Saturday, August 09, 2008

KBR, Rape and the Colonial Unconscious

On an earlier edition of Shared Sacrifice, my co-host Gary talked about the scandal involving non-grounded electrical components, causing the deaths of some U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The company responsible for those disasters is KBR. But KBR allegedly has more than one way of destroying people's lives.

Some background: KBR, Inc. (formerly Kellogg Brown & Root) is an American engineering and construction company, formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR employs 14,000 U.S. employees in Iraq, ostensibly to provide logistical support to the U.S. armed forces. In the past two years, several female employees of KBR claim to have been raped in Iraq by co-workers. They have further alleged that they have been instructed to "keep quiet" about the rapes, or otherwise prevented from, or threatened away from, pursuing remedies for these assaults. The most notorious case right now involves an alleged gang rape of Jamie Leigh Jones. in July, 2005. Jones was allegedly drugged and raped by her coworkers, then confined to a security container without food, water, or medical treatment for a full day before a guard gave her his cell phone and allowed her to call her father. Jones' father then contacted Republican Representative Ted Poe. Representative Poe approached the State Department regarding the matter and secured her release. Because of contractual restrictions, Jones was barred from suing her employer. However, in May of this year, a Federal judge ruled that Jones can take her alleged perpetrators to court, as well as their company. She has testified before the House Judiciary Committee--and you can watch it on You Tube.

As the Times Online reports: "After she reported the alleged assault, she said she was confined to a shipping container and told that if she left Iraq to seek medical attention she would not have a job on her return." This is similar to the story of "Dawn Leamon, an American paramedic working for a foreign subsidiary of KBR at Camp Harper, near Basra." Leamon "testified that she was abused by a soldier and a coworker after drinking a cocktail. She told The Times that KBR employees discouraged her from reporting the alleged rape and pressured her into signing a false statement."

Besides categorical denials, KBR's chief response to these allegations has been to ban its employees from using cell phones.

Predictably, the usual round of reactionary conservatives reflexively attacked Ms. Jones and defended KBR. The editorials from conservative bloggers and commentators that doubt her story, that accuse her of lying, are universally made by men (except for Michelle Malkin, who considers Bill O'Reilly to be her mentor). And there are, in fact, some questions involving finer legal discrepancies. But those discrepancies do not include the evidence in her rape kit, the fact that her father had to intervene to get her released, the bruises and wounds she suffered, or the fact that KBR banned cell phone use after she called her father on the cell phone. All those are undisputed facts.

To their credit and honor, a few conservative writers actually acknowledge that the evidence strongly supports a rape allegation. The smartest among them, attorney Ted Frank, even says:
If the implant rupture and other physical injuries are true, I’m inclined to believe that she was raped, perhaps even gang raped. (Machismo environments like fraternity houses and athletes’ dorms are responsible for a disproportionate number of gang rapes, which is why the Duke Lacrosse allegations had so much weight in the early going.) I’m inclined to believe that there was a hostile work environment, and that it was possible that KBR was not doing enough to correct that problem. I’m not currently inclined to believe that the criminal action was the employer’s fault, unless the employee in question had shown signs of criminal behavior while working for KBR. And it is entirely consistent with what I know about government if Jones’s allegation that the government botched the criminal investigation is true.

Still another level-headed conservative blogger writes:
Here's the truth, according to my friends: women who are working in the green zone, even non-contractors, are particularly careful to never walk anywhere alone. Not because they are worried about being bombed or attacked by the enemy: they are worried about the men who are there. Men who are supposed to be their fellow comrades and friends, who are supposed to treat them with respect, but instead are ever-present threats. So try for a moment to understand that not everything in Iraq is flowers and candy, and that sometimes American men do terrible things, and American companies let people slip through the cracks.

Now, what does this have to do with colonialism? Well, even the staunchest defenders of militarism will tell you that the mindset required to execute the duties implied in the occupation of a sovereign nation call for a mindset of brutality. But you can't turn that brutality on and off, and even though most of our soldiers are no doubt decent people, many of them are not. Occupation attracts people with an occupier mentality. And occupation instills a destructive, reverse-occupied mentality on those who might otherwise be nonviolent people. Franz Fanon, a revolutionary anti-colonialist author who died in 1961, concluded from his extensive analysis of the French occupation of Algeria, that occupation and colonization brutalize the colonizers as well as the colonized. Other critics of imperialism and colonialism have said the same thing. One of my favorite quotes in this context comes from George Orwell, in his extremely effective essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell writes:
when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy...He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

This is what has happened in Iraq, and Afghanistan. It's more likely to happen with the increased presence of private contractors too, since they are subject to considerably less discipline than their military counterparts. Predictably, the Bush administration exacerbates this problem. For example, the Bush administration has granted immunity to Blackwater guards in a mass murder case.

Imperialism creates victims on the outside, but it also colonizes itself on the inside. In so many ways, from hatred to divisiveness to violence to poverty and alienation, we are a colonized and brutalized civilization. The solutions must be found in our collective self-criticism, solidarity, and emancipation. And we must get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible--not merely because of the harm our presence does there, but because in order to survive a transition away from our status as empire, we need to learn humility. The strong possibility that Jamie Leigh Jones and other alleged victims of rape are paying the price for that lack of humility is an all-too-predictable tragedy.

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