Originally published in The New York Times.
THE MURDEROUS ATTACK ON FOUR AMERICAN CIVILIANS in Falluja, Iraq, brought home gruesome images of charred bodies dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates River. It also introduced Americans to a company few had heard of: Blackwater USA, which was providing security for food delivery convoys when its employees were ambushed.
Blackwater, which operates from a 5,200-acre training ground in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, is a private military firm that provides an array of services once performed solely by military personnel. The company trains soldiers in counterterrorism and urban warfare. It also provides the American government with soldiers for hire: former Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy Seals. In February it started training former Chilean commandos—some of whom served under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet—for future service in Iraq.
Business is booming at Blackwater, and the company is hardly alone. Private contractors are an invisible but growing part of how war is now fought. Some 10,000 of them are serving in Iraq—one private worker for every 10 soldiers—more than the number of soldiers from Britain, America’s largest coalition partner. Some are supplied by well-known corporations like Halliburton. But for the most part, the private military industry is dominated by more obscure businesses with names that seem designed to tell as little as possible about what the company does.
Nor is their presence limited to Iraq. In recent years, soldiers-for-profit have served in Liberia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. They have guarded Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, and built the military detention facilities holding Al Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They have been an essential part of the American war on drugs in Latin America. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, who wrote a book on the private military industry, says it brings in about $100 billion a year worldwide.
The industry rose to prominence under President George H.W. Bush—Brown and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, received a $9 million contract to study supplementing military efforts after the Persian Gulf war. The Clinton administration sent more work to contractors, but it is under the current president, a strong believer in government privatization, that things started booming. Gary Jackson, the president of Blackwater, envisions a day when any country faced with peacekeeping duties will simply call him and place an order. “I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world,” he told me.
This raises some obvious questions. Shouldn’t war be a government function? Why rely on the private sector for our national defense, even if it is largely a supporting role? Part of the reason is practical: since the end of the cold war, the United States military has been shrinking, from 2.1 million in 1989 to 1.4 million today. Supporters of privatization argue that there simply aren’t enough soldiers to provide a robust presence around the world, and that by drafting private contractors to fix helicopters, train recruits and cook dinner, the government frees up bona fide soldiers to fight the enemy. (Of course, in the field, the line between combatant and noncombatant roles grow fuzzier, particularly because many of the private soldiers are armed.) Private contractors are supposed to be cheaper, too, but their cost effectiveness has not been proved.
Low manpower and cost savings aren’t the only reasons these companies appeal to the Pentagon. For one, substituting contractors for soldiers offers the government a way to avoid unpopular military forays. According to Myles Frechette, who was President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Colombia, private companies performed jobs in Latin America that would have been politically unpalatable for the armed forces. After all, if the government were shipping home soldiers’ corpses from the coca fields, the public outcry would be tremendous. However, more than 20 private contractors have been killed in Colombia alone since 1998, and their deaths have barely registered.
This points to the biggest problem with the outsourcing of war: there is far less accountability to the American public and to international law than if real troops were performing the tasks. In the 1990’s, several employees of one company, DynCorp, were implicated in a sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia involving girls as young as 12. Had these men been soldiers, they would have faced court-martial proceedings. As private workers, they were simply put on the next plane back to America.
Think about it: a private military firm might decide to pack its own bags for any number of reasons, leaving American soldiers and equipment vulnerable to enemy attack. If the military really can’t fight wars without contractors, it must at least come up with ironclad policies on what to do if the private soldiers break local laws or leave American forces in the lurch.
What happened in Falluja was a tragedy, no matter what uniform the slain men wore. Private contractors are viewed by Iraqis as part of the occupation, yet they lack the military and political backing of our combat troops. So far, the Pentagon has failed to prove it can take responsibility for either the actions or the safety of its private-sector soldiers.