yearning for the engineers?

My friend Lily was one of the first on the net with this story you might have seen on CNN — the first, that is, after the dad whose desperation threw on Youtube the substandard housing contractors had built at Fort Bragg:

The screen capture to the left is a soldier plunging a clogged bathroom drain, on a bathroom floored filled with inches of standing water and raw sewage. Ft. Bragg’s living conditions, at least as shown in this video by a suitably outraged father, bring to mind those at Walter Reed, profiled by the reporting team at the Washington Post last year. The Fayetteville Observer has weighed in with an article on the conditions at Fort Bragg, prompted by the release of this video, and they’re asking for answers, too. Do yourself a favor and watch what one citizen journalist did to document the conditions facing some returning military. We are not remotely giving them the care that they deserve. And it’s shameful that public pressure has to be brought to bear, by videos like this, before conditions are improved for returning servicemembers.

Others drew connections to last week’s GAO report on the outsourcing of Iraq reconstruction, also know to some as why we went to war in the first place:

In addition, the audit said many reconstruction projects were being described as complete or otherwise successful when they were not. In one case, the U.S. Agency for International Development contracted with Bechtel Corp. in 2004 to construct a $50 million children’s hospital in Basra, only to “essentially terminate” the project in 2006 because of monthslong delays.

But rather than terminate the project, U.S. officials modified the contract to change the scope of the work. As a result, a U.S. database of Iraq reconstruction contracts shows the project as complete “when in fact the hospital was only 35 percent complete when work was stopped,” said investigators in describing the practice of “descoping” as frequent.

But how do we get this stuff done without hiring someone to do it? I hear you cry in agony. But here’s where the history slut comes in: we seem to have forgotten what was learned from costly wars in earlier centuries, that outsourcing war doesn’t work. Those underfed, mutinying troops I talked about from the Revolution were supplied by private companies, who couldn’t keep up with the demand.

That’s why when we had to get serious, during World War II, whole companies of the U.S. Army were only about building stuff — not the defense plants, but literally putting supplies together right in theatre. I learned about this when reading about the great wartime journalist Ernie Pyle. As his biographer notes, Pyle spent weeks with the Army 75th Ordnance Company, which made

…trucks and tanks and supplied the ammunition, for though “the layman doesn’t hear much about [it] … the war couldn’t keep going without it,” [Pyle wrote.]….It was a grievous distortion to imply, as all newspapers did, that the only parts of the war that mattered were the high commands and the line of battle. All the tankers and riflemen and bombardiers put together made up only the sharp point of a long, long spear constructed of signalmen, cooks, quartermasters, engineers, drivers and clerks.

Now, that long spear’s been subcontracted to KBR and its spinoff subs, who are too busy counting their money to evaluate whether the job they were hired to do is well done. Or even done.

I better stop writing before I start talking about this film, which is about the thousands of Asian employees those companies are busy retaining, and endangering, in Iraq. These are the days of miracle and wonder only in the Paul Simon sense – I have to take myself to the last line of that song.

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