WHEN THE CANNONS SHOOT, THERE'S BROWN & ROOT

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

Candidate George Bush told the voters that if they got him into the White House, he'd get our troops out of the Balkans. He promised to use our forces for national security rather than as punching bags and border guards for the ex-Yugoslavians.

During a recent visit to that very troubled spot, Bush did a 180 when he told the troops at Camp Bondsteel, "There's still a lot of work to be done. ... Our goal is to hasten the day when peace is self-sustaining, when local, democratically elected authorities can assume full responsibility, and when NATO forces can go home."

Why the about-face?

Perhaps it was part of his campaign plan. After all, LBJ used a similar ploy when he told us we weren't going to Vietnam during his bid for the top job in 1964.

Or perhaps Bush's European power pals warned him they'd rain on his defense shield if he pulled out of Kosovo and Bosnia and didn't help defuse the ever-multiplying cluster-bombs in Macedonia. Meaning, play the Balkan game, and we'll support Star Wars.

Or maybe the porkers at the Military-Industrial-Congressional Club pointed out that our NATO grunts better keep the peace in the Balkans -- or say goodbye to those billions of bucks we spend annually to defend a Europe searching for a reason to make NATO go away.

Or did the folks at Texas-based Halliburton Corp. convince the prez that the Balkans were good for business? Its recent financial report brags: "Revenues and operating income at Brown & Root Services (B & R) were significantly higher than the prior year's quarter resulting from increased activity levels supporting the U.S. Army in the Balkans."

Vice President Dick Cheney's former company is hauling in dough by the dump truck just like the good ol' days when good ol' boy LBJ steered the construction biz in Vietnam to Halliburton subsidiary B & R. Now the company, which has scored billions since we first stuck our boots into the Balkans, continues to benefit from the 12 major bases it has built there.

Take Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo's $350-million-plus base with annual operating costs, including redundant B & R maintenance and services, of close to $50 million:

* The air-conditioned Tactical Operations Center, with its Video Tele-Conferencing, big screens and other high-tech gizmos, is as sexy as the Pentagon's War Room. Price tag: a half-million dollars.

* The gyms showcase the best from the West, such as Hammer Strength equipment. Other morale builders include: free videos and movies, Anthony's Pizza, Burger King, free sandwich shops -- and the ever-popular cappuccino bar, the perfect place to chill before refereeing the restless natives. Cost for these goodies: more than a million dollars to build.

* The troops' living quarters -- six men to a hut -- have three showers per unit and air conditioning. There's 180 of these little jewels at $107,000 a pop.

* The "top notch" two main dining facilities, at about a million to build and maintain, are staffed by all local hires. Not only do our peacekeepers not have to worry about dishpan hands -- which might impact their ability to direct traffic -- from KP duty, the thousand-plus Kosovars who keep the place spick-and-span with a vengeance also clean the troops' huts up to three times a day.

* And Bondsteel's $35 million hospital will be one of Europe's premier facilities when completed.

"B & R has been renovating everything," a sergeant there reports. "They pulled out all the shower panels and replaced them with new ones ... the old ones were more serviceable than ones you find in soldiers' quarters in the U.S. All they needed, at most, was a paint job."

The longer we stay in the Balkans at four-star camps like Bondsteel, the more dependent the locals will become and - contrary to Bush's goal -- the less likely anything good will come from our wearing out our forces -- except for those who have a vested interest in perpetuating NATO.

Almost 30 million Americans live below the poverty line. Maybe we should declare most of the state of Maine, the Appalachians and East Los Angeles war zones for openers and send B & R there. Wouldn't our tax dollars be better spent?

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
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