Privatization in Iraq: ‘Contractors’ With Guns

By Nicholas Von Hoffman

Newspapers and TV outlets were condemned for showing the bodies of four Americans identified as "contractors" who were brutally killed, burned and then gleefully put on display in Iraq. As if Americans were not capable of acting exactly as the Iraqis did. Individuals and peoples remember what they want to remember and forget what they want to forget. For those who have forgotten, or the millions of Americans who are too ignorant to have known, our libraries are full of pictures of white people dancing and eating Southern-fried chicken as they partied around the burnt corpses of lynched African-Americans. So please spare us the shock and awesome indignation at Iraqi behavior.

Who were the "four U.S. contractors" who met their deaths in Fallujah? They were described in The Washington Post as "elite commandos" hired by the U.S. government to protect bureaucrats, soldiers and intelligence officers."

The contractors were employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, four of some 400 Blackwater employees in Iraq who are making up to $1,000 a day.

American news organizations are not doing the truth a favor when they call these hired guns "U.S. military contractors." They are not even being accurate: The men were not contractors to the government, but Hessians or mercenary soldiers in the employ of a corporate warlord, namely Blackwater Security Consulting. Let’s call these people what they are, even though Americans have yet to feel completely comfortable with the idea of killing for money.

Perhaps to help us get over any queasiness we might be experiencing in that department, a number of stories about the Blackwater mercenaries have stressed that they were former members of elite units of the American military. It has even been said that they gave their lives for "freedom." Whose freedom is left unsaid, but surely no more overused and abused word can be found in contemporary American English. The patriotic crap aside, if these men’s primary motives for being in Iraq were flag and country, they’d still be in the armed services. At a pay grade of $350,000 a year, we know why they were there.

Does that justify killing them? No, nothing can justify taking human life—but if you take one-third of a million dollars a year to walk around in somebody else’s country with a machine gun, and you get wasted by the locals, I don’t think you deserve a very big or elaborate funeral. They were there for the money, and these men—elite ex-soldiers that they were—knew the risks, and they took them. So be it.

Evidently, thousands of mercenaries have been put to work in Iraq, and this raises some troublesome questions. Is all this stuff we are fed on TV and in the newspapers about the new and democratic Iraqi Army and constabulary just lies? Why aren’t Iraqis guarding "bureaucrats, soldiers and intelligence officers"? Why aren’t soldiers guarding themselves?

Sooner or later, the American troops are going to find out about this. Is it going to occur to the young gung-ho guys, who volunteered right out of high school, that they are risking life and limb for chump change while other men (and probably a few women) with the same skill sets are getting rich? What will be the reaction of the middle-aged reservists and National Guard people serving for a few hundred dollars a month, at the risk of job and mortgage, when they find out about the thousands of mercenaries being paid a king’s ransom to do for money what they do for country? If there is a morale problem now, as these stories about suicides among our service people suggest, what, pray tell, will be the state of morale then?

What will be the morale of the members of Congress who worry about where the money is coming from when it gets through to them that the United States is fighting this war with $1,000-a-day soldiers? As with all formulae offered as automatic and invariably successful solutions to difficult problems, privatization works only sometimes. It works with garbage collection, where it saves money. It does not save money with Medicare, and it certainly does not save money waging war.

Not only does privatization not save money waging war, it creates problem after problem, only some of which are visible at this juncture. If captured, are these mercenaries prisoners of war and subject to the Geneva Convention, or can they licitly be shot as spies and saboteurs?

We know that there are thousands of mercenaries now loose in Iraq. Only some of them work for Blackwater. Apparently, there are a number of companies who hire these people, so the question arises about how much control the American authorities have over the irregulars running about the country. Dyncorp mercenaries in the former Yugoslavia were accused of rape and robbery. The point is that they are not subject to military discipline, and even if they commit no acts universally regarded as criminal, they may still do things that offend the Iraqis: They might drink alcohol, use insulting gestures, whistle at women or find a dozen ways to get into trouble doing things which are innocent enough if done in Indiana, but which are incendiary acts if done in Basra.

It is astonishing that a military establishment which has poured billions upon billions into the development of communication technology that allows for close command and control never before dreamt of by military commanders can have sanctioned such a use of mercenaries. They have armed mercenaries all over the country over whom they can exercise no effective supervision and whom they cannot even communicate with. In a situation where the Americans know they are walking on egg shells, where innocent but explosive misunderstandings can occur at any minute, the introduction of swaggering, overpaid and undersupervised commando types is little more than idiotic.

Another question hanging in the air is why the Bush administration has resorted to the wholesale use of mercenaries. What you may lose in command and control with military operations of one sort or another carried out by commercial contract, you gain in secrecy and, as John Dean is making a point of, we have an administration in Washington of secrecy fetishists. It is much harder to dig out what the corporate warlords, who are immune from the Freedom of Information Act and most other forms of inquiry, are up to. We know, for example, that the State Department has hired a war corps to carry out various military duties in Colombia, but precise knowledge of what they are doing is gained only by a reporter risking life and safety—and even then, the facts may remain hidden.

The administration may be using mercenaries because it does not have enough troops, enough "boots on the ground," as the tough guys like to say. President Bush et al. were warned, you may remember, before they launched us into their Iraqi folly, that they would need twice the number of soldiers they had committed to the operation. The warning was laughed off, and the general who did the warning was retired from active duty.

Hiring mercenaries is one method of trying to make up for the gap between troop strength and troop requirements. Hiring mercenaries enables the administration, it hopes, to fill the gap without having to admit it was wrong. Moreover, it seems that the administration was so wrong on its troop estimates that there is no other way to make up the deficit except by the use of hired guns. This alliance of 34 countries contributing troops is a joke. The United Kingdom has 11,000 troops in Iraq. No other country has more than 2,700, and that’s Italy. The Spanish have 1,300 and they’re leaving. Twenty-six countries have less than 500 soldiers, and of that group 10 nations have fewer than 100 soldiers. Moldova has 24 men there and Estonia has 55, so they are both dwarfed by Japan, which has a grand total of 75 troopers in Iraq. How many American soldiers does it take to guard the Japanese and Moldovians? Or are we to assume that the 121 Latvian soldiers can speak Arabic and can get on by themselves?

So other than going out on the market and buying soldiers, where can Mr. Bush find them? He could make a speech imploring our best young people to enlist to fight the evil-doers and weapons-of-mass destructioneers and then see what that gets him at the recruiters. Or let’s go back to conscription. It will not be easy for George Bush to lose the November election, but proposing to reinstate the draft is one way he can.

So it’s mercenaries or nothing, but aside from the money, there will be hell to pay for this.

The New York Observer | April 22, 2004

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)