While the volunteer Army struggles,
the business of war booms
by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
The armed security contractor in Iraq
makes an appearance on the collective American radar only when
events get so ugly they won't go away: the charred bodies of four
Blackwater guards swinging from a Fallujah bridge in 2004, the
17 civilians reportedly killed by Blackwater men in a Baghdad
square in September.
Mostly their presence-anywhere from 20,000-
to 70,000-strong depending on who's counting-moves on a battlefield
that, in the words of the 1980s television series "Tales
of the Darkside," is "just as real, but not as brightly
lit" as the news we see every night. They kill, bleed on
the side of the road, and recover with stumps and prostheses,
just not at Walter Reed Medical Center.
Richard Zbryski put the shadowy existence
of the private parallel army in cold, hard perspective when he
described how the body of his brother, Walter Zbryski, a 56-year-old
retired New York City firefighter, was shipped home from his job
as a contracted truck driver in Iraq. "What really upset
me was that he was laying there floating in 6 inches of his own
body fluids," still wearing his bloodied clothes, with half
of his head blown away, Zbryski told the Chicago Tribune.
His brother was one of the more than 1,000
civilian contractors killed since the war began. More than 180,000
remain in Iraq today. Most are unarmed, doing everything from
feeding and providing basic services to the U.S. military to constructing
bases, transporting equipment, and rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure.
But it's the hired guns and spooks-the
tens of thousands of guards protecting diplomats and VIPs, government
buildings, reconstruction projects and convoys, plus prison interrogators-who
bring into focus the fate of the mission and the implications
of privatizing the military. They have people wondering what new
breed of mercenary super-soldier American money is buying.
"There are many questions as to how
a myriad of heavily armed private armies can serve the purpose
of the US military and foreign policy," writes Robert Young
Pelton, in Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.
Pelton has traveled with both military
and private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the
conflict. He describes the new terrain shaped by outsourcing and
reports that it bears little resemblance to the noble enterprise
sold to the military years ago. Five years into operations, it
is a darkly obscured landscape of violence, profiteering, and
negligence. He senses that this parallel army is undermining the
entire mission, leading to "blowback of extraordinary proportions."
"It strikes at the core of the entire
American principle, the idea of the citizen soldier," he
tells TAC. "We've been fighting this war longer than World
War II, and the military is absolutely dependent on the private
Never in modern history has war privatization
reached this level. The course was set as early as the 1980s,
when post-Cold War military restructuring led to the first LOGCAP-the
Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program-which furnished an
open-ended, cost-plus contingency contract for private vendors
to provide rapid support services to the Army in deployment operations.
Military brass initially resisted the idea, write Dina Rasor and
Robert Bauman in Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results
of Privatizing War: "Military commanders, at the time, expressed
considerable mistrust of a contractor's ability to supply troops
on the battlefield because they would be too slow, unreliable,
But Dick Cheney, then defense secretary
under President George H.W. Bush, was still able to secure a $3.9
billion LOGCAP contract for Brown & Root before leaving office
and becoming the CEO of its parent company, Halliburton, in 1995.
Privatization expanded throughout the Clinton administration,
with the new Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and Dyncorp International
receiving lucrative service contracts to work in Somalia, Rwanda,
Southeast Asia, Kuwait, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia.
Some say Cheney was the midwife of the
military-private sector alliance. With Donald Rumsfeld, a kindred
spirit who has also enjoyed a lucrative public-private revolving-door
career, he was able to nurture that alliance into its current
mutation in the global war on terror.
"[Privatization] became a mantra,
that the contractors could do so much better," said Rasor,
whose book is an exhaustive account of "what happens when
you introduce a for-profit motive into the battlefield."
Rumsfeld, who famously said "you go to war with the Army
you have, not the one you want," was "thinking like
a businessman," said Rasor. "It's not working out."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, civilians-ex-soldiers
and spies mostly-were unleashed on Afghanistan under the CIA to
look for Osama bin Laden, according to Pelton, while Blackwater
got its first gig guarding military facilities and, later, new
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who still enjoys the best security
detail American money can buy.
As the war grew more dangerous, so did
the need for armed contractors. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition
Provisional Authority until it turned over the keys to the Iraqis
in 2004, introduced the first private security detail into Iraq,
hiring Blackwater to the tune of $21.3 million. In an astonishing
display of firepower, Bremer was routinely surrounded by 36 civilian
guards and "a fleet of SUVs, two bomb-sniffing canine teams
with handlers, four pilots, four aerial gunners, a ground crew
and three Boeing MD-530 'Little Bird' helicopters," Pelton
reports. Later on, they would add three Mamba trucks with machine
gun mounts and a Saracen armored carrier for transport.
Early news coverage of private contractors
centered around the bravery of the truck drivers, servers, and
technicians helping to rebuild Iraqi society and provide comforts
never before experienced by American soldiers in the field. To
many, even today, that remains true.
But the good news was soon tempered by
reports that KBR, the biggest contractor in Iraq, was overcharging
the military for things like fuel and food, engaging in fraud,
and using the largely no-bid LOGCAP contract like a teenager with
a credit card. Soldiers began to complain back home about work
stoppages, wasted and lost equipment, and jobs that didn't get
Worse than that emerging fiscal and logistical
nightmare was the bad press generated by the guys with guns.
Outside of the tens of thousands of unarmed
contractors on the ground, it is estimated that close to 200 security
companies operate in Iraq today, ranging from the elite-Blackwater,
Triple Canopy, and Dyncorp-to the low-paying and less impressively
equipped "mom and pop" outfits. A minority are Americans
and other Westerners. The rest are Iraqi and ex-military types
from far-flung places like South Africa and Chile.
Billions of dollars in government and
private money floating around have been a boon for the hired-gun
business. But this might be one case in which the free market
is not self-regulating. Unlike Main Street, the roiling pressures
of danger and political instability in Baghdad won't wait for
this particular market to self-correct.
"Guys with guns and no laws governing
them-it was inevitable in a way," says Robert Greenwald,
director of the documentary film "Iraq for Sale," a
gritty take on the business of war. He thinks the latest Blackwater
scandal might be the "tipping point" for American patience
with hiring war out to private guns who play by wildly different
rules than U.S soldiers.
"They have had an extraordinary track
record of keeping people alive," said (Ret.) Col. Gerald
Schumacher, author of A Bloody Business: Contractors and the Occupation
of Iraq. "They do it through intimidation. Bulldozing cars
off the road. Varying degrees of aggressiveness." Plus, "the
contractor has surmised, and I think rightly so, that they are
immune to prosecution."
Iraqi anger at Blackwater is palpable.
Local officials allege that contracted guards killed 17 civilians
in the Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad, including a child whose charred
body was found fused to his mother's in the backseat of a burning
car. Iraqis want the company tried in their courts and banned
from their country, and it is not clear at this writing that Blackwater
will survive the life of its $571-million contract with the State
In 2006, a drunken off-duty Blackwater
guard was accused of murdering the bodyguard of Vice President
Adil Abdul Mahdi on Christmas Eve in the Green Zone. He was shuttled
out of the country before he could be questioned by Iraqi police
and was fired but never prosecuted. The family of the bodyguard
was given $15,000 in compensation.
In 2005, an innocent bystander and father
of six was fatally shot by Blackwater guards careening down a
street in al-Hillah. Blackwater gave his family $5,000 after the
State Department urged the company to "put this unfortunate
matter behind us quickly," according to an e-mail supplied
to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has
promised reforms, and on Oct. 25, Deputy Secretary for Diplomatic
Security Richard Griffin tendered his resignation. Even Defense
Secretary Robert Gates has said the contractors' job to protect
their clients is at "cross purposes to our larger mission
in Iraq," adding, "there have been instances where,
to put it mildly, the Iraqis have been offended and not treated
properly." DoD employs about 7,300 security contractors in
Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan; around 2,500 work for the State
Blackwater insists that on Sept. 16 its
guards were ambushed and were shooting in self-defense. Founder
and CEO Erik Prince-the politically connected son of Edgar Prince,
the late billionaire who helped build the Family Research Council-went
on a media charm offensive in October, giving television interviews
and inviting reporters to Blackwater's 7,000-acre training facility
in North Carolina.
"We don't get any advantages for
the lack of accountability-we just end up getting hammered on
the issue," said Doug Brooks, spokesman for the International
Peace Operations Association, a trade group representing 40 companies
in the private security industry. He and others say the assault
on contractors is politically motivated and the stories of their
abuses and excesses are greatly exaggerated.
But there is plenty of grist. Civilian
interrogators were involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal,
and YouTube provides visuals of swaggering guards with heavy ammo,
taking shots at unsuspecting Iraqis.
U.S soldiers are the first to acknowledge
that the "fog of war" sometimes invokes extraordinary
measures, but the contractors' cocksure pose and seeming lack
of conscience reflects on them all. "I feel that many of
the contractors here have no respect for the locals and are doing
a great deal of harm to our reputation," an Army lieutenant
stationed in Afghanistan e-mailed.
"They don't have to explain themselves.
We've all witnessed them shooting up cars, and then they just
drive off in their SUVs, wearing their ballcaps, sunglasses, and
full beards. If we shot up a car, we couldn't leave the scene
for two days," said (Ret.) Marine Sgt. Nick Benas, who served
in Iraq from July 2004 to March 2005. Afterward, he turned down
an $186,000 offer to train Iraqi police as a civilian contractor.
Advocates for contractors, like Jane Crowder,
who started www.AmericanContractorsinIraq.com as a support network
for the community of civilian workers, say most contractors don't
earn that much and are in many cases victims, too, fighting for
medical benefits and lacking the institutional support military
veterans take for granted. "Most of them get injured or killed
before they make $50,000, then they get sent home with no medical
coverage or follow-up care," she told the Knoxville Voice
in June. "Once you leave Iraq, you're alone."
Danger, burnout, injury and death have
led to significant turnover. The elite former Navy Seals and Army
Special Forces who formed the backbone of the security enterprise
in its early days are a vanishing breed, replaced by less qualified
profit-seekers, Third World commandos, and "ham and eggers"
looking to reinvent themselves into something worthy of bravado
Pelton suspects that some with the new
"skill set" honed in Iraq may never want to go home
and will continue looking for action and money elsewhere. "It's
going to have a significant impact" on the global security
landscape, he said. "I already see guys doing bounty hunting
or getting involved in questionable training programs overseas."
If the military ever wanted to go all the way and start hiring
mercenaries to do their fighting, there's probably a division
ready to go.
The temptation is understandable, for
it avoids the politically difficult decision to put more boots
on the ground, calling up more National Guard and reserves, or
appealing to the United Nations and NATO for help. "It is
a predicament of [the U.S government's] own making. It has over-outsourced
to the point that it is unable to imagine carrying out its most
basic operations without them," war privatization expert
Peter W. Singer suggests in Can't Win with 'Em, Can't Go to War
without 'Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency.
He goes on: "The use of private military
contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped the counterinsurgency
efforts of the U.S mission in Iraq," which require winning
over the local population. He hopes the military will take a long
look at whether it can continue. "Will our leaders have the
will to just say no?"
Dina Rasor considers that unlikely simply
because there are so many lobbyists on Capitol Hill pushing the
magic pill of privatization, and big firms always have influential
ex-military and CIA on the payroll. Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer
Black led CIA operations in Afghanistan and is now serving as
an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
After the 2004 incident in which four
Blackwater guards were shot and hung from the bridge in Fallujah-a
case in which the company is facing lawsuits from the victims'
families for allegedly sending them out on a mission unprepared-Prince
hired now-defunct Republican lobbying firm Alexander Strategy
Group, tied to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay and convicted lobbyist
Jack Abramoff. According to Rasor, "Blackwater's investment
in Alexander paid off quickly. By mid-November 2004, Blackwater
reported a 600 percent growth in additional contract dollars."
And the windfall isn't limited to Mideast operations: after Hurricane
Katrina, Blackwater guards patrolled the streets of New Orleans
under a new domestic contract.
Blackwater has received $1 billion from
the U.S government since the start of the war. Erik Prince won't
disclose Blackwater's profit margin, but he recently told Congress
he made around $1 million last year.
"This new [war service] industry
depends on hot wars, occupations and natural disasters (which
can't always be counted on), to keep it going," Rasor writes.
But Prince won't surrender to the cynicism, at least in public,
calling most contractors "open, honest Americans trying to
do a good job," in an October Washington Post interview.
Then, according to the Post, came the rub: "If they don't
like what we're doing," he declared, snapping his fingers,
"then cut off the revenue stream right now.".
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington,
D.C.-based freelance reporter.