A talk with the author of Haliburton’s Army

haliburtonsarmy “It’s about chocolate covered bunnies.” That’s how Pratap Chatterjee explained the his new book, Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. In town for a book tour, we met Wednesday at my local Starbucks to catch-up, but mostly we talked about his book. I have to admit I haven’t read it, so I don’t know the details but our discussion about the core theme was so intriguing that while he was talking I started talking notes to post a kind of interview with the author.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Pratap for several years. We met before I started studying public diplomacy, back when I spent most of my time reading and writing about private security companies, the subject of my first book chapter and formerly the primary subject of this blog (that and the associated subject of civil-military relations). He was a on a panel for an October 2006 event I organized titled “American Mercenaries of Public Diplomacy” (post-event summary is here). I also got him into a conference on strategic communication at the National Defense University (although he’s never received an invitation to return).

Pratap has a different approach to problem of outsourcing. The obvious question, or assertion, on Haliburton is did former Vice President Dick Cheney help Haliburton get contracts? Many look at the worldwide overarching logistical contract (LOGCAP) Haliburton won and conclude “of course.” Pratap asked a different question: why did Haliburton hire Cheney? In the case of LOGCAP, Haliburton signed the contract before Cheney came onboard. They already had a long history with military contracts going back to President Johnson, so what was different?

According to Pratap, the rise of Haliburton over the last several years is less about nepotism and more about the revolution in military affairs. It is less about profiteering, although that exists, and more about the change from the draft Army to the volunteer Army.

Today’s Army, especially the young enlisted troops, expect amenities like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, XBoxes, etc. “This has nothing to do with Dick Cheney,” Pratap said, it is about “social revolution.” The corruption and electrocutions is one thing, they are “around the edges” as he described it, but the central issue is the making American warfighters fell at home in a foreign country.

He describes the revolution in military affairs as a sophisticated military serviced by migrant workers, a relationship that’s an answer to the draft. Afghanistan and Iraq did not create the situation, but they did, in Pratap’s compelling view, accelerate a long running trend. The procurement rules that enabled Haliburton were written under President Clinton.

Pratap’s access is surprisingly deep. He’s been to Afghanistan and Iraq several times. He knows the CEO of Haliburton and established trust with the company over years of engagement and writing. He’s been embedded in the bases and studied logistics as well as the role of the Secretary of Defense (on my advice, he read my friend’s book SECDEF: The Neary Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense; for Pratap’s second edition, I recommended Charlie’s other book, the must-read Warriors and Politicians: US Civil-Military Relations Under Stress).

Making sure chocolate covered bunnies are available to the troops on Easter is not a special treat, but part of an overarching compensation package that results in weight gain from theater deployment rather than weight loss. The big question to Pratap is “What do we want?” Do we want a volunteer Army or a draft Army that provides the manpower without the market pressure to provide as many comforts of home?

Based on our discussion, I recommend reading his book, and not because Pratap acknowledges me in the book.

By the way, Pratap, born in Birmingham, England, and moved to Calcutta when he was five (his dad is from there), enjoyed listening to Herbie Hancock broadcast to him by American public diplomacy when he was a kid. It was public diplomacy that Pratap wanted to talk about today.

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