If you think that soldiers of fortune went out with Frederick Forsythe and the last colonial war in Africa, think again. The dogs of war are back big time, compliments of the US occupation of Iraq. Except in our more politically correct world, the word “mercenary” has been dropped from our vocabulary and replaced with the more acceptable term: “civilian contractor.” It is difficult to say exactly how much their presence is netting the US private sector – the firms employing them are mum – but it is safe to assume that the US government is saving a great deal on costs that would otherwise be incurred if they used regular troops.
The brutal slaying of four unfortunate Americans in Fallujah made front-page news the world over, as did the prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, where civilian guards were said to be involved. But just who are these mysterious “contractors,” what exactly do they do, why are they there, and who are they answerable to? Let’s start at the beginning. Ever since there were wars, there have been men – and sometimes women – who tag along with the military to carry out chores that soldiers do not want to do. For logistical reasons the military high command finds it easier, better, cheaper, and less complicated to have civilians do those odd jobs instead. But like everything else, there are both advantages and disadvantages in hiring outside help.
But to understand the current phenomenon that has drawn anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 civilian contractors to Iraq, making them the second-largest military force in the country after the US, we need to understand first why such a large number of civilians has been “drafted” into a war zone.
Under the leadership of Donald Rumsfeld, and against the better judgment of some of his generals, the American secretary of defense took the decision to reduce the size of the US military around the world. The Cold War was over, and Rumsfled argued, there were no pressing needs to maintain large numbers of troops and bases around the world. Rumsfeld believed that modern warfare could be fought effectively with superior air power, good, solid intelligence – mostly electronic – and far fewer “boots on the ground.”
His rationale was proven during the Afghanistan war, which started shortly after the attacks of September 2001. The US quite simply dominated the skies with its air force and precise computer-guided missiles. American spy satellites could spot enemy movement from outer space and direct elite troops on the ground to take appropriate action as needed. They could listen to enemy communications and preempt their moves. Unmanned drones could spy on enemy troop movements and relay live data, including television images to frontline commanders for quick reaction by Special Forces.
The invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and attempt to capture Osama bin Laden required limited troops on the ground. Smaller tactical units of Special Forces, Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy Seals supported from the air, indeed proved to be most effective. Rumsfeld’s idea of a smaller, leaner, military seemed to have worked; in theory, at least.
In Iraq a very different battle plan was needed with the generals calling for at least 350,000 troops in order to do the job properly. Certainly the United States could blitzkrieg, as it did, in record time, taking barely three weeks to occupy the entire country. Maintaining the occupation has been harder.
Rumsfeld insisted the occupation of Iraq could be properly maintained with roughly 130,000 troops. But what he did not tell the American people was that to sustain those troop numbers, he would need the support of another 40,000 civilians to back up the military.
Enter the civilian contractors, who can be broken down into two distinct categories. The first is the genuine civilians, such as truck drivers, cooks, cleaners, mechanics and builders. They drive supply trucks, repair tanks and provide housing for the troops. Their pay is significantly superior roughly ten time what they would make in the US, given the discomfort of living in a war zone and the dangers involved. Of those, there are roughly 20,000 working in Iraq today. Or at least there were, until Westerners became the target of kidnappers and many took fright and left.
The second group of civilian contractors – of which there were also about 20,000 – is armed. Some even use helicopters with mounted guns for protection. These are mainly former military Special Forces types, who enlist their services in exchange for money, much as a mercenary would. They provide security to government buildings where American employees work and live.
Almost all US agencies – the State Department and the US Agency for International Development, the Commerce Department, the Defense Department and the US army – all have contractors working for them, or are administering contracts that have contractors working for them. They are also tasked to provide security for the civilian contractors and to protect their convoys or their work and housing sites. The four contractors who were brutally killed and had their body parts hung over a bridge in Fallujah, were former US Navy Seals on irresistible contracts.
Some of these contractors have been involved in firefights with Iraqi insurgents, and others had to fight their way out of tense situations. But more stunning was the recent discovery, when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke last month, that civilian contractors were used in the interrogation of prisoners, tactics previously unheard of in military annals.
It is important to note that we are not talking about civilians in the employment of the government, such as the CIA or FBI, but of truly just civilians, hired specifically for that purpose.
A number of US companies, such as Virginia-based CACI, have advertised for interrogators, among other positions that require US government security clearance. As a rule, those are usually people with prior experience in their field – like former intelligence officers who worked for the CIA, DIA or the FBI. Still, it remains highly unusual to bring in civilians to perform such tasks as interrogating prisoner.
Why is this happening? Well, in the case of the first category, the civilian-civilian contractors, as mentioned above, the US military has been reduced in size. To make up the deficit in manpower, the defense department is forced to turn to outside help. To enlist more troops would not solve the problem, as it’s also a matter of economics. It’s the bottom line that Rumsfeld is watching for.
In simple terms: it’s true that a civilian hired to drive a truck loaded with gas, ammunition or MREs (meals ready to eat) from Basra to Baghdad will on average earn 10 times more than a soldier doing the same job. However, consider this: the contractor gets a lump sum of money and that’s the end of the story. There is no insurance for the government to pay. If he gets hit, there are no medical costs involved. Most likely his employer, the one that contracted him, would cover insurance costs, or he would do so himself.
A wounded soldier, besides costing the government medical expenses, necessitates the support of doctors, nurses, medical technicians and staff. It takes an entire team to care for every wounded GI. All this requires resources and costs money.
Additionally, if the soldier is disabled, the government will have to pay him compensation and cover long-term hospitalization, if required, and the military would then have to replace him in the field. Not so with a contractor; he gets hit, he leaves, the government hires another one. End of story. Total savings for Uncle Sam are roughly in the thousands of dollars per man, while it remains difficult to pin down exact numbers, because no study was released by the Pentagon on this subject.
Another advantage is if contractors get killed. They don’t figure in the “official” US death toll. No one really knows how many contractors have been killed in Iraq. Nor, for that matter, does anyone really know how many are operating in Iraq. Not even the Pentagon has figures for them. The closest one gets is an estimate of “about 20,000.”
The second category, the armed civilian contractors, are more aptly described as ‘mercenaries.’ They are ready to kill and even be killed, not for God and country, but for financial reward.
Again, there are no published figures, nor casualty reports concerning armed contractors. The Pentagon only reports military dead and wounded and offers no insight into losses – if any – from the ranks of armed contractors. And their employers, usually firms who try to avoid publicity, tend to shy away from the press.
One frightening fact to emerge from the Iraqi prisoners abuse scandal was that no one was able to identify a proper chain of command concerning civilian contractors involved in the interrogations. The US military commanders in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison did not know who the civilian interrogators in the jail reported to, and who answered for them.
Strange times, indeed.