Tuesday, September 12, 2006

'You'll Never Know What We Did'

[posted by Callimachus]

My friend, Kat, worked in and around Iraq for roughly two years, for a U.S.-based contractor doing reconstruction work there.

I've picked up bits and pieces of her story as she's written to me from abroad, but recently she's been back in a place with regular Internet access and some time on her hands, and I finally got to ask her some questions and she got to write some full answers. We've talked a lot about her experience over there, and the more I read the more I wanted to tell it. She gave me permission to distill down some of her letters and our chats into a post.

Reconstruction is the eternally under-reported third leg of the Iraq story (the other two are overthrow of Saddam and removal of his threat, and establishing a stable Iraqi popular control of the country). It was part of what we went in there to do, and its success or failure is part of the full measure of success or failure of our entire operation.

Yet on this important story, our media blew it. Who can name a single contractor who did work in Iraq, besides the one that begins with "H" and maybe Blackwater USA? How many people can describe accurately the relationship between Halliburton and KBR? How many faces of Iraq contractors did you ever see in the news, except the ones who got kidnapped and beheaded? How many were the subject of news stories, or were quoted in any of them?

How does this whole process even work? When you say "contractor," probably the image that comes to mind is the guy you hire to replace your back porch or lay a new sidewalk. Is it like that -- he writes you a bid, you sign it, he works, you pay him?

I'm not trying to make anyone feel stupid: I had only the vaguest notion of these answers until I had a chance to catch up with Kat. And I'm an editor in the media and I've been watching the stream of reportage flow across the transom for three years now.


Reporters in Iraq just don't do such stories. Only business reporters have the ability to write them, and apparently none of the big news agencies and networks thought to send any to Iraq. Even then, the contractor story could be explained only in long blocks of gray text. And there would be no evil corporations or jihadis or subpoenas or beheadings or conniving vice presidents in it.

"To the press," Kat wrote, "we might as well have been selling lemonade on little stands in front of our parents' houses." So here's her description, in answer to my questions, of her company's duties:

Without going into too much detail, those basically consist of providing added oversight and a separate control structure between governments and contractors. We act as a semi-autonomous break between the contractors and the governments who hire them. We often are contracted to provide oversight for critical phases of projects. If you aren't involved in a specific range of work, you'd not even know of us.

Unlike regular auditing firms, we have people on the ground full time with detailed knowledge of the contracts, including the structural and material requirements, the scheduling, and the payment process. We can review these against ongoing job conditions as well as the resulting expenses being reported, and we can provide recommendations where problems arise.

We are hired to help accomplish three specific tasks. First, to assure the quality of the projects being performed. Second, to reduce the possibility of waste or corruption through a critical review process of the actual product compared to contract requirements and submitted invoices. Third, to reduce the need for additional legal expenditures to contractors and completion expenditures for the government.

In other words, we exist for the sole purpose of assuring product quality and fair costs for governments, while at the same time providing additional sureity to the businesses who contract with them. The fact that our company, and at least three others like it, was so heavily involved in Iraq reflects the commitment of the parties who hired us to do these jobs properly at the most reasonable costs.


Our company had 28 contracts providing engineering and managerial review and oversight for more than 100 section projects. Within these were more than 200 individual contracts and subcontracts directly reported to three US agencies, the hundreds of contractors and subcontractors themselves, and four semi-autonomous agencies of the Iraqi government.

These contractual obligations were flexible, meaning they allowed for major changes in reporting obligations as the political situation evolved. This basically meant that as tasks originally contracted and managed by the provisional government were passed on to the interim Iraqi government, contracts could be altered to suit the structural government status the Iraqis arrived at. As a result, the method and means of fulfilling our obligations to these parties could change at midpoint in any given project or set of projects.

Our very small company had to expand considerably and completely change its business structure twice during the course of our work in Iraq. Conditions on the ground with supplies and security created scheduling problems on a number of jobs that left our company workload too broad and difficult to handle without additional personnel and equipment. These difficulties were shared by other contractors and the government, which increased our internal costs considerably.


I managed the hub. What started for me as a Girl-Friday job in the U.S. making travel arrangements and applying a few reports to contracts and data sheets with chat help from my boss turned into being the managerial hub in a foreign country, responsible for the schedules of two bosses, the engineers who worked under them, and the legal and accounting facilities we had expand back in the USA. I had been in college when I started, finished with a management degree in the medical field, and found myself in Iraq working between structural and civil engineers, government agencies and the legal and accounting sections back home.

If this is giving you a headache, you're not alone. It is impossible for me to express the strain of the workload taken on by my company and the many contractors and government agents we reported to. Factor in supply difficulties found in any large-scale job, add to that the fact that they were being performed in a war-torn country poor on finished resources, then add ongoing security problems to top it off, and you've got a work load of breath-taking proportions.

The contractors and government agency employees also often confronted major changes in requirements or massive amounts of recorded information they had no familiarity with whatsoever. It wasn’t any easier for them than it was for us.

Kinda dry? Maybe, if you don't really read business sections. Kinda important? Yes, if you want to have the faintest notion of "what we're doing in Iraq" and how well we're doing it. But the media were too busy being freelance statesmen and Roman censors and unelected fourth branches of the government. Too busy to do the dull job of reporting.

Kat also wanted to make something very clear, for the sake of the people who did the work over there in your name, and for the sake of the soldiers and marines who protected them, and for the sake of the Iraqis who cast their lots for freedom and independence. And for the sake of the rest of us, that we just might catch on and wake up about certain things.

I know that in comparative numbers there really won't be enough of us coming back from Iraq to confront or challenge the MSM. Even if we all gathered together in Washington for a week to bitch and moan about it, we still couldn't assure that we were covered. We know you'll never know what we did.

So what many of us are left with is a really nasty taste in our mouths. It's hurt me almost as much to be telling this as it has been to live through it, and I know I'm not alone in my feelings. I feel so very sorry for and protective of the soldiers and marines who protected me. They’re all my little brothers now, and I feel the same towards the inexperienced Iraqi soldiers who put themselves in harm's way for me.

OK, but what about that other company? The one that begins with "H"?


There are probably only three to maybe five companies in the world with the types of expertise and experience necessary to take up this type of work. The scope of Halliburton's work in Iraq was far more extensive than the US government could readily oversee on its own. It would be monetarily impractical if not physically impossible for the government to plan and put into place overnight the kind of business structure Halliburton has taken years to build.

Our government can be more efficient than people usually prefer to believe. But in my opinion, even if it could put the people and the structure into place, the chances of it being able to run smoothly, be cost effective, and provide the flexibility required in Iraq would would have been slim. In this case, size and experience really did count.

Halliburton was only one of our clients of several hundred. Working with Halliburton directly on all projects would have been more simple than what was actually done. But you have to keep in mind the unique situation in Iraq. These contracting jobs were carrying political weight and the baggage that brings. Simply stated, some contractors who would otherwise not be qualified to perform work for Halliburton or another company inside of the US were politically needed to fill posts and help quell world complaints about US profiteering.

Remember that in the beginning, many people around the world believed the project would be a giant cash cow. International contractors also believed that breaking into the rebuilding scene in Iraq would open doors for them for other work in the future. As such, it was politically necessary for the US to promote the use of local and third nation country contractors.

As much mayhem as this caused, by and large the contractors and their subs still performed their jobs well under difficult business and security situations.

She's been a long-time follower of the media, and while she was in Iraq, or working from Turkey or Europe, she was able to see the range of news coverage that was reaching the rest of the world from where she was.

In the U.S., because of the nature of the news business, chances are you only see a story about, say, Lithuania, if something goes catastrophically wrong there. A plane crashes, people die, an epidemic breaks out, whatever. Most of us realize it doesn't mean Lithuania is a land of perpetual tragedy. We understand there is probably pretty much like here on most days, with nothing big to report.

But Iraq in 2006 is not Lithuania or Nepal or Argentina. Its condition and progress are essential features of our national political landscape. Its future is bound up with ours. We need to know more about it than we've been told, and the media is more than a passive observer. The Lithuania rules shouldn't apply in Iraq. But they did.


I need to say, I have a lot of anger here, and I apologize for that. Unfortunately I think you’re going to see a lot more of it in the future from others, especially if this war continues to be played more like a political football game than a real war within the press and much of the government. There’s a lot at stake, from the kids like my little brother that we have fighting it, through the people who have tried to rebuild Iraq, to the long-term futures of several nations.

It’s just not as trivial as it continues to be presented, on any level. Some in the media tend to believe the Iraq story can only be related through scenes of blood. They are still trying to find the monks burning, or the naked children running along the roads of Viet Nam. But there is much more to this war than that, and now, just as then, they simply miss the big picture.

From what I saw, much of the media is simply lazy, and most of it is more concerned with money and personal politics than in delivering a good product with honesty. This is an opinion, and is a nasty, crappy thing to say to people who spend countless hours busting their asses in a tearing rush to deliver basic news to people. But understand, I'm not addressing that comment to the rank and file whose job it is to take what is available and deliver it to the masses. I'm speaking to those who decide what news to actually cover, and to those who actually provide the coverage.

As Cal pointed out to me in a personal discussion, there are some in the US who have chosen to shift their positions and I am watching as politicians and those who wish to always be part of the popular voice have twisted themselve in knots in order to assure themselves a bit of additional power or preserve their political dignity.

They will deny that US households typically take their news from only one or two sources. They will deny that most US households only know the name of one mother who lost a son in Iraq. They will deny that there is any effect in not hearing from other mothers with differing opinions. They will deny that almost no one in the US can name a single hero in Iraq or Afghanistan. They will deny there would be anything to be gained in hearing from our troops on a daily basis. They will deny anything has been lost by a public that never hears any news of the individual or group bravery of our military men and women, or the thousands of civilians in Iraq whom they protect.

They will deny that the media has played any negative part in US and coalition efforts in Iraq. But I will disagree with them completely. Instead, I would say that like any situation where a one-sided view was presented, the resulting public response has been totally predictable from the beginning.


Beyond a couple of poorly received White House briefings that went all but completely ignored, I never saw a thing mentioned about the massive reconstruction projects underway in Iraq. There were no fact-filled and hard-hitting stories on those jobs. By and large, the US and European publics are completely clueless about the rebuilding process and the complexities that have been involved in it. Because the press ignored it completely.

Instead they waited like vultures for the first monetary discrepancies to hit, under Halliburton of course. Because of Dick Cheney, it’s what everybody on the left was wanting to hear, and nothing else mattered. The press lept on that with full claws fully extended, never paying a moment’s notice to the realities of large-scale construction projects.

Never mind that my company has worked for Halliburton before, and never mind that one of the primary reasons we have worked for that company and others is to find those types of discrepancies and work with the government and the companies to resolve them. Never mind that those issues were in their preliminary stage, and let’s never take note of the fact that they’re no longer news because the systems in place worked exactly as they’re supposed to work.

Within weeks of my arrival in Iraq, I knew exactly what would happen to US public opinion if media coverage continued as it was at the time.

Those of us working there saw no reason it had to be that way. For all of the difficulties, we were accomplishing monumental tasks that were truly worth noting. But where our work was concerned we were treated with even less interest than the press gives to similar jobs in the US or Europe.

The press missed something vital about Iraq, and as a result the American and world public never really understood. Nobody ever got it. Iraq wasn’t just another city in the US or in Europe.

And as a result US and European citizens can share no connection to and no pride whatsoever in what those of us in Iraq have accomplished. You can’t feel it, because you’ve never seen it. And those of us who have experienced it have few ways to convey it to you so you can relate to it and share it with us. There’s a pretty hollow feeling that comes with that. It’s like being a sixteen year old and winning a big talent contest, but your parents weren’t there to see.


Halliburton and all its political ramifications aside, maybe the lack of other press coverage is because the details of these jobs were a little too confusing and boring to assure great headlines. (I get paid to work through all that confusing and boring stuff; I admit, it can be pretty bland.) Fair enough.

But you at least might expect that when major project sections or complete projects were finished, the press might come out, give it a fair look, and send something back on what they saw. After all, those things at least produce pretty pictures and opportunities to mix and mingle with a few big shots and some of the little people. It’s a nice chance to get right down to the things that really are making day-to-day Iraq better.

Part of the irrigation systems we worked with was literally responsible for providing the restoration of thousands of square kilometers of marshlands in southern Iraq, which in turn has restored an ancient way of life to thousands of people. When that’s considered, you’d think it might be worth making a bit of a fuss about.

But that's not what happened. Instead, out of the more than 200 project completions and section completions we and government sources reported to the press, only two that I know of ever reached outside the country in the MSM, and those two were buried in a report about an increase in oil production. That's it. That’s the whole show. That's all of the reporting anyone ever got from four major irrigation systems, twelve major water supply systems, and twelve major oil and natural gas systems.

So just from my own company’s position, I can see more than 200 lost opportunities to cover some good news. The excuses for this were always the same. Nobody available, or questionable security in transit.


While we were working on those projects, I and my co-workers watched, were protected by, and were assisted by US, British, and Iraqi Army and Marine units. These were often also engaged in various smaller infrastructure projects as well as local order security details that on several occasions stretched them well beyond the normal duties expected of them.

For all the complexities and risks associated with our work, (I carried two calculators, satellite and computer equipment, and a ridiculously heavy AKSU-74 submachine gun around with me most of the time) it was impossible for us to miss seeing what coalition and Iraqi forces were dealing with. Let me please emphasize that. If we simply woke up in the morning, walked outside and did our jobs, it was completely impossible to miss the profound efforts and accomplishments of coalition and Iraqi forces in securing and rebuilding the national infrastructure.

But it wasn't impossible for the western press to miss. In fact, as I think about it, it's quite possible they've actually missed the whole war. Unless reporting can be described as burying oneself in a few relatively safe places with others of one's own kind, they have missed far more than they have covered. It is difficult for myself and many others to have respect for western journalists in Iraq because they so very rarely committed themselves to actually going out and covering what was going on.

Most of us took our risks because we had to to complete our jobs. Others did so because we sincerely believed in what we were doing. For many if not most, we ultimately did so for both reasons. So it is difficult for us to watch or read much of what is reported here in the States. It is even harder to watch that same media mention their own "bravery and dedication" on those rare occasions when reporters would actually leave the safety of their burrows and venture out in clean flak jackets to cover some well-secured scene.

This didn’t go completely unnoticed by others who mentioned it on returning to the States. The media’s excuse has been that they are prime targets for armed thugs that routinely look for westerners to kidnap or kill. These people do exist and they are truly deadly. But far more contractors or Iraqi and third-nation workers employed by them have been killed, wounded, kidnapped, or raped, than journalists.

More international aid workers have been killed, wounded, or kidnapped, than journalists. More Iraqi doctors, police, government workers, social aid workers, teachers, government leaders, lawyers, businessmen and religious leaders have been individually targeted, killed, wounded, raped, or kidnapped than journalists. So as it works out, journalists aren't as high up on the hit list as they claim to be. But that hasn't moved them to go out and actually do their jobs, nor has it stopped them from trumpeting their own bravery, dedication, and ... uhhh ... integrity.

And so nothing will change. The press can simply sit and make excuses and the foundation of a good portion of those excuses will be that the rest of us who have taken the risks are simply foolish.


I don’t want to paint a rosy picture about security. I was relocated on three different occasions just to move myself and our office further away from violence that would flare up. There were even times when my bosses forbade me to travel under the threat of losing my job or relocating me out of country. While traveling I sometimes worried and was often simply scared. Even being well armed, I had seen enough of the tactics used by insurgents to know that if anything happened, neither of us would likely have the opportunity to do anything before being shot dead or worse.

Other aid workers, contractors, and yes, members of the military often faced similar situations or worse. Yet the fact remains, almost all of us did our jobs regardless of our situation. And in the case of Iraqis, many lined up waiting for the opportunity to get those jobs even while others who came before them sometimes died.

Of those people, few ever got any kudos or acknowledgment from the press. The press virtually ignores most members of the military and I cannot recall ever seeing detailed interviews with aid workers or contractors involved in rebuilding. I simply can't recall the press singling out by groups or individuals the people who have slowly been trying to put a new Iraq together. I’m sure I missed something at some time. But for an interested party looking for it, the fact that I and so many others missed it says a lot.

Instead, we have been rewarded with many opportunities to watch the MSM congratulate itself on its outstanding job performance. It has been particularly interesting to watch as press members critiqued their own performances, with all of them sincerely questioning if they’ve indeed covered the war in a balanced and fair way. Their verdicts have been predictable, of course, and always raised a good hollow laugh from the rest of us who long ago realized that we’d never have the power to say otherwise.

It's difficult to accept feeling lied about when you are unable to do anything to correct it. It's hard to feel unappreciated and unvalued when you have lost much while accomplishing sincerely worthwhile goals. But most of all, it is hard to accept profane vanity raising itself into the spotlight as it shuns the sweat, the courage and the lost lives of the more deserving. It makes you feel disrespected at a very deep level.

The size and complexity of the work being undertaken in Iraq was something not seen since the post-World War Two rebuilding of Europe and Japan. In truth, given the time frame available, the coalition bit off far more than it could chew, and ultimately it was forced to reduce its efforts. But that didn’t halt the most important projects from being completed or continuing to this day.

UPDATE: New related entry here. That post drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating her post was just "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.

Kat responds (introduction here) beginning here.