Opinion » Bill Cope

Major Private

The general trend to sell off your government

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Ever wonder what happened to Beetle Bailey? Remember him? Slouchy little freckled scamp who's been in the U.S. Army for 57 years and never made it above the rank of private? I miss him ... him, Sergeant Snorkel, General Halftrack, Cookie. I've been following Beetle since I was, like, first able to read. Then he disappears. Statesman quit carrying him several years back, and I've been curious since what he (or his creator, Mort Walker) did to piss off whoever picks the strips for their anemic comics page. How could they do that to a vet ... just boot him out like some kind of knock-kneed 4-Fer? What? Did they discover that Zero or Plato or one of the other grunts was gay, and they went to a "don't ask ... don't syndicate" policy? Did Limbaugh claim the Camp Swampy contingent were "phony soldiers?" Does all that "Support Our Troops" bluster not extend to our boys in the funny papers?

Gradually, it dawned on me. There's just nothing left for Beetle and his band of cartoon brothers to do any more. Beetle spent about half his panels peeling potatoes on KP, remember? He couldn't go a full day without getting on Sarge's bad side, so it was either peel spuds, dig a hole or swab out the latrines. But then, along comes Ronald Reagan with his schtick about how government doesn't do anything private enterprise can't do better, faster and cheaper, and before most of us were aware of it, the spud-peeling and hole-digging jobs were all contracted out to Haliburton, Bechtel ... whoever has the most cronies embedded in the administration. Even guard duty seems to be in private hands now, a la Blackwater. I suppose when Rumsfield set out to whittle the U.S. Army down to a lean, mean oil-field-occupying machine, the first to go was Cookie. No point in having an old-school shit-on-a-shingle cook around when Cheney is handing out no-bid contracts for food preparation like they were sprinkler blow-out coupons, is there?

I'm sorry to admit, I didn't see it coming. This whole privatization thing sort of crept up on us, didn't it? Private prisons? When did that go through? And did you vote on it, 'cause I sure as hell didn't. And remember when we used to joke about the six county road workers standing around a hole leaning on shovels while one guy dug? Well, anymore, the joke is about six sub-contractors standing around a hole leaning on shovels while one guy digs—only the guy digging is likely to be an illegal immigrant ... and the job is being done at "cost-plus" rates ... and they busted the local road workers union by fanning all the labor out to scab shops ... and the county road improvement budget now goes to some over-paid CEO who's making a secret deal to sell the company to a sheik in Dubai ... and it ain't funny anymore.

As to the military: It wasn't until this war swung into full production mode that I began to get an inkling it was no longer my father's army. The way I hear it, one mega-corporation or another provides about everything the military needs in a war zone—housing, bowling alleys, pizza parlors, Internet cafes—everything but the right body armor and sufficient protective plating on the Humvees, that is. All the grunts have to do anymore is go out and try to hammer the square Bush foreign policy peg into the round hole of Islam.

The privatization surge isn't over yet, be sure of that. The kind of people who still think Ronald Reagan didn't have his head up his ass are exactly the kind of people who want to privatize public broadcasting, Social Security and the education system. I've just recently learned that some towns are even privatizing libraries, of all things. Don't expect to find the complete works of Thoreau on their shelves.

For the moment, though, let's forget the question of whether we want to live in a world so thoroughly controlled by boards of directors and quarterly earnings that the water we use to flush a toilet in Boise makes money for a stockholder in France. For the moment, let us only consider if privatization has lived up to its promise, and let us use the example of privatizing military functions as a standard. After all, it's been over two decades since Reagan declared that government can't solve problems (since it is the problem), yet we've seen alarmingly little curiosity as to whether private enterprise is indeed doing things better, faster and specifically ... cheaper.

For instance, prior to 2001, Blackwater was making less than a mil a year off federal contracts. Since the war began, they've pulled in over $1 billion—which is no surprise, since their guns for hire get paid six and seven times what G.I.s make for doing what G.I.s used to do. And Blackwater is only one of many such outfits. Or on the matter of feeding the troops: When did an old Army mess hall ever charge for thousands of meals that were never served, as a Haliburton subsidiary got caught doing? And from whom, dear taxpayers, do you think all this extra money is coming from?

Here's what I suspect: privatization was never about saving taxpayers' dollars. From its conception (in the boardrooms and legal departments of corporate headquarters everywhere) to its present maturity (under the Bush administration's loving guidance), it has been a ploy to transfer as much of Americans' money into the hands of stockholders and top management as they could get away with before someone uncovered the scam.

So I imagine Beetle Bailey saw the writing on the wall and chose not to re-up. General Halftrack, now ... he could probably waltz into a lobbying gig for some defense contractor with just a phone call. Sarge is a cinch for one of those private security firms, since he's always preferred to stomp someone first and ask questions later. But I worry about Beetle. I've been watching the other strips closely, thinking maybe he'll show up in civvies as a background character in "Pickles" or "Get Fuzzy." Not that one can argue with his decision to get out. Face it, dodging IEDs—or being neglected at Walter Reed Hospital when you don't dodge one—that stuff just isn't comic strip material.

Hold on ... I've just been handed word that Beetle Bailey can be found, still in uniform, in the Press-Tribune over Nampa way. Evidently, whatever duties the Camp Swampy bunch were performing for the Statesman were contracted out to another strip. "Luann," maybe. Or "Sally Forth." Probably one of those no-bid deals, too—judging by the total lack of accountability in the laughs department.