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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Support Our Mercs 

We have a cynical friend who likes to say that the primary function of government is to keep the populace from finding out where the money actually goes. If William D. Hartung's arithmetic is correct, the Pentagon will spend a minimum of $57,870 on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the ten seconds it takes you to read this introduction.

You (and your children) are the ones writing the checks. But who cashes them?
[T]o hear the howling of the white-collar warriors in Washington every time anyone suggests knocking a nickel off administration war-spending requests, you would think that the weekly $3.5 billion outlay is all "for the troops." In fact, only 10% of it, or under $350 million per week, goes to pay and benefits for uniformed military personnel. That's less than a quarter of the weekly $1.4 billion that goes to war contractors to pay for everything from bullets to bombers. As a slogan, insisting that we need to keep the current flood of military outlays flowing "for Boeing and Lockheed Martin" just doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

You could argue, of course, that all these contracting dollars represent the most efficient way to get our troops the equipment they need to operate safely and effectively in a war zone -- but you would be wrong. Much of that money is being wasted every week on the wrong kinds of equipment at exorbitant prices. And even when it is the right kind of equipment, there are often startling delays in getting it to the battlefield, as was the case with advanced armored vehicles for the Marine Corps.

But before we get to equipment costs, let's take a look at a week's worth of another kind of support. The Pentagon and the State Department don't make a big point -- or really any kind of point -- out of telling us how much we're spending on gun-toting private-contract employees from companies like Blackwater and Triple Canopy, our "shadow army" in Iraq, but we can make an educated guess. For example, at the high end of the scale, individual employees of private military firms make up to 10 times what many U.S. enlisted personnel make, or as much as $7,500 per week. If even one-tenth of the 5,000 to 6,000 armed contract employees in Iraq make that much, we're talking about at least $40 million per week. If the rest make $1,000 a week -- an extremely conservative estimate -- then we have nearly $100 million per week going just to the armed cohort of private-contract employees operating there.

Now, let's add into that figure the whole private crew of non-government employees operating in Iraq, including all the cooks, weapons technicians, translators, interrogators, and other private-contract support personnel. That combined cost probably comes closer to $300 million per week, or almost as much as is spent on uniformed personnel by the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines . . . .

Given all of this, it may sound like we have a fair amount of detail about the costs of a week of war. No such luck. Until the "supplemental" costs of war are subjected to the same scrutiny as the regular Pentagon budget, there will continue to be hundreds of millions of dollars unaccounted for each and every week that the wars go on. And there will be all sorts of money for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting current conflicts. So don't just think of that $3.5 billion per week figure as a given. Think of it as $3.5 billion . . . and counting.

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