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The Hollow Men: A Hollow-een Story

by Captain Future Mon Oct 29th, 2007 at 06:48:13 PM EST

Here's a spooky story that tells you why Iraq is related to Christmas toys.  It takes us to Baghdad and China, Washington and Wal-Mart, and ends (or begins?) under the Christmas tree.  It's our 2007 version of the 1925 poem by T.S. Eliot:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpieces filled with straw

It starts with the scary mercenaries of Blackwater and the evil sorceror Rumsfeld...

Episode 1: The Hollow Military (Read on if you dare...)


The response of the Iraqi government to armed members of Blackwater USA, a for-profit corporation, killing 17 Iraqi civilians in one incident in September has led to an avalanche of attention on the role of private contractors, armed and not, in Iraq. This led to a number of revelations, including the recent U.S. government study that could not account for about a billion dollars paid to another for-profit security company, DynCorp International, ostensibly to train police in Iraq.

Yet these firms have operated in Iraq from the beginning of the war through the occupation. There are an estimated 180,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, at least 45,000 in armed roles (according to Joan Walsh of Salon in a TV interview), while there are 160,000 U.S. troops.

This use of armed contractors is not, as some media reports would have it, an accidental byproduct of a tiff between the Defense and State departments, forcing State to hire private security when the Pentagon refused to protect their diplomats in Iraq. It is the result of deliberate policy, articulated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It is part of his philosophy of the "hollow military."

Here's what Naomi Klein writes in her book, The Shock Doctrine:

"...Rumsfeld saw the army shedding large numbers of full-time troops in favor of a small core of staffers propped up by cheap temporary soldiers from the Reserve and National Guard. Meanwhile, contractors from companies such as Blackwater and Halliburton would perform duties ranging from high-risk chauffeuring to prisoner interrogation to catering to health care." [p.285]

But the reality in Iraq has turned out to be even more extensive than Rumsfeld's dream. In his detailed report in Salon, P.W. Singer wrote: "The use of contractors in Iraq is unprecedented in both its size and scope...What matters is not merely the numbers, but the roles that private military contractors play." They "handled logistics and support during the war's buildup," built and operate massive U.S. bases, maintained and even operated sophisticated weapons systems.

"Private military firms...have played an even greater role in the post-invasion occupation," he writes. "Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown and Root division, recently spun off into its own firm, currently runs the logistics backbone of the force, doing everything from running military mess halls to moving fuel and ammunition. Other firms are helping to train local forces, including the new Iraqi army and national police."

It's also worth noting also, that according to A Pretext for War by James Baxter, these same corporations--whose infamous work in Iraq first came to light in the Abu Ghraib scandals--were influential in Pentagon circles before the war started.

 "As it has been planned and conducted to date," Singer asserts, "the war in Iraq would not be possible without private military contractors." Apparently the armed contractors are so essential that AP is reporting the Blackwater mercenaries accused of those killings will get immunity.  Singer quotes an estimate that over 1,000 contractors have been killed and 13,000 wounded, but they aren't counted in official casualties.

The price to taxpayers is high: Halliburton alone has received over $20 billion, and the firm reported a $2.7 billion profit last year.  "To put this into context," Singer writes, "the amount paid to Halliburton-KBR is roughly three times what the U.S. government paid to fight the entire 1991 Persian Gulf War."

Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer--

Episode 2:The Hollow Government

The Hollow Military is not only a strategy, it is part of an ideology. Conservatives who want the smallest possible government are getting their wish with the Bushite government, but in a perverse way. The Bushites have shed actual government employees, either by underfunding government agencies and functions, or by replacing real managers, experts, technicians and career public servants with appointees hired for their political party activism and ideological fervor. But they have not cut government spending. In fact they've turned the Clinton surplus into a huge deficit, financed by a foreign power with a putatively Communist government: China.

Under Bush, the basic function of government has become to distribute taxpayer money to select corporations. According to Naomi Klein, this is a process that G.W. Bush began as governor of Texas. Once he was President, 9/11 provided the major opportunity to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Untold billions went through the hollow Homeland Security department to favored corporations, and billions more to Iraq. This was part of what Klein calls:

"a straight-up transfer of hundreds of billions of public dollars a year into private hands. It would take the form of contracts, many offered secretively, with no competition and scarcely any oversight, to a sprawling network of industries: technology, media, communications, incarceration, engineering, education, health care."

It is the realization of a "radical vision of a hollow government in which everything from war fighting to disaster response was a for-profit venture." [298]

Conservatives laud privatization for the efficiency supposedly inherent in for-profit ventures. But it hasn't worked out that way, partly because of the dynamics of monopoly capitalism, and partly because the Hollow Military and the Hollow Government depends on the Hollow Corporation.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Episode 3:The Hollow Corporation in Iraq

The money from the Hollow Goverment to supplement the Hollow Military goes to the Hollow Corporation. Just as the Hollow Government doesn't actually do the public business, and the Hollow Military doesn't conduct the war, the Hollow Corporation doesn't do the work. They all hire somebody else to do it. And often enough, the people they hire, hire somebody else. And so on.

Sometimes this results in luxurious overspending and immense waste, as in the Green Zone and military installations in Iraq. As Singer writes:

"The operation is one of the most lavishly supported ever, and most of that has been due to contractors to whom we have outsourced almost all the logistics, and the protection of that enormous supply chain. But it has proven to be remarkably inefficient, all the while undermining our counterinsurgency efforts. According to testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Defense Contract Audit Agency has identified more than a staggering $10 billion in unsupported or questionable costs from battlefield contractors -- and investigators have barely scratched the surface."

In other situations, such as the billions wasted on the supposed "reconstruction" efforts in Iraq, it's a chain of subcontracts leading to no results at all, except waste and fraud, and to such situations as Bechtel being contracted to fix the electricity system, and after years, leaving Iraq with the electricity system in worse shape than when it arrived. Much of this travesty is a matter of public record through congressional investigations. As Klein writes:

"Freed of all regulations, largely protected from criminal prosecution and on contracts that guaranteed their costs would be covered, plus a profit, many foreign [non-Iraqi] corporations did something entirely predictable: they scammed wildly. Known in Iraq as 'the primes,' the big contractors engaged in elaborate subcontracting schemes."

Money would pass through one subcontractor after another, each taking their cut, until there was little left for the actual work, so it isn't too surprising that in the end the cheapest workers were hired, and often imported. The materials were cheap, the work shoddy, and nothing was accomplished--while conditions got worse, and insurgency grew.

Didn't you ever wonder why a country that was capable of building electrical and water systems, bridges, schools, etc. before they were destroyed by U.S. bombs, couldn't re-construct these very same things? I recall reading riverbend's blog early in the occupation in which she wrote about Iraqi firms eager to reconstruct their own country, and with the skills, knowledge and creativity to do it quickly and cheaply--but they were being ignored. These were the same people who constructed all this infrastructure in the first place--but U.S. based multinationals saw Iraq as a major opportunity to get richer quickest, and so Iraqis were rarely hired to rebuild their own country, especially not professionals. Which of course added immensely to the frustration and emnity of the Iraqi people, who had no electricity, no water, and--with all that work to be done--no jobs.

But the story of the Hollow Corporation does not begin in Iraq--nor does it end there. It has come home.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Episode 4:The Hollow Corporation at Home

Donald Rumsfeld did not invent the concept of the Hollow Military out of thin air. It came, as Naomi Klein asserts, from the Hollow Corporation of 1990s America. Companies that had previously manufactured their own products and "maintained large, stable workforces" in America went beyond moving factories to the South (the 1970s) or to Mexico and Asia (1980s). They stopped owning and maintaining factories at all. This became known as the "Nike model: "produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors, and pour your resources into design and marketing." The other Hollow model was based on Microsoft: a small, tight workforce concentrating on "core competencies," while everything else ("from running the mailroom to writing code") is outsourced to temp workers. [Klein, 284-5.)

Rumsfeld came from this business background, and came to the Pentagon (Klein quoting Fortune magazine) "to oversee the same sort of restructuring that he orchestrated so well in the corporate world." [Klein, 285.]

By now--by 2007--the Hollow Corporation is a global fact. Another large factor in spreading it in the consumer goods area has been the spectacular rise of Wal-Mart, which as several books show (for instance, The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman) has transformed the companies that supply the products it sells. Because Wal-Mart insists on huge quantities at low cost, companies have been forced to find the very cheapest materials and labor. In the vast majority of cases, they can't find labor cheap enough anywhere in America. They must subcontract to China.

As Wal-Mart grew to become "both the largest company in the world, and the largest company in the history of the world" (Fishman), so did the number of products supplied from China, so that as one scholar told Frontline, "China and Wal-Mart are a joint venture." And most big U.S. corporations that sell products must sell a lot of them through Wal-Mart, so they restructure to please Wal-Mart, and so they become part of that joint venture.

But just as a scandal involving Blackwater alerted many to the Hollow Military, the current scandal over the safety of products manufactured in China is alerting the public to just how much of what we buy is made (in whole or in part) in China, and how little is made by the American company whose name is on the label--including traditional and trusted names such as Fisher-Price, Mattel and General Foods.

The news came fast and furious, in a bewildering array of products, from deadly pet food and tainted toothpaste to leaded toys. It turned out that something like 80% of imports stopped by U.S. officials came from China, and close to a fifth of China's export products did not meet China's own health and safety standards.

 At first, Americans were very alarmed, and they became extremely wary of Chinese products, especially food products. But then it became clearer that avoiding processed foods, vitamins and health products that don't have some ingredients made in China (including ascorbic acid in Vitamin C) is almost impossible.

Then such trusted American companies as General Mills announced they would be doing more testing (while quietly admitting they hadn't been doing much before, or testing additives at all.) Whether the public was reassured, or simply in despair and denial, this storm passed. But it was a teachable moment in the extent of the Hollow Corporation.

For there are no Colgate Toothpaste factories in Anytown USA, not Anymore. (When U.S. Customs seized a supply of toxic Colgate, it was marked "Made in China" and "Made in India.") There are no Mattel or Fisher-Price toy factories with happy American elves at their workbenches. There is just a board of directors and a flotilla of managers coordinating subcontractors, including the well-paid ones (advertising and marketing agencies) and the very poorly paid ones (the workers who actually make the products.) That's American Know-How in 2007. Welcome to Hollow-een.

Long-term, doesn't it concern anyone that the skills and infrastructure to actually make things are disappearing from America, and that if anything happens to short-circuit the supply line from Asia, this nation may become a pitiful helpless giant?

But in the short-term, Christmas approaches, and problems with toys made in China continue. Just last week, Mattel recalled another 38,000 toys imported from China by Fisher-Price, as part of a larger recall of 665,000 toys for containing too much lead.

China has rightly pointed out that checking for the health and safety of products is the responsibility of the importing country. But our Hollow Government doesn't have a sufficient number of expert personnel to do it anymore. Our Hollow Corporations would rather not spend the money on it, preferring to concentrate on marketing and advertising. They import from China because the products are made there as cheaply as possible--and they are shocked, shocked that corners are cut affecting health and safety.

And even if the U.S. government had the capability to protect the consumer, just how far they could afford to push China is a real question, since China owns so much U.S. government debt--in effect, owns so much of the Hollow United States and its future.

This leaves a real conundrum for many Americans this Christmas, especially for the millions whose hold on the middle class is tenuous: without the good wages for actually making things that these corporations used to pay, they work several lower-paying jobs to make ends meet. Paying for more expensive toys and gifts for Christmas from smaller exclusive U.S. firms is not a good option, assuming such toys and gifts can be found.

For those with sufficient discretionary income, there are continuing ethical problems of buying from companies dependent on sweatshop labor. Recently another trusted brand--The Gap-- has been tarnished by evidence of child labor sweatshop abuse exposed by journalists, forcing them to drop a subcontractor in India: they are shocked, shocked that 10 year olds were virtually enslaved by a lowest-bid subcontractor. The Gap reassures American consumers that the clothes they sell for Christmas will not include any tainted by this company. There are many roads from the Hollow Corporation and the Hollow Government to a hollow Christmas.

So as Americans cross their fingers and shop for Christmas, they may know that in the companies they once trusted for quality, and in the government they depend on to protect them, there is no there there. They are all hollow.  

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Happy Holloween!

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But I am learning things millions of Americans have long forgotten.  I know how to tack up a horse.  I know where my body should not be just in case the horse freaks out over some event that startles him.

May I live long enough to teach my grandson that the beauty of seasonal days spent in a natural setting are worth far more than lead painted Chinese toys or the Satanic idiots on 300 channels of a 60 inch TV.

In his youthful innocence he raises his arms showing his desire to be with me.  I pick him up and pray for the guidance and wisdom to show him a better world.

by Lasthorseman on Mon Oct 29th, 2007 at 09:50:04 PM EST
I know the feeling.  Your grandson is lucky to have you, and you're lucky to have him.  Happy trails.

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan
by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 05:05:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Excellent, and sickening, diary. As you say:

Long-term, doesn't it concern anyone that the skills and infrastructure to actually make things are disappearing from America, and that if anything happens to short-circuit the supply line from Asia, this nation may become a pitiful helpless giant?

In fact I'm sure millions of Americans are concerned about this, but feel helpless to do anything to change the system which has led to this - and Democrat politicians  are too dependent on their corporate sponsors to do much more than tinker with details. But it must occur to them that if many more jobs move abroad there won't be customers even for cheap (but potentially deadly) products from China and if corporations move their markets as well as their production elsewhere American politicians won't have sponsors.  

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 04:59:56 AM EST
I absolutely agree--there are millions who realize this, especially if they are old enough to remember steel mills and assembly plants, repair shops and craftspeople, or stories of shortages in World War II.  

But I've found that though they may feel--and may be--helpless to affect the macro scene, they are more open to positive change over what they can control, like energy efficiency at home and fuel efficiency and alternative energy for their vehicles. And by "they" I mean the kind of people I grew up around in western Pennsylvania.  

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 05:10:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]

But I've found that though they may feel--and may be--helpless to affect the macro scene, they are more open to positive change over what they can control, like energy efficiency at home and fuel efficiency and alternative energy for their vehicles.

Yes, and that's good as far as it goes, unfortunately not far, and, also unfortunately, it reflects the emphasis on the individual in US culture, which, of course, is good for  corporations, who don't want organised opposition.  But at least if they start thinking actively about such issues, they are likely to start making the connections - as you have - and see the need for more collective action and the value of a government concerned with solving social problems rather than adding to them.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 06:20:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
if corporations move their markets as well as their production elsewhere American politicians won't have sponsors.

As long as Americans (or American funds) remain the major shareholders and foreign investors use US based financial firms, the corporations can move their production and even sieges anywhere is convenient (in fact, they have been doing so for quite a long time), it doesn't matter. US politicians will still have sponsors.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 08:28:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know who you're quoting here but it isn't this commentary.  Formal "U.S." corporations retain marketing and often other functions in the U.S., and political influence is a function of marketing.  That actually makes my point, following Klein: the corporations are hollow.  

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan
by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Tue Oct 30th, 2007 at 09:15:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with you. I was answering (and quoting) Ted's comment above.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Wed Oct 31st, 2007 at 05:28:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary. We've had a similar experience over here with the rail privatisation where shell corporation within shell corporation sold on the owrk and kept a little profit until right down the far end there just wasn't enough money left to do the work that was needed.

until a train crash where the rails collapsed. Then the blame-circle began.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Nov 1st, 2007 at 04:48:28 PM EST
very nice, cpt future...

you write well, the poetry is devastating placed in the context of the drama you lay out.... a world ruled by hightech armies who know no master but money.

paid thugs...hidden from accountability, a monstrous thing.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Nov 2nd, 2007 at 12:02:10 PM EST


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