America’s drift to war and the end of the Abrams Doctrine

(NB. This is a long post, but it contains a first sketch of some material I am working on for a paper on the new political economy of geographical intelligence.)

Rachel Maddow’s new book Drift makes a subtle and highly important argument, that, if true, goes a long way to explaining America’s current foreign policy.

The overall thrust of the book is that the US now finds it easier and more likely to prosecute war. This involves not just military action abroad, but also a huge security state at home, massive budget commitments, and the construction of thousands of secret facilities across the country. It also means the employment of private corporations in as much as half the war effort; contractors operating drones to perform strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, collecting intelligence (human and satellite) and selling it to the government.

Maddow takes this situation and sets out to explain it. This is where her argument draws together a number of points in an original way. Although writers such as Tim Shorrock and others have noted the explosion of spending since 9/11, Maddow takes a more structural approach by noting the following three developments. And she starts prior to 9/11.

1. After Vietnam became deeply unpopular in America, military leaders moved to ensure that any future wars would necessarily involve not just the military as an arm of the country, but the country in fact. The way they did this was by requiring wars to include the Reserves and National Guard as active-duty military, in what was called the Total Force Policy, but often known informally as the Abrams Doctrine.

Ironically, according to Maddow, Creighton Abrams (a former commander in Vietnam and after whom this policy is known) did not have as his goal the reduction in willingness to fight nor any policy effects. His concern was to increase the readiness of the American military and transform the Guard and the Reserves into a more professional force. And in many ways this was a return to the vision of the original founding fathers. The Second Amendment of course talks of the need for a “well regulated militia”–this was because the US government didn’t see itself as maintaining a large standing army.

2. The first Gulf War was the last time the Abrams Doctrine ever really worked to “anchor” the move to war, as Maddow puts it. In January 1991 Congress took a vote on whether to offer its support to President Bush, who had secured a United Nations deadline of January 15 for Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait or face military opposition. According to the Constitution, Congress has the sole power to declare war, not the Executive. But it had not done so since WWII. This vote was not a declaration of war, but it did involve genuine debate and at least in the Senate was close (52-47).

For the US Congress however, this was distant from a war declaration, and the Executive had been advancing the argument that that office could (as Commander-in-Chief of the military) deploy troops and fight wars with or without Congress as far back as the Reagan administration. Although the Gulf War involved hundreds of thousand of war-fighters it was perhaps the last time there was a real debate in the country about going to war.

3. Although contracting and outsourcing is often thought of as something that blossomed after 9/11 when immediate needs could not be met by existing military resources (soldiers but also materiel and intelligence), Maddow points to something rather different and intriguing that I don’t recall seeing put this way before. By the mid-1990s the huge number of deployed troops (including the Guard and Reservists) had the knock-on effect of creating a budget crisis (and a morale issue). That is, family separation. With so many troops deployed and active, for example in the first Gulf War, it was necessary to pay benefits, employer reimbursements and even day care to the reservists. (Maddow states that over 250,000 were called up in the Gulf War.) “It was the toddlers who did it” (pushed toward outsourcing and contractors) as she puts it. Some 80 percent of preschoolers with a parent in the military needed day-care.

Up to this time outsourcing was still regarded with distaste. But it was also assumed that the private sector could do things more cheaply. What about personnel who didn’t have the need for day-care (or other benefits) from the government? Or, what about contracting out day-care itself? Or both? Maddow points to a number of reports (such as the 1996 Defense Science Board Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization), stocked as they were with former corporate executives who saw huge cost-savings in going private. (Here we see the first mention of now-familiar contractors such as Boeing, GE, Perot Systems and Military Personnel Resources, Inc. or MPRI.) The 1996 Task Force for example cited figures of $7 to $12 billion annually in cost savings to the military (which could then spend this money on weapons procurement). “The private sector…is more likely than government organizations to provide cost-effective support to the Nation’s military forces” concluded the report. It’s hard to imagine a similar sentence being written today without being instantly dismissed as self-serving.

Maddow notes that at the end of the first Bush administration, Dick Cheney and his DOD colleagues operationalized the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP). The first private contractor was in 1992 (to [Kellogg] Brown & Root Services, a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s company). The $4 million KBR “cost-plus” contract was  to provide logistics support for deployed US forces (see Shorrock, p. 99). In 1995 KBR earned a contract worth $546 million to provide “logistical” support in Bosnia (Singer, p. 143).

The next LOGCAP contract went to DynCorp, a private military contractor headquartered in Falls Church, northern Virginia. (DynCorp employees have reportedly been involved in child sex trafficking in the Balkans, and a former employee Kathryn Bolkovac won a UK tribunal case for unfair dismissal after being a whistleblower [the movie The Whistleblower starring Rachel Wiesz was based on these events]. DynCorp was also mentioned in a 2009 WikiLeaks cable for allegedly hiring “dancing boys” to perform for them in Afghanistan, see Guardian coverage here.)

Maddow makes the case that this outsourcing began for real during the Balkan war. At the same time, it also gave birth to cost overruns. The Balkan origin has been made previously, notably in Shorrock’s Spies for Hire, and Singer’s Corporate Warriors (she misses a beat here by not drawing on Shorrock). Shorrock notes for example that MPRI was “hired to train the Croatian army and later signed a contract to train the Bosnian armed forces” in 1995 (p. 101-2). This is very likely. As I wrote in an article in 1996 about the Dayton Peace Accords, already major contractors were being involved in negotiating the peace. 24 hour mapping support was provided by the Army Corps of Engineers’ Topographic Engineering Center (TEC, now the Army Geospatial Center, AGC) with 3D visualizations from Cambridge Research Associates and the Camber Corporation (Crampton, 1996). Such was the computing power available that the computer room was dubbed “The Nintendo Room” containing two $400,000 computers running CRA’s “Powerscene” program. Camber used Esri ARC/INFO to digitize the lines and borders as they were proposed. Although headquartered in Huntsville, AL (home to Intergraph) it had a division in N. Virginia on base at Fort Belvoir, then the HQ of Army TEC.

It would be worth making a graph of DOD contracting from the “few hundred million” dollars worth in 1992 (cited by Maddow) to today. It’s hard to calculate this because of the many types of grants, contracts, loans, benefits and so on, but (a government data website) gives the figure of $4.996 trillion spend on contracts, 2000-2012, and another $5.9 trillion in grants. Of this, the DOD accounts for $3.423 trillion in contracts over the same time period (not all contracts go to private contractors of course; many may go to state or local government, police, etc.

Nevertheless, the DOD’s top five biggest contractors 2000-2012 are:

1. Lockheed Martin Corporation $286,928,039,158
2. The Boeing Company $209,549,224,764
3. General Dynamics Corporation $146,308,202,903
4. Northrop Grumman Corporation $122,747,072,546
5. Raytheon Company $120,484,497,965

Also, KBR was awarded $43 billion, the University of Kentucky $16.7 million, and Esri $420 million by the DOD (Esri also receives nearly as much from other government agencies, as I’ve documented previously).

(See here for all DOD contractors. The full spreadsheet of the number of DOD contractors goes to 50,001 exactly.)

The bulk of this was aircraft and fuel, but you can also see health care and $81 billion on “logistics” in the top five services purchased:

1. Aircraft, Fixed Wing $194,592,888,801
2. Liquid Propellants -Petroleum Base $101,272,449,085
3. Engineering and Technical Services $92,295,401,642
4. General Health Care Services $87,508,556,276
5. Logistics Support Services $81,505,205,740

Maddow’s book concludes by linking these sorts of developments with the new military doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN). This is an important, even critical step to note. Why? Because the basis of COIN is that you have to know your enemy, and you have to know how your enemy differs from your friend. Particularly in the context of nation-building (rather than just warfighting) what was needed was knowledge (intelligence and information), especially geographical knowledge.

In the longer paper, we will go on to document what that knowledge consists of, where it came from, and how it’s being used.

Crampton, J.W. 1996. Bordering on Bosnia. GeoJournal, 39(4), 353-361.

2 responses to “America’s drift to war and the end of the Abrams Doctrine

  1. Sir, you and Miss Maddow miss represent the Abrams Total Force concept. Abrams desire was to commit the American populace to the war effort by calling up the Gaurd and Reserve forces. He intended this as a check to make politicians think twice about committing America to a war.
    He died in office, his effort never completed, his successor lacked either vision or will to continue the proper implementation.
    In 1992 most of the military’s senior leadership did not understand Total Force or think about the consequences of a Call-Up.
    That is one of the weak links of our Republic, a lack of political and policy continuity.
    The unfortunate if not criminal work around has become the modern employment of contractors.

    • GE Donahue,
      I think that was exactly what Maddow was talking about. To make war less likely by making it less distant to the American populace as a whole. But this has not come to pass, and now the US finds it all too easy to go to war. She then links this to the increasing outsourcing and contracting of the military. When I wrote this I was working on a paper on geographical intelligence contracting (remote sensed imagery), a paper which subsequently appeared here. The question we might ask is what is the causal factor: is the US willingness to build a military infrastructure the cause or the effect of contracting? In other words, has contracting been caused by policy decisions, or has contracting made it easier for warfare to be carried out? I think your answer to this is whether you see politics or some form of neoliberalism as the primary driver.

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