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July 17, 2008

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My personal experience with this issue is 5 electrical fires in my command building in Baghdad over about 4 months. It was clearly due to shoddy material and poor workmanship.

It was not KBR, however, but another contractor that was relying on Iraqi labor. In the end the contractor never fixed it, but we got an American electrician from KBR to repair the problems.

The issue seems to be that we have competing directives: reasonably we want to employ Iraqis, but we also want things done to US standards. This was difficult to achieve, because even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi construction industry was not operating at that level. When you throw security concerns that may restrict Iraqis who might be better skilled, it was impossible.

Does anyone know much about how the German/Japanese/Korean bases were built after WW2 and Korea? That is, was it mostly US grunts with Army Engineers? Or was it contracted/subbed out like today?

My preconception is that those bases were/are relatively safe (feel free to correct me anyone) because we basically had the guys living in the barracks they built last week.

The issue seems to be that we have competing directives: reasonably we want to employ Iraqis, but we also want things done to US standards.

That seems odd. I mean, it's not like Iraq had a huge problem with electricity in 2001.

To me the more likely answer is that in the lottery days of Iraqi contracting where those letting the contracts didn't speak the language and were obviously unqualified to be holding the position they had we pumped millions of dollars into local laborers to do electrical work.

And no doubt qualified electricians to do plumbing.

jrudkis: Andy had similar issues, though less extreme. (No fires that I recall, but worries about really bad wiring.) Stay safe.

About this: "The issue seems to be that we have competing directives: reasonably we want to employ Iraqis, but we also want things done to US standards."

Yep. In the same alternate universe in which I run the Pentagon (hahahaha), we separate these two things: jobs programs are one thing, and a very good thing too; keeping people in the military safe is another thing; and when we can't achieve the second if we hire Iraqis (or whoever), then we take some of those bricks of money we seem to have had lying around and then misplaced and hire good people to do the wiring on your base, and create a jobs program elsewhere.

Hilzoy,

I am home now, but thanks.

I agree that it is not a place to skimp, but really nowhere is (food, fuel, living areas, security?).

Construction standards in the third world are abysmal, which is why earthquakes are so devastating there. Many of the buildings I worked in were ones that were taken over after the war, and the wiring problems and general poor construction were preexisting (though not in my initial example which was a design-build).

At a policy level, I imagine that there is a cost savings to having locals do it, an inadequate supply of US electricians willing to do it, and a balancing test on the risk of shoddy construction vs. the benefit of engaging local labor (as opposed to having them join the enemy to feed their families). I have not seen actuarial tables, but someone has probably produced statistics showing that using the local skills and keepng them engaged saves lives, despite the risks.

But at the contracting level, we were required to use Iraqis first. While I am not entierly sure it was a law vs. a regulation, I am certain is was one or the other.

hilzoy: I will then insist that whoever fails to take steps to make sure that malfunctions that risk injuring or killing people are fixed is immediately fired.

I think you missed the "upon" at the end of the sentence. ;-)

"At a policy level, I imagine that there is a cost savings to having locals do it, an inadequate supply of US electricians willing to do it, and a balancing test on the risk of shoddy construction vs. the benefit of engaging local labor (as opposed to having them join the enemy to feed their families). I have not seen actuarial tables, but someone has probably produced statistics showing that using the local skills and keepng them engaged saves lives, despite the risks."

You seem to be suggesting, or assuming, that somehow Iraqis are inherently incapable of doing good electrical work, that there's a shortage of competent electricians in Iraq; do I have this wrong, or do you have some basis for such an assumption/suggestion?

Because I'm unaware that Iraq, or any of its neighbors, lacks for good electricians, or tends to have electrical/wiring problems.

"Construction standards in the third world are abysmal" is kind of an amazing generality; when "construction standards" are abysmal, anywhere, it's almost always due to corruption, not to lack of good engineers. See the Chinese quake, for example.

In the case of Iraq, I'd look to the supervising contractor, unless you have some specific relevant knowledge here to suggest we look elsewhere. The notion that Iraq has had absymal construction standards is based on...?

The fact of absysmal U.S. construction standards in Iraq has been heavily documented.

Davebo: I mean, it's not like Iraq had a huge problem with electricity in 2001.

Though it's doubtless good for KBR to lay blame on the unskilled Iraqi contractors they were required to hire, I think if KBR were hiring unskilled Iraqis to do work on military bases, that still comes down to it being KBR's responsibility...

Meanwhile:

The Air Force's top leadership sought for three years to spend counterterrorism funds on "comfort capsules" to be installed on military planes that ferry senior officers and civilian leaders around the world, with at least four top generals involved in design details such as the color of the capsules' carpet and leather chairs, according to internal e-mails and budget documents.

Production of the first capsule -- consisting of two sealed rooms that can fit into the fuselage of a large military aircraft -- has already begun.
...
Air Force documents spell out how each of the capsules is to be "aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule," with beds, a couch, a table, a 37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers, and a full-length mirror.
...
One request was that the color of the leather for the seats and seat belts in the mobile pallets be changed from brown to Air Force blue and that seat pockets be added; another was that the color of the table's wood be darkened.
...
In all, for the past three years the service has asked to divert $16.2 million to the effort from what the military calls the GWOT, or global war on terrorism.

Awesome.

A reasionable Iraqi jobs program back in '03 or so would have involved hiring, not individual unskilled Iraqi laborers, but Iraqi contractors, and have them work with US supervisors knowledgeable in the subject matter and able to speak the language. Also, of course, what you mainly would have wanted Iraqis to be working on would be repairing their own infrastructre rather than building secure US bases.

Back in the WW II era, you ddn't have civilian contractors at all in a war theater--this privatization of noncombat military support functions is a recent idea. With a draft, and a much larger military the problem was not infrequently finding constructive things for the troops to do while being on hand to fight if needed.

From my stay I don't remember many electrical problems, but I do recall having doubts about Iraqi construction standards. I remember rather vividly coming back to the room I was sharing to discover that a circle of concrete and plaster about 6 feet in diameter and 6" thick had fallen off the ceiling and my cot was right under it. The cot's legs were bent so it was about half its normal height. I am not sure an occupant would have been killed, but I am not sure an occupant would have survived, either.

The room was part of a servants or junior visitors quarters near the perimeter wall on Victory base. Since this was one of the palace complexes, I have to wonder about the standards for regular Iraqi construction.

Hiring contractors is dicey everywhere.

Most states and municipalities in the U.S. adhere to International Construction Codes for commercial and residential construction, perhaps overlaying their own standards as well, depending on which level of government is in faddish vogue at the moment.

A good general contractor (whether hired or if the homeowner decides to be the general contractor) will ride herd on subcontractors.

But, you have to know your stuff.

Electricity is just sparky stuff inside the walls as far as I know, which is why I like to have a GC on hand to listen to the subcontractor's bullshit, because they will sling it if they smell a novice.

Too many subcontractors are cowboys.

Which brings me to inspections. You'd think the American military, at the very least, would have too many layers of building inspectors checking things out.

Maybe not, though, considering the miasma of libertarian ideological vapor that has filtered through all of our institutions these past years. Maybe inspections are now viewed as government meddling in the private economy, with Iraq as the proving ground for the new thinking.

Plus, one of the beautiful things about a 15% flat tax is you need to streamline government and cut overhead, especially those pesky inspectors who might make a guy rip out that funky libertarian wiring.

In my area of the suburbs, the residential building codes stipulate that concrete floors must be poured to a four inch thickness. After having replaced part of my basement floor and talking to many others around town who have done the same, we learn that the concrete contractors pour maybe three inches if you're lucky.

Inspectors look the other way because not to do so would get in the way of the generalized lying and cheating that lubricates commerce and enables the wealth transfer, as some have called Social Security, of my money into a contractor's pocket.

Imelda Marcos was my favorite general contractor in the third world. A little baksheesh here and a little payola there and a brother-in-law placed somewhere else and what you had was a perfectly appointed closet full of shoes for her and 18-story hotels pancaking to the ground because, oops, somehow that rebar that was supposed to hold the structure up got sold twice before ending up in her cousin's project.

Back in the WW II era, you ddn't have civilian contractors at all in a war theater

I'd like to find out more about this. Any available cites would be welcome.

Thanks -

Thanks rea. Keeping the large number of draftees busy makes sense. I'd like to see cites too, if you have any interesting ones.

"I'd like to find out more about this. Any available cites would be welcome."

Hey, you said "any."

Less fictionally.

God bless Ward Cleaver.

Oddly enough, our Seabee Workshop in my command burned completely to the ground in March, due to an electrical fire.

I am not saying Iraqi (or third world in general) construction is abysmal because they are innnately unable to do the work. But I do think that a characteristic of being in the third world is that industry, skills, and standards are generally not widespread or deep, and the type of corruption seen in the Phillippines and China is symptomatic of underdeveloped societies.

I am not saying Iraqi (or third world in general) construction is abysmal because they are innnately unable to do the work. But I do think that a characteristic of being in the third world is that industry, skills, and standards are generally not widespread or deep, and the type of corruption seen in the Phillippines and China is symptomatic of underdeveloped societies.

Or our own country earlier in its history?

Gwangung,
Sure, before we developed the standards and practices we currently require and expect. Simply having everything in the store rated by UL makes so much of this kind of issue easy to take for granted, while the Iraqi procured parts typically were not rated by such a system. The problem in my shop was primarily the light fixtures catching on fire.

jrudkis,

Having some experience with developing nations, I think a big part of the problem is that many jobs that we think of as fairly important don't pay a living wage in developing nations. I had cousins who could not afford to support their families in Egypt despite being professional engineers with graduate degrees and everything. The problem is particularly serious regarding police officers, inspectors, and other civil servants. The contractor or his people may need to skimp on cement when mixing concrete because he needs the cash he can get selling it on the black market so that he can get his kids a decent education. No one can go to the police because the police need bribes, etc, etc.

In other words, the problem is incentives, and the overall lack of resources give many many individuals incentives that systemically reduce the ability of society to function.

I'm kind of surprised to hear Iraq referred to as a third world nation.

Post-invasion, and possibly during sanctions, lots of infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, and lots of skilled folks have left.

But my impression (perhaps mistaken) is that before the invastion, and certainly before sanctions, it was a fairly modern place.

Am I wrong about that?

Thanks -

Russell,

Baghdad is fairly modern, and Basra, and a few other cities, but five miles out of the city and people live in mud huts (albeit with satellite dishes).

But I believe that much of the modern construction that did exist in Iraq was designed and built by foreign workers, much like Dubai today.

Turbulence,

I agree. The jobs you describe were practically designed for graft based on the responsiblity coupled with low pay, and similar to expecting a waitress to work for tips.

But I do think that a characteristic of being in the third world is that industry, skills, and standards are generally not widespread or deep, and the type of corruption seen in the Phillippines and China is symptomatic of underdeveloped societies.

Or our own country earlier in its history?

Or south Florida last week.

I'm kind of surprised to hear Iraq referred to as a third world nation.

My understanding is that in the '60s and '70s it was something of a model for modernization, with First-World quality water, electricity, etc. Lots of things started to decline during the Iran/Iraq war, and they declined even faster under twelve years of sanctions after what we call the first Gulf War. The Iraq we invaded in 2003 was not the Iraq we invaded in 1991, much less the Iraq of 1979.


A John Wayne movie at that! Honestly, though, the fictional Seabees are kinda dull. Ward Cleaver and Al from Home Improvement? Now if June had been one, maybe then I'd watch the reruns.

Not that I was planning on moving to (or even visiting) Dubai any time in the near future, but I gotta say that you lot are not filling me with confidence as to the quality of workmanship in some very big buildings.

Francis, don't get the wrong idea. In general, stuff mostly works. If stuff breaks immediately, the people buying throw a fit and it gets fixed. These problems tend to only manifest under stress, such as plugging in many more devices into one outlet than usual or an earthquake (where the building was strong enough to bear the normal static loads, but not enough to also bear the extra quake-induced dynamic loads). Of course, things built for westerners tend to have a somewhat higher standard: Sheraton really hates it when a businessman dies and they can spend the cash to avoid that. The Army's (contractor's) problem is that they were building lots of stuff very fast and didn't have enough experience and local expertise to deal with the situation.

Also, the incentives are very different in a place like Dubai than in a place like Cairo. Egypt is a much poorer country than Dubai, what with its lack of oil.

Also, remember, most people living in the middle east really don't die from shoddy wiring or buildings that fall down. The death rates for that sort of thing are probably higher than in the west, but we're talking about going from an extremely low probability event to a very very low but not quite as extremely low probability event. And lifetime risk doesn't matter much to a visitor anyway.

So go travel! Please don't interpret anything I've written as an excuse to not travel! Heck, if you visit Egypt, let me know and I might be able to help out.

"I'd like to find out more about this. Any available cites would be welcome."

The US did a mass mobilization in WW2. The army's authorized personnel strength peaked at 7.5 million, of which only 2.2 million were in the Army Ground Forces (the principle ground combat elements). The rest were in the Army air forces (max 2.4 million) and the Army Service Forces (app 3 million). The Army Service Forces include the Corps of Engineers. Along with the other components of the ASF and some elements of the AGF, they did what we do with contractors today. As Gary pointed out, the Seabees were another major part of this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army_Ground_Forces

AFAIK, the only significant use of US civilians in combat zones was in the Merchant Marine. WW2 service on a merchant ship was treated as equivalent to military service in many ways, especially since the casualty rates were equivalent, or even worse.

Iraq has been quite different. Basically, the military has been trying to maximize its combat forces by skimping on the logistics tail and making it up with contractors. In WW2 you would never have had a KBR type contractor providing logistical support outside the US (and not much inside the US). We had a drafted military and military manpower was relatively cheap and flexible.

Today we have a volunteer military that is much better paid then the WW2 army. Replacing the nearly 200,000 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan with military personnel would be very expensive, especially in the long term, since they would be eligible for 20 year careers and retirement. Those extra personnel are only really needed when we are fighting a major war. Before the Bush administration, that didn’t happen very often. Given that, the military’s preference for fighter wings, infantry divisions, and carrier battlegroups over laundry and bath companies, quartermaster companies, and truck companies is understandable. This is even more understandable when you consider that the combat functions can not be contracted via the private sector (not too many mercenary infantry divisions available) and they have longer lead times to procure and train.

The idea was to save money by contracting as much of the logistical services as possible. Instead of maintaining 200,000 support personnel on active duty, we would award planning contracts in peacetime to companies like KBR. The contractor was required to be able to to house and service (food, water, electricity, fuel, etc) X thousands of personnel at various locations. The only peacetime costs to the government are the relatively cheap planning contracts and occasional exercises to verify that the contractors have the capabilities they promise. It is the contractor's job to ensure they can perform to contract specifications in wartime, either by mainiting capabilities inhouse, or knowing where to subcontract.

Actually executing these contracts in wartime is more expensive. Now it is a sellers market for the contractors. Ypou need their services badly, so they can be very expensive. After all, you decided not to pay for the alternative.

In addition to the monetary expenses, you also pay in terms of decreased flexibility. You can tell an Army construction engineer or Seabee to get his or her weapons and perform an security mission or escort a convoy and you can’t do that with KBR. You also probably have fewer security issues with US personnel over the locals and/or third country nationals hired by the contractor.

Looking forward, we need to decide if we want the capability of fighting an Iraq style war without contractors. If we want that ability, it is going to cost a lot, or we return to conscription. Otherwise, we keep using contractors, but hopefully we will put a good deal more thought into how they will be used and supervised. Maybe a provision could be added that a work stoppage in theater results in the arrest for treason of the contractor’s senior management? If that scares away all the contractors, I guess we will just have to pay more, go back to conscription, or decide we don’t want to be able to fight an Iraq style war.

Donald -

Thanks for the link, the information, and the discussion.

I guess I have a couple of comments.

I understand and appreciate all of the points you're making. The problem is that guys are being electrocuted when they take a shower. There are other problems, too, but that's probably one of the more dramatic ones.

I'm sure folks who do war planning factor in a casualty rate, but I'm not sure death by electrocution while showering really deserves to be part of that. So I'm not sure we're really getting good value for whatever $$$ we're saving.

That's just thinking the economics through.

What I'm sure seems like a clever public/private partnership to some folks looks to me like going to war half-assed. It also seems like a handy way to throw your buddies a multi-multi-million dollar bone. It also seems like a way to go to war without requiring the level of popular support that's incurred by a draft.

After all, it's all volunteers, right? They knew what they were getting into.

IMVHO there should be no private contractors in theater. Full stop, period, end of story. If we need to go to war, we should gear up, put Americans in uniform, and go to war. If the need doesn't call for that, or support that, then we don't need to go to war.

There are too many opportunities for abuse. There are too many guys that are crucial to the war effort who are not in the chain of command. Never mind that, there are too many guys running around with guns who are not in the chain of command.

When stuff goes south, as we are seeing now, the buck stops nowhere. KBR will say it's a subcontractor, the sub will say it's the damned Iraqis, the Iraqis will not answer their phone, and the guy who was taking a shower will still be dead.

If I had someone do electrical work on my house and a member of my family turned up dead after being electrocuted in the shower, you can bet whatever you have to put on the table that somebody would pay in a very, vary painful coin. Our folks in country deserve as much.

Don't you think?

Imagine sending your son or daughter off to war and getting the phone call that they were electrocuted in the shower because some middle-management puke in contracts at KBR decided they weren't gonna take any action on the complaints they'd been getting about sub-standard wiring.

I'd want that guy's nuts in a jar. I'd want his head on a pike. I'd want my boot so far up his behind that he could tie my shoes with his tongue.

Better folks, less wrathful and vindictive than I, would just be stuck with a lifetime of inconsolable grief. All so some jerk could make his numbers.

To me, this whole thing epitomizes the corruption, malfeasance, and general toxic "what me worry" ethic of Bush and his crew. I won't say Republicans, because not all Republicans are like that. But Bush, Cheney, et al are lying, worthless criminals. They don't give a flying f**k about anyone but themselves and their pals.

Seriously. Does anyone want to try to dispute that?

Enough is enough. It's time for some folks to do serious jail time.

Thanks -

p.s. -- just to clarify, I use "guys" as a more or less gender-neutral catch all term for "people".

Don't know where I picked that up, but there it is.

Thanks -

"Looking forward, we need to decide if we want the capability of fighting an Iraq style war without contractors."

I agree with everything Donald Clarke summarized, but I'd like to point out one additional point: all those contractor employees who are citizens of the U.S. are voters, able to donate money to politicians, and raise funds, and otherwise agitate politically, and it's in all their interest to have active wars going.

Of course, maybe they stay scrupulously neutral in that regard. Up to you to come to your own conclusions about that, and the goodness of that.

"p.s. -- just to clarify, I use 'guys' as a more or less gender-neutral catch all term for 'people'."

In the most excellent film Juno, as in some other places, "dude" has become a gender-neutral term used by girls between each other.

Russell - "What I'm sure seems like a clever public/private partnership to some folks looks to me like going to war half-assed. It also seems like a handy way to throw your buddies a multi-multi-million dollar bone. It also seems like a way to go to war without requiring the level of popular support that's incurred by a draft."


I agree. Contracting is the way to go, if you are sure you will never going to fight. If you do, your peacetime savings go away and you are better off with troops.

Unfortunately, I don't expect contracting to go away, no matter how much I would like it to. The peacetime savings are too great. Maybe we can always rely on enough time to spin up a draft, but it could wind up a lot more lives. For example, in the (admittedly very unlikely) event of North Korea managing to overrun South Korea while we were spinning our forces, we would either have to abandon South Korea or face an expensive (in money and lives) amphibious campaign on the other side of the Pacific. That we did things like that in WW2, doesn't mean they would be cheap or easy now.

The real question is how to properly control and supervise contractors. I think holding the US management responsible with criminal liability in the case of screwups like the electrical fiasco is a start. Contractor personnel should be subject to either US law or the UCMJ - none of this legal blackhole BS. Maybe we will not be able to get anyone to agree to a contract on those terms. I guess we would just have to go back to using troops.


P.S. Accidents, including both via negligence and just plain bad luck have always been a part of war. Back in Desert Shield/Storm, if it wasn't for Saddam getting lucky with a Scud, I think the biggest number of US dead in a single event would have been the deaths of 22 sailors when an Israeli ferry taking liberty personnel back to the Saratoga sank in Haifa harbor shortly before the Gulf war started. Apparently someone left a valve open.

Gary - "all those contractor employees who are citizens of the U.S. are voters, able to donate money to politicians, and raise funds, and otherwise agitate politically, and it's in all their interest to have active wars going."

Yes, although I would caveat by saying it is more the management then the workers. Most of the contractor workers on my FOB were TCNs, mostly from Pakistan or Bangladesh IIRC, and they don't vote. The real problem is the management that stays safely in the US while committing to perform work in theater. Maybe they should be compelled to live on a FOB for a few months a year as a condition of receiving the contract? Wishful thinking, I know.

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