is a short term expense, but a long term savings.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this though: If you’ve had a decent meal or checked your email or talked to your wife over Skype while you were in the middle of Butt Fuck Egypt during OEF/OIF? You’re welcome. Also, my project has some openings coming up, and we LOVE to hire prior military . . .

Mark, you missed pretty much the entire point of the post. Re-read the second and third paragraphs. The for-profit system is incapable of honestly dealing with the military system, because they are a for-profit system.

Example: If it costs a contractor 20$ to do X, he will try to charge 40, 80, 120 dollars to do X. The more he gets, the higher profit, the better the stock price. But everything above $20 will be wasteful.


Oh, and I’ll thank contractors for showers and internet once we’ve re-organized the military to get rid of them.

Mark, I’m sure the soldiers did enjoy having internet. I’m sure you do your job with the utmost vigor and dedication. And I have no doubt that soldier are jealous you are making more money than they are making.

Regardless of the quality of contractor, I would ask why it is necessary to pay a government contractor $60,000 or more to set up internet services in Iraq or protect cargo rather than raising the allotted salary for two soldiers and training them as specialist to do the very same duty in multiple times. Not only will they most likely be making less money than the one contractor, but you’re giving that soldier post-military training and better preparing them for civilian life.

Plus, realize that if you’re being paid $60,000 or more for your contractors job, the company you’re working for is billing the US government double, triple or more than what you are actually being paid.

This is a very important issue Mark, so I understand your emotions. Know that I do not mean to personally insult you, but I am trying to understand a complex system that was not present in previous wars in such tremendous quantities. I believe that system, military contracting, contributes to our failure to win in Afghanistan, and thus that it is wrong.

I realize that the main part of disagreement is a misunderstanding of the words I used. I primarily said “military contractors,” but I use that term to refer to both armed and unarmed contractors, and for the system as a whole. Also, I do not mean to refer to the individual contractors doing the work, but the companies themselves who are the primary vehicles for contract inflation.

To be clear, I never called contractors lazy. I did not call them greedy, I called them self interested. This is a fact. To earn a profit, a corporation must charge more than it costs to produce a good or service. In military contracting, the only customer is the government, and contractors definitely try to charge as much as possible. The system, on both sides, allows for massive waste. If you don’t believe me then look up the reports by the joint oversight committee for contracting. The amount of overcharging for services verges on absurd.

As for why it is cheaper to hire contractors, I believe that any firm that hires a former Soldier to do a military task should have to reimburse the military for training and recruiting him, whatever that is $100,000 or more. That would level the playing field. That would encourage congress to raise the number of Soldiers in uniform, which we should do.

As for your closing, I believe we waste money on luxuries for Soldiers. Contractors encourage that, but so do leaders and Soldiers themselves. I had trouble getting sandbags for village improvement projects, but Soldiers in BAF have salsa night. Yeah, that is waste and it isn’t how you win wars.

We have quite a few more thoughts on military contractors we will be sharing as long as we keep blogging, so stick around.

“I had trouble getting sandbags for village improvement projects, but Soldiers in BAF have salsa night.”

Absolutely shameful.

You know Kelly, i thought the same thing when I read that.

This is getting off topic from the original theme of the post, but . . .

Do you really believe that “salsa night” in Bagram has any bearing on the availability of supplies in your AO? I mean, honestly? You really think that soldiers listening to loud hispanic music in a tent for a couple hours per month has a negative impact on your ability to get supplies? I fail to see the real world connection.

Again, getting back to the honest to god mindset behind this sort of complaining: “They have something that I don’t have that I would like, and this makes me jealous.” Closely related, “I’m miserable and uncomfortable in my assignment, so EVERYONE ELSE should be just as miserable and uncomfortable, whether it makes any rational sense or not.”

Of course Bagram/Kandahar/Kabul have better accommodations than FOBs and COPs. It does not represent some fundamental disparity in the allocation of resources. If you wanted to break out a boom box, throw in a salsa CD and have salsa night at your FOB you can. Likewise, troops on Bagram at times have trouble procuring mission essential supplies or services.

The living conditions on large bases have NO bearing on the living conditions at more remote bases. It is a function of the geographic location and critical population mass of your base.

@ Micheal C – A thoughtful reply, thank you. However, I still think your basic thesis is flawed and you’re laying blame for the fraud, waste & abuse in theater on the wrong causes.

There have indeed been numerous examples of misconduct and unethical behavior in the contracting community. This has happened both at the individual and corporate/management level. One might conclude this reveals a fundamental corruption in the contracting industry (as you do), or one might conclude (as I do) that this is a result of lax and negligent oversight on the part of the US Government & military leadership.

The fraud, waste & abuse that have grabbed the headlines over the past 8 years are consistent with a general incompetence and pattern of governmental mismanagement on the part of the Bush administration that has manifested itself in the oversight/management of the contracts rewarded during this war. Case in point: KBR – one of the worst abusers – kept their no bid (NO BID!!!) contract the entire duration of the Bush administration in spite of multiple instances of fraud on their part. KBR didn’t somehow trick the US government into giving them a no bid contract. And as far as I know, KBR was not responsible for the government’s response once their misconduct was discovered. You can only blame the contractor so much for this – ultimately it’s a failure of oversight and enforcement.

Conversely, KBR lost their contract for life support on Bagram shortly after the Obama administration was sworn in. I might be cynical, but the timing between the exit of KBR’s former CEO (Cheney) from office and KBR losing their contract does not seem like a coincidence.

Of course, any contractor has an ethical responsibility in how they conduct business. At the same time, the government has a duty to enforce its own laws & regulations. It takes two to tango, and the relationship between industry & the Bush administration was fundamentally unhealthy for good governance and responsible use of taxpayer resources EVERYWHERE, not just in OIF/OEF.

However, just because the contracting industry has been mismanaged doesn’t mean that the basic idea – civilian contractors taking on non-combat missions at less cost and doing it better than the military can – is invalid. It means that the system needs to be run competently in order for the military and the US taxpayer to get the full benefit. One might recall that the campaign in Iraq was lead incompetently until 2006 by both military and civilian leadership in the DoD, and of course there were problems there as well. You can’t blame that on the bogey man of “contractors”. It’s plain old fashioned incompetence by the DoD.

Moving on . . .

To touch a couple of your supporting arguments:

1) Yes, contractors are motivated at least in part (and sometimes entirely) by self-interest. I would suggest most contractors are here both because they believe in what they’re doing, and they are attracted by the opportunity for higher pay and personal advancement.

They are employees working for compensation though, no question. It does not follow that military personnel are disinterested actors motivated only by honorable intentions, and that this principled spirit would fix all problems with fraud, waste & abuse. The vast number of soldiers would not agree to be deployed – or even to enlist – if they were not paid and did not receive other forms of compensation. Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking this is the 1770’s, when soldiers in the Revolutionary Army went without pay for months and years because they were fighting for a cause.

I don’t know a single Joe who turned down danger pay, family separation pay, tax free status, the GI Bill, or any of the other myriad forms of compensation unique to serving in a combat theater. I would also argue that if a deployment were made purely voluntary, the VAST majority of military personnel would not agree to deploy until the DoD made it sufficiently rewarding (read: paid more or offered sufficient extra compensation) to make deployment worth it. The fact that soldiers are deployed at significantly lower pay rates than contractors simply means that the DoD has the legal ability to compel deployment against the will of the individual soldier. Contractors on the other hand have to be enticed, and a large part of that enticement is more money.

2) You bring up a valid point that – for the sake of focus and clarity – I left out in my previous comment. The total number of military personnel is dictated by Congress. The hiring of contractors to provide non-combat services is one way that the DoD was able to meet their commitments all across the globe without having to convince Congress to expand the size of the overall military. This philosophy of organizing the military was being put in place prior to 9/11, but it really took off with OIF/OEF.

The law of war (to my understanding) dictates that offensive operations are limited to soldiers. DoD wants to be all things to all people everywhere around the world, and they’re only allowed to have so many shooters. The shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Hiring civilian Americans with clearances to provide MI or Signal roles, and hiring local nationals to clean bathrooms and fix toilets, is one way around the limitations on the number of personnel set by Congress.

This is not necessarily a bad arrangement, and frankly I tend to see it as making much more sense than requiring a uniformed soldier for every single job. (It also is a natural outcome of the conservative/Republican philosophical belief that private industry is inherently better than government in every instance. But I digress.)

As I alluded to above, this extensive use of contracts requires enforcement of existing regulations and laws, which has not been done so far. To use a metaphor – do you blame the child for being spoiled, or do you blame the parents for spoiling the child? I happen to think the child needs to bear responsibility for his/her behaviors, but the parents bear the lion’s share of responsibility for creating the spoiled beast in the first place.

Phew – this was long. But hopefully it contributed something useful to the discussion.


PS – the irony is not lost on me that I wrote this at work . . . as a government contractor. ;-)

That’s a lot to respond to Mark, and I don’t think I can get to it all, but I’ll make a few points.

On Salsa night. Salsa night is just an example, having a burger, King Movie theaters, Dairy Queen, two PXs and other amenities just enrage Soldiers out in the field. If you don’t think it is indicative of a larger problem, well, I don’t know what to say.

As far as blaming the Bush admin. and Congress for wanting more troops than they voted in, I agree totally with that, and frankly never thought of it.

In a perfect world, we’d hire contractors for a fair price to wash clothes, and cook food. In theory it works. But in practice, it’s become something ugly and I just haven’t seen it work yet.

@ Eric C – You’re absolutely right, the perception and the resentment exists. I don’t deny that. The larger issue it is indicative of, however, is simply a fact of human nature – the “if I can’t have it, neither should you” impulse. It’s been around since biblical times (remember Cain & Abel?) and in fact Jesus himself spoke to it and rejected that kind of jealous covetousness in the human heart. (Not trying to use the Bible as a point of authority, but as an example that this kind of attitude has been with us as long as some people have had things that others didn’t.)

It is simply a fact of life. Remote FOBs will ALWAYS have less amenities than large bases. The fact that soldiers in the remote FOBs get all worked up about it is, in my view, more a reflection of their own immaturity than of an actual systemic disparity in the allocation of resources.

Taking away salsa night, BK, DQ, or other “nice to haves” does not improve the lot of soldiers in remote FOBs. All it does is just expand the suck, so to speak. Is this really a principle we want to operate on and organize our forces around? That we all have to be equally miserable?

Personally, as a leader in the military, if/when I come across this sort of griping and complaining in my troops, I nip it in the bud, because it means my Joe is focusing on what some PAC clerk in Bagram is doing, instead of focusing on his/her own mission. My team has a job, and salsa night has zero bearing on our success. Getting rid of salsa night “because it’s a distraction” is not a solution. If Joe on the remote FOB doesn’t have salsa night to gripe about, he’ll find some other inequity to bitch about if we don’t address the underlying problem of his own attitude and lack of immediate focus and personal/emotional discipline.


Oh, you misunderstood me. I don’t think Salsa night, BK, DQ, are problems because some troops don’t have amenities. I’m upset because we’re wasting money on Salsa Nights, BK, DQ when we should be reconstructing Afghanistan. Every dollar spent on crap like that instead of humanitarian efforts is money wasted.

You mention focusing on the mission. If we have Salsa night, we’re not focusing on the mission. The mission is improving Afghanistan. That was the larger mission I was talking about.

@Mark- I can’t convince you that I am not “bitching” when I say I don’t like BAF. Maybe stationing half of all the people deployed to Afghanistan in one super FOB like Afghanistan is the proper way to run an insurgency. I don’t think so though. Maybe spending millions on KBR funds and steak/shrimp is an effective use of funds as opposed to other things. Maybe having Soldiers run 24/7 ops at FOBs while people at BAF run 9-5 only five days a week with days off for holidays is a good way to run a counter-insurgency.

Sorry that was ranting and I don’t mean to insult. However my thoughts are not based on immaturity but at a disgust that an Army with our capabilities could possibly be losing. BAF, soldiers, contractors and anyone else there, do not help us win. I have studied the issues and I do not say contractors are wrong out of jealousy, I say it because I sincerely believe the system we use to fight insurgents is broken.

Here is where I agree with you. The government and the Army share as much blame as contractors. The whole system is corrupt, generates waste and is thus immoral. Politicians, contractors, leaders in the Army, DA civilians all share blame for the problem, and contracting gets Soldiers killed.

Sorry about the previous comment from “Gu” – need to learn how not to accidentally press the enter key.

Anyway, realizing I’m a few days behind on this discussion, there is something I’d like to add on the salsa night, BK, DQ discussion. I have no issue with shutting down some of these facilities (well the food places at least, as argued here: http://bit.ly/9n01qT) or maybe the surf and turf nights in the DFAC.

However, the food places are run by AAFES and salsa night was likely run by MWR. Both activities are non-appropriated fund activities. As such, they do not receive tax-payer dollars and are self-sufficient (well, MWR gets most of it’s money from AAFES, so they’re not dependent upon the USG at least). So no, “we’re” not wasting money on these things.

Arguing that AAFES and MWR are wasting their money on these things, or are wasting their valuable customers’ money, is a whole other discussion…

I think your link actually explains the problem quit a bit. I don’t think we are wasting money on this as much as it demonstrates a lack of focus, and as the post on weds explains, it prevents us from integrating in the local area.

Thought I would share this:


looks like the discussion is moot. Although they’re leaving Green Beans, so we can still kvetch about those lazy bastards in Bagram getting frappuccinos.