Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Moral courage
VA Secretary falls on his sword in today's Wall Street Journal

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a disturbing article about the ordeal of Jason Stiffler, an Army soldier seriously wounded in Afghanistan who has been fighting the Army and the VA for several months to get the benefits he needs to survive as a disabled veteran. I discussed this article on the day it ran, saying that this matched my experience with the VA disability system -- which can even be Byzantine to someone with an administrative law education like me. Today, a letter from VA Secretary Anthony Principi appears on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page (subscription required). Here is the full text:
When a Bureaucracy Fails, Veterans Suffer Inexcusably

Your article about the Afghanistan veteran whose injuries returned him to a civilian life of medical and financial hardship is a wake-up call for our department ("Seeking Benefits, Disabled Soldier Faced New Battle," Aug. 12). Veterans Affairs has no higher obligation than meeting the needs of veterans returning wounded or injured from combat, and we have improved our ability to do so. But the fact remains that we did not provide Jason Stiffler the level of service that he and every veteran deserve. The events described in your article are unacceptable and we need to fix our problems. I am fully committed to doing so.

Anthony J. Principi
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Wow... that's not the kind of candor I've seen in a while from a senior administration official in any administration. But it is the kind of integrity and candor that Mr. Principi is known for, and he should be commended for this letter. In the Army, falling on your sword can be the best way to admit fault and move forward, and I think that's what Mr. Principi has done here. Admittedly, the ordeal of Mr. Stiffler is an awful one, and no veteran deserves to be treated that way by his own country.

But what's done is done, and we now must focus on how to take care of the hundreds of thousands of combat veterans now serving overseas. America has not had such a large generation of combat veterans in 13 years, and given the nature of the conflict in Iraq, it's arguable that we haven't seen combat like this since Vietnam. These veterans have already started to come home, and many have begun to seek help from the VA. Over the next 3-5 years, the VA will face a bow wave like it hasn't seen for some time. America owes it to its veterans to give them the benefits they deserve, and this will become a campaign issue if the VA fails to deliver.

Texas senator advocates for a larger military
Washington Times piece sounds eerily similar to Washington Monthly pieces

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) writes today in the Washington Times that America's military is stretched too thin to accomplish all of its missions -- and missions which may come in the future. Specifically, she argues that we lack the requisite number of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Hutchison starts her piece with a quotation from a famous piece of military history:
"You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud."

Those words, written nearly 40 years ago by my good friend T.R. Fehrenbach in the definitive work on the Korean War, "This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness" — still ring true today. Our recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforce those very lessons. We prosecuted a very successful war, but if we are going to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi and Afghan people while preserving the peace elsewhere, we will need young men and women with their boots on the ground. I am increasingly concerned we don't have enough soldiers and Marines to do all the jobs that must be done.

Shortly before he retired, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki advised that postwar Iraq might require several hundred thousand soldiers and Marines to keep the peace. Gen. Shinseki commanded peacekeeping operations in both Bosnia and Kosovo, and he knows what it takes to get the job done right. But if we were to place several hundred thousand troops in Iraq, the unfortunate truth is that the Army may be stretched too thin elsewhere. Indeed, the man nominated to take his place, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, is another who apparently doesn't shy from offering his frank opinion. He recently said, "Intuitively, I think we need more people. It's as simple as that."
Sounds good to me. In fact, it sounds very much like this piece by Nick Confessore in the Washington Monthly, and this piece by me in the same magazine:
The architects of the war might be forgiven for misgauging the number of troops required had the war come a dozen years ago, when the United States had little experience in modern nation-building. But over the course of the 1990s America gained some hard understanding, at no small cost. From Port-au-Prince to Mogadishu, every recent engagement taught the lesson we're now learning again in Iraq: America's high-tech, highly mobile military can scatter enemies which many times outnumber them, in ways beyond the wildest dreams of commanders just a generation ago. But it's not so easy to win the peace.
* * *
Not only did Wolfowitz and Shinseki publicly disagree over how many troops would be needed to win the war in Iraq, they also disagreed on how many troops would be needed to win the peace. Shinseki testified to Congress that we would need "several hundred thousand" and Wolfowitz, very publicly, argued that the situation called for far fewer. What's become clear in the aftermath is that Wolfowitz simply didn't grasp, as Shinseki (who's commanded Army units in peacekeeping operations) clearly did, just what this kind of mammoth peacekeeping and nation-building operation would entail.
* * *
On the shelf of nearly every Army officer, you'll find a book by retired Col. T.R. Fehrenbach on the Korean conflict titled This Kind of War. At the end of World War II, confronted by the military revolution brought on by the atomic bomb, America cut its military from a wartime high of 16 million down to a few hundred thousand. Bombs and airplanes--not soldiers--would now protect America's shores and cities. After fighting as a grunt in Korea, Fehrenbach thought otherwise. Transformation was great for the Air Force and Navy, but for the Army and Marine Corps, the essential nature of warfare remained unchanged.

"You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life," wrote Fehrenbach. "But if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud." It's time Don Rumsfeld brushed up on his Fehrenbach. The book is on Gen. Shinseki's official reading list for the Army, so it's a good bet that one of his generals has a copy he can borrow.
I should be clear: I allege no plagiarism or dishonesty here. I borrowed from Fehrenbach, and I certainly didn't come to my own conclusions about everything I wrote about. The accepted norm is to borrow good ideas where you find them, whether it's in the Washington Monthly or the Weekly Standard.

Therein lies the irony. Sen. Hutchison's politics are quite different from mine, and probably quite different than the average Washington Monthly reader. I find some irony in the fact that a Republican senator from the President's home state would seize on ideas in a liberal magazine to criticize the foreign policy decisions of the Bush Administration. But I guess that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Intermission -- Intel Dump will begin regular news coverage again on Thursday or Friday of this week. In the interim, please stop by my friends and supporters on my blogroll. Thanks.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Update to Pentagon plans to reduce combat pay

Top DoD official says the plans were misconstrued, and pay will not drop

Undersecretary of Defense David Chu gave a press conference yesterday explaining this reversal a little further. In Dr. Chu's words, this isn't actually a reversal at all -- the original story was wrong. The Pentagon never intended to cut "total compensation" for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it intended to shift around different kinds of pay to more selectively target those actually in a combat zone -- as opposed to those in support of a combat operation in Qatar. Here's an excerpt from the press conference:
Q: Just to be clear, there was never any intention on the part of the Defense Department to even look at eliminating these increases. Is that correct?

Chu: I want to be careful about the reference to "these increases". The department's position is to maintain compensation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now how we --

Q: At the same level?

Chu: At the same level. Total compensation. What counts is the bottom line. Remember the typical person -- E-5, E-6, E-7 in Iraq/Afghanistan is being paid $4,000 or $5,000 a month. So what's at issue here is around $200 a month in these changed levels in these allowances.

We're going to try to maintain total compensation. Now we would prefer to do it with a different set of authorities than are at stake in this authorization issue. From that difference, unfortunately, this rumor has that we're going to cut compensation in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, we're not.

Q: Is there also a difference in criteria? In other words where you may be reducing combat danger pay but increasing something else?

Chu: It could be. We haven't decided which instrument to use. Obviously it's a bit contingent on what Congress does. So if they do something we have to be sure we're thoughtful in responding to that direction.
Earlier in the press conference, Dr. Chu described the legislative and legal differences between what was being reported, and what was being done by the Pentagon:
Chu: No, no, no, no. I don't mean to be a technocrat here, but we have plenty of authority that we think is frankly better suited to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain that compensation at the level it now stands without this power. And what we're saying in this document is we don't need this authority. What Congress really would do if they extend this is actually pay it to a lot of people who aren't in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So we said look, we're just fine, guys. We have plenty of authority. We have never said we're going to cut -- I couldn't believe this rumor getting started. We have never said we are. We haven't touched this issue. In fact the whole debate inside the department has been the other side. What do we need to do for the people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those there for long periods of time.

Q: So if that money goes away you would make up for it in some other way, is that what you're saying?

Chu: Well you're dealing here not with money. You're dealing here with authority. This is not an appropriation. This is the authorization bill. This gives us authority. In fact actually this mandates, this is a bit of entitlement kind of thing, this mandates pay. We're saying we've got plenty of authority. We'll use that authority. In fact we are busy debating how best to use that authority. We haven't come to our conclusion yet. All we're saying in this appeal document which actually is a much larger document, all sorts of issues in it, is we don't need this authority, guys. Don't muck it up.
Okay, I understand now... Congress has created an "entitlement", for lack of a better word, that authorizes certain troops to certain pay under certain conditions. The Pentagon thinks those conditions are overly broad, and would rather use other kinds of pay with other conditions to pay our troops in harm's way. The current model probably authorizes Family Separation Pay for anyone on any deployment -- whether in harm's way or not. And the current danger pay may include folks in Qatar, Kuwait, and elsewhere. The Pentagon's position is that it cannot afford to pay those folks not actually in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The defense authorization/appropriations process is one of the most over-legislated, hyper-technical areas of the policy process imaginable. The annual National Defense Authorization Act is the largest piece of legislation considered by Congress, and it can run into the hundreds of pages. Often times, small provisions are inserted that may or may not mesh with the rest of the defense budget, the priorities of the President, or the priorities of Congress. But since it's part of this bill, it's the law of the land and it must be implemented somehow by the Pentagon. It's a policy nightmare.

Bottom Line: If we take Dr. Chu at his word, the "total compensation" for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will not drop -- it will change. Instead of receiving $225 and $250 for "imminent danger pay" and "family separation pay" respectively, soldiers may now receive $475 in some other special-purpose category. However, there will undoubtedly be friction in this process, and some soldiers will fall through the cracks. Some of this pay may lag, or hiccup, since the defense pay system is quite large and complex. It remains to be seen whether "total compensation" will actually stay the same, notwithstanding the comments by Dr. Chu. More to follow...

Using government plastic to buy... well... plastic

Defense Week, a Pentagon trade journal, reports that a Marine Corps staff sergeant was convicted in June of using her official DoD credit card to buy, among other things, a breast augmentation.
Staff Sergeant Sherry Pierre, an active duty Marine who worked for Marine Forces Reserve headquarters command in New Orleans, used her Pentagon plastic to rack up $129,709 in goods, services and upgrades to her physique, a command spokesman confirmed.

Pierre's previously unpublicized surgery may have given her a lift, but the tale is hardly uplifting. It is among the more egregious examples of a military employee abusing a government purchase card that is meant to increase efficiency, not waste. Her story illustrates a larger problem: A lack of management controls on nearly $7 billion in annual Pentagon credit-card purchases. The Pentagon has made strides to solve the problem, but many of the solutions are just now taking root.

Pierre's scheme transpired between 2000 and 2001, a period that, the Pentagon points out, pre-dates its major initiatives to rein in credit-card waste.

Pierre's rip-off was detected by the experimental use of data-mining techniques, which can detect telltale trends and anomalies in large databases. But these monitoring methods are only now being made part of the military's regular oversight of its credit-card purchases. So similar cases may not have come to light-though they soon could be unearthed as the technique is more widely used.
Analysis: This really is the tip of the iceberg where credit card abuse in DoD is concerned. There are two categories of cards which have been heavily abused by DoD employees --

(1) Government credit cards where the individual can purchase goods and services in Uncle Sam's name, subject to a long list of regulations;
(2) Government-backed travel credit cards, where the individual can charge travel expenses to bridge the gap between the dates of travel and the date of reimbursement.

Staff Sergeant Pierre's case falls in category (1) -- she used Uncle Sam's credit card to buy personal stuff, and charged those things to the taxpayers. This is a clear-cut case of larceny, and I think the service made the right decision to prosecute her. Luckily for us taxpayers, these cases are fairly infrequent, because there are a number of management controls on these government cards -- controls which unfortunately broke down in this case.

The tougher cases fall into category (2), and these are much more common. Military personnel often legitimately use their cards, only to have problems on the back end when they seek reimbursement. That can put them into arrears. The more disturbing problem is the heavy use of these cards by military personnel for personal charges totally unrelated to official travel. I can remember anecdotes from Fort Hood, Texas, where soldiers were caught using the card at strip clubs, car dealerships, hotels in Austin, and other unauthorized uses. At one point, I think a statistical analysis showed that 80% of all government travel-card transactions were done within a 25-mile radius of the installation. Clearly, those cards were not being used for travel.

The good news is that the Pentagon has really cracked down on this problem. Some would say the Pentagon is being too Draconian here, but I'm inclined to think this is one area where the system needs to be tough. The Defense Department has an enormous budget, and it owes the American people no small measure of fiscal responsibility.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

About face!

After taking heavy artillery fire from critics for its decision to downwardly adjust its family separation and imminent danger pay for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon abruptly reversed course today -- saying it would maintain such pay "at least at the current levels." Here's what the Pentagon press release had to say:
No. 600-03
August 14, 2003

DoD Statement on Family Separation Allowance and
Imminent Danger Pay

In April, after the President's Budget was submitted, Congress authorized an increase in both the Family Separation Allowance (on a worldwide basis) and Imminent Danger Pay and legislated that these increases would expire on Sept. 30, 2003. The department is aware of the problem that would result for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan if these allowances were allowed to expire. This is an issue of targeting those most deserving, and certainly people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are in these categories. We intend to ensure they continue to receive this compensation at least at the current levels.
The administration's official stance on this issue was that the two forms of special pay cost too much to maintain over the long haul. I imagine this was doubly true because the Pentagon has had to keep more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than it expected, to deal with problematic situations in both nations. According to Ed Epstein of the San Francisco Chronicle:
The Defense Department supports the cuts, saying its budget can't sustain the higher payments amid a host of other priorities.
* * *
Last month, the Pentagon sent Congress an interim budget report saying the extra $225 monthly for the two pay categories was costing about $25 million more a month, or $300 million for a full year. In its "appeals package" laying out its requests for cuts in pending congressional spending legislation, Pentagon officials recommended returning to the old, lower rates of special pay and said military experts would study the question of combat pay in coming months.
Analysis: Despite its $380 billion budget, the Pentagon does have to contend with finite resources. It must choose between using its money for personnel, equipment, research, and other areas. In theory, the money from this special pay could be transferred to one of the SecDef's other priorities -- missile defense, for example. But is that really more important that this special pay? I don't think so. I suppose if you had to choose between extra body armor for soldiers in Iraq and special pay for them, you might have a tough decision. But clearly, there is enough largesse in this year's Pentagon budget to spare the money to pay our sons and daughters in harm's way.

When faced with recalcitrant bureaucrats who simply wanted to buy gadgets, the late-Col. John Boyd used to thunder "People, ideas, and hardware -- in that order!" at his audiences. Col. Boyd was onto something. Or as Gen. Creighton Abrams (creator of the all-volunteer force) said: "People are not in the Army, they are the Army." It's time we recognized this basic truth, and put our money into our most important military asset: America's sons and daughters in uniform.

The case of Faith Fippinger

With a name like that, you'd think I was decribing a law school exam hypothetical. Unfortunately, I'm not. The U.S. government is currently seeking to fine Ms. Fippinger under various Treasury and State Department regulations governing sanctions against pre-war Iraq. Ms. Fippinger went to Iraq before the war to act as a "human shield" against American military action.

From a policy perspective, I agree with the U.S. government's sanctions against pre-war Iraq, and think this method of enforcement is proper. However, as Julie Hilden points out in today's FindLaw column, there are some serious First Amendment issues to contend with:
Before packing her bag for prison, Fippinger should visit a lawyer. Her lawyer should then move to have the charges against her dismissed, among other reasons, because they violate the First Amendment. The government's treatment of Fippinger may well outrage a judge enough to grant that motion.

Fippinger might also have a claim against the government - either under the federal civil rights statute that allows citizens to sue for damages when their constitutional rights are violated, or under the theory that she suffered from selective prosecution. Were other Americans who spent minimal money in Iraq, and did not speak out against the government, pursued under the unconvincing "trade violation" theory? If not, then Fippinger may have a strong case against the government.

Selective prosecution arguments are always hard to win. But this case might be an exception: It seems so obvious that it's Fippinger's speaking out that has made her a target. Why else would the government bother to enforce obsolete sanctions against a retired schoolteacher who did no real harm with her tiny purchases, and plainly lacks the money to easily pay the fines?

Many nonviolent protesters before this have gone to jail for their beliefs. But Fippinger need not necessarily be one of them.
So what do I think? I think there's a balance to be struck here, and that courts are pretty good at weighing individual rights against governmental interests in cases such as this one. Ultimately, I think Ms. Fippinger will lose because of the tremendous deference accorded the executive branch by the judicial branch in matters of foreign policy and national security. But this will be a close call.

Torts, cigarettes and french fries

Slate's brilliant legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick has a great essayon the new wave of litigation over fast food. I think Ms. Lithwick has one of America's finest legal minds, and she's certainly one of the legal journalists in the business. This piece, like her others, is worth a read. Here's her conclusion:
The best solution doubtless lies someplace between the absurd extremes. As Ben Kelly points out in today's Washington Post, Big Food will likely survive just by moderating its behavior, posting warnings, and taking it easy on peddling their junk to the kiddies. But we may want to keep an eye on the John Banzhafs of the world, who have observed that their next target may well be "Big Milk"—full of saturated fats and cholesterol and not nearly as healthy as those moustache commercials would suggest.

Got a lawyer?

DARPA -- an American version of Hogwarts school for wizards?

The Los Angeles Times has a great Column One piece on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has taken fire recently for its Total Information Awareness and Policy Analysis Market programs. In the piece, Charles Piller looks at some of the great successes -- and great failures -- of the Pentagon agency.
Over the years, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a variety of projects, from telepathic spies and jungle-tromping robotic elephants, to its most recent fiasco - FutureMAP, an online futures market designed to predict assassinations and bombings by encouraging investor speculation in such crimes.

"Morally repugnant," said Yale University economist Robert Shiller.

A "sick idea," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

"Unbelievably stupid," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

It's the type of criticism that DARPA is not only used to, but also lavishes on itself. "When we fail, we fail big," said former DARPA Director Charles Herzfeld, summing up the agency research disasters in an official 1975 history of DARPA.

Such is life on the absolute bleeding edge of technology.
The whole article is worth a read. Besides inventing the Internet (originally called "ARPANet"), DARPA has had a hand in a number of other key innovations in American society. The article details some of those, as well as the the current debate over TIA and other programs.

For more on DARPA and its newest project to digitize the human body, see this Wired article by Noah Shachtman.

Prof. Krugman: "Critics, do your homework!"
Critic to Prof. Krugman: Quotation does not necessarily equal fact-checking

In response to my criticisms and those of others, Princeton economist Paul Krugman has posted a page on his personal website citing two letters from Stars & Stripes and a Financial Times article to back up his position on heat casualties in Iraq. As a young law student at UCLA, I'm flattered and surprised that a Princeton professor would take the time to do this. But since he did, I think it's only fair for me to "do my homework" and respond to Prof. Krugman, who doesn't appear to have done his homework.

1. The Water Issue

Prof. Krugman starts by quoting two letters -- one from PFC John Bendetti of the 220th MP Company (Colorado National Guard) and one from SPC Jason K. Sapp in Kuwait. PFC Bendetti's letter contains the part about receiving two 1.5 liter bottles of water per day:
Due to more attacks on convoys, more items are becoming rare. Two examples are mail and bottled water. Our mail has been reduced to two times a week. Due to a lack of bottled water, each soldier has been limited to two 1.5 liter bottles a day. We've had two soldiers drop out due to heat-related injuries.

A person with common sense knows that a normal person can't survive on three liters of water a day. One would think that the Army could coordinate with the Air Force and have supplies flown in from Kuwait. All I'm saying is that we've been "climatized" to the heat, but new troops have not. There will continue to be more heat casualties until something is done.
There's a lot in here. First, I should say that PFC Bendetti's gripes are legitimate, in the sense that mail and food and water are things that a soldier should care about. (Whether he should write Stars & Stripes with them instead of using his chain-of-command is another matter) That said, mail twice a week in a combat zone is not unreasonable -- it's 1/3 of the delivery rate in the United States. The critical metric for mail is not frequency of delivery, but how long it takes for mail to get to the soldier and get home from the soldier. In those areas, the military has made great improvements since April, largely by consolidating delivery and shifting resources to other parts of the postal chain. Prof. Krugman, as an economist, could have written a great column on the way the military postal system works, and some of the infrastructural/systems issues therein.

PFC Bendetti mentions that he only gets two 1.5 liter bottles of water a day. Again, I don't dispute this fact -- I've seen it in Pentagon press briefings, and I've talked to Army logisticians who say this is true. But what he doesn't say is that his unit also has a supply of unbottled water -- "tap" water if you will. I stand by my original contention, because I've fact-checked it, that a soldier will die in a desert environment on 3 liters/water a day. (The same is true in a cold weather environment, actually) I've led soldiers in the frozen hills of Korea and in the hot Mojave Desert, and I know how much water it takes to keep them alive under body armor and full battle rattle. 3 liters/day would result in a lot more than 2 heat casualties in one MP company -- it would result in a dead MP company.

Prof. Krugman should have fact-checked this quote by calling someone at Princeton -- say another professor at Princeton -- to ask if it's even possible to survive on 3 liters/day. Or he could've picked up the phone to call a New York Times staffer who's knowledgeable on such matters, like C.J. Chivers, a former Marine who now writes for the paper. He could've even called the Princeton Army ROTC department, and talked to an active duty officer or NCO there with experience surviving in the desert. (The Princeton Army ROTC cadre includes at least two Desert Storm veterans)

I know, I know... I'm a hard a** because I think soldiers should drink water from their "water buffaloes" instead of from a plastic bottle. Heaven forbid soldiers should drink "tap" water instead of bottled water. But this boils down to a simple matter of military logistics. PFC Bendetti suggests that the Air Force somehow fly in the requisite number of water bottles for the occupation force. A grand idea, to be sure, but one that's unsupportable. America has a finite amount of "strategic lift", which includes all the big aircraft which can move men and materiel around the world. Water, at 8 pounds/gallon, is very heavy; bottled water is very bulky; it's incredibly inefficient to move it by air. That's why the Army has "reverse osmosis water purification units", or "ROWPUs", and other means for producing water in the field. Granted, the water doesn't taste as good as Evian, but it's still water and it will still keep you alive in the desert.

We'd all love to drink bottled water, but until the French decide to donate Evian by the pallet and the airlift to get it to Iraq, that's not going to be a viable option. Once again, Prof. Krugman could have checked this fact by calling up a logistics expert -- either in the military or in a company like FedEx. But he failed to do so, because it made his column sound better to include this factoid about bottled water.

2. Mobilization of reservists

The second letter, from SPC Jason Sapp, blasts everyone in his chain of command from lieutenant colonels on up to the National Command Authority. SPC Sapp doesn't identify himself, but it looks like he's a reservist stuck in Kuwait as part of a unit mobilization. He's clearly bitter about the mobilization.
There are thousands of soldiers in Kuwait who were never supposed to be here. My unit was told that we weren't supposed to be here. We were told by a lieutenant colonel on our second day in country that we were supposed to demobilize and return home. We asked if we could return. He laughed and said, "No. We got you here. Now we will find something for you." As with tens of hundreds of other units, we were without a mission. How do readers think our morale was as of day two in country, let alone all the other units that sat here waiting for a job but never got one? Like us, they are still waiting for a way home.
Griping about mobilization is a reservist's pastime, and it's something that is to be expected. (The words "mobilization" and "demobilize" are reservist terms; active duty guys speak of "deployments" and "redeployments") In all fairness to SPC Sapp, I agree that the mobilization plan for reservists has been somewhat disjointed. Initially, as I wrote in The Washington Monthly, the Pentagon intended to fight this war with a lighter, faster, 21st Century force that had less boots on the ground. Part of this was that the Pentagon did not want to call up large numbers of reservists, for political and practical reasons. After the post-war situation deteriorated, this calculus changed, and the Pentagon changed its planned force structure in Iraq. The new force included a lot more troop units than previously expected, and that affected the number of reservists who could be demobilized, as well as the number of troops who could be redeployed. This is the reason why 3ID was held in country for so long.

Mobilization is a stressful experience; it tears reservists away from their families, jobs and communities. But it's also something which is foreseeable, particularly since the 1990s when reservists have increasingly borne the brunt of missions from Bosnia to Afghanistan -- and now Iraq. I sympathize with SPC Sapp, but I think his complaints are disingenuous. He signed up for the reserves; he received the benefits of reserve service; his nation called him when it needed him. If he's in Kuwait, he doesn't have it that bad compared to my friends who are in Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, and elsewhere in Iraq.

3. Military contracting

Finally, Prof. Krugman cites an article from Financial Times, which itself cites an article by David Wood of the Newhouse News Service. (Give Mr. Wood some credit -- his Pentagon beat reporting has been exceptional over the last several months.) This article is supposed to stand for the proposition that privatization of military functions is bad, and that it's indicative of a larger, more dangerous trend towards privatization in the Bush Administration. Generalization is what great columnists love to do -- to paint large, sweeping themes with small facts. Unfortunately for Prof. Krugman, his foundation lacks adequate support, and thus it falters.

Here's an except from the FT story:
But the growing dependence on such private sector support concerns some military experts. Part of the problem is that contractors are not subject to military discipline and could walk off the job if they felt like it. The only thing the military could do would be to sue the contractor later on - the last thing on the mind of a commander on the battlefield.
* * *
"We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kinds of functions," Lt Gen Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistics chief, was quoted as saying by Newhouse News Service this month. He said it got "harder and harder to get (them) to go in harm's way".
This is interesting stuff... and that's why I flagged Mr. Wood's story in early August when it ran. (Maybe Prof. Krugman's reading Intel Dump...) But it still appears that Prof. Krugman is drawing the wrong conclusions from LTG Mahan's statement and the problems we're having with military contractors. Much of this owes to a misunderstanding of the way that government contracts work, and the clauses that these contracts probably had.

As a matter of federal law, most clauses in a government contract are set by the Federal Acquisitions Regulation -- the "FAR". (Each agency has its own subset of regulations, such as the "DFAR" for the DoD) These clauses are incorporated into any government contract, and they're non-negotiable. The government usually gets to choose which clauses it puts into a contract ahead of time, and that is the contract which is put out for bids. The contract then becomes a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for the government contractor.

This is informed speculation on my part, based on interviews I've done with several people in the Pentagon, State Department, and USAID. (I try to fact-check, not just quote) But I think these contracts for post-war services were developed in early 2003 during the planning phase of the war, when senior Pentagon officials thought we'd be greeted as liberators. All of their time-phased troop deployment plans and operations plans included the assumption that the post-war situation would rapidly stabilize, and that security would not be a continuing problem. That assumption was probably built into these contracts as well, such that the contractors did not get coverage for things like security costs, added insurance costs, etc.

We know now that those assumptions were flawed; a guerilla war continues in Iraq to this day. This presents government contractors with a choice. They can perform the contract under the new conditions, and subsequently make a claim against the government for a constructive "change" in the contract. Let's assume they try to make the claim before they perform, and the government says no. Then the contractor can decide between losing money in contractual damages, and getting its employees shot up in Iraq and losing money on insurance costs and security costs. What would any rational corporation do? Prof. Krugman could have written a brilliant piece on the economic calculus of a government contractor, and how rational choices are made in this situation. But he didn't. He ignored these details of government contract law and corporate decisionmaking to paint the corporations as the villain. That's sloppy reporting, as far as I'm concerned.

Bottom Line: I respect Prof. Krugman; I even have one of his books ("Pop Internationalism") on my bookshelf. But I think that he should stick to what he knows when he writes, because it's clear that he's too far afield here. Prof. Krugman could have written a brilliant piece analyzing any aspect of this situation from his perspective as an economist -- and I probably would have linked to it with praise. Instead, I think he was forced by the NYT editorial board to stretch himself beyond his expertise, and it shows.

Coda: While running with my dog Peet on the beach this morning, I clarified my thoughts a little. Prof. Krugman and I are actually in agreement about one thing: privatization of military functions can be problematic. LTG Mahan's comments about contractors going to war have a great deal of merit, and I think it's fair to say that the decision to outsource certain military functions carries a great deal of strategic, operational and tactical risk. However, I don't think you can arrive at that conclusion merely from the points that Prof. Krugman cites. I think you really need to dig into the contingency contracts from Iraq, find if/where they broke down, and buid an argument based on the facts.

Ultimately, I think most of the problems trace back to poor planning -- which resulted in poorly drafted contracts based on flawed assumptions. Consequently, I would put the burden on the Pentagon's planners -- not the contractors. These contractors had very little leverage in the negotiations because of the way the FAR works. And to borrow a term from economics, these contractors faced an "information asymmetry" -- the Pentagon simply knew more about the situation on the ground in Iraq than they did.

The Pentagon could have drafted contracts with cost provisions and contingency provisions to cover the eventualities which did occur -- namely the deteriorating security situation after 9 Apr 03 -- but they didn't. The contractors made the only rational business choice they could be expected to make.

A larger question looms about the wisdom of contracting our certain military functions in the first place (a question which Tapped raised yesterday). Outsourcing certain support functions -- such as mail service, food service, tank repair, etc -- is risky, because contractors aren't soldiers and you can't order them into combat on pain of criminal punishment. On the other hand, it can be more cost-effective to outsource these functions, largely because of the institutional costs inherent in training, equipping, leading and maintaining soldiers and military units. At the end of the day, America has a finite amount of money it can afford to spend on defense, even if that finite amount reaches nearly $400 billion. We can't afford to internalize every defense function -- from mail service to depot-level tank repair. Privatizing certain functions enables the military to focus its resources on the critical functions which must be done by "green suiters". If we can make our trigger-pullers more effective, more efficient, or more lethal by privatizing certain support functions, then the risk of privatization may be justified. (For more on the calculus of defense spending, see this book by Michael O'Hanlon and Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences, by Richard Betts.)

In theory, that's the way it's supposed to work. It's possible that the system may have broken down at some points, but I think the general wisdom of privatization has been proven over time in Gulf War I, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Now we just need to make it work better in Iraq.