"This is basically a new phenomenon: corporatized private military services doing the front-line work soldiers used to do," said Peter W. Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written a book on the industry, "Corporate Warriors" (Cornell University Press, 2003).
"And they're not out there screening passengers at the airports," Mr. Singer said. "They're taking mortar and sniper fire." (NYT, 4/2/04)
I think we can all agree that the civilian commandos killed the other day, and all the rest of those privately employed as soldiers, deserve the same consideration as any one else. That having been said, how can we go about getting it for them?
When killed, they are not reported as military casualties. That is one feature which makes them attractive to the coalition government. Secondly, if they go off the wires, the coalition government has deniability. (No one has yet rushed forward to claim responsibility for retaining the planeload of privately employed soldiers currently held in Zimbabwe.)
I'm getting a lot of people emoting in my direction about the deaths of the civilian commandos. But it was not I who sent them out, without backup, into a situation deemed too dangerous for US troops and used them up like so many paper plates. The problem for Bremer is not that they died, but that the desecration of their corpses happened on camera. This is a huge PR disaster for him, both because it raises the prices of this kind of outsourcing and because it engages our sympathies for the plight of expendable privately hired commandos.
Let's all get together and ask for more transparency in the process: How many privately employed soldiers are there? What companies are being retained and for what purpose? How many privately employed soldiers have been killed and wounded in Iraq? Were they employed by the US, by US companies? In what capacity? Have there been any problems with the quality of the service provided by these privately employed soldiers? What has been done about it? What safeguards exist? Have there been Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from the actions of these privately employed soldiers? Have there been any friendly fire incidents involving privately employed soldiers? For the benefit of everyone involved, privately employed soldiers need to become less expendable and deniable.
And then there's the small matter of money. The New York Times sheds some light on the civilian commandos' level of compensation:
To meet the rising demand, the companies are offering yearly salaries ranging from $100,000 to nearly $200,000 to entice senior military Special Operations forces to switch careers. Assignments are paying from a few hundred dollars to as much as $1,000 a day, military officials said.
What do US soldiers in Iraq make? Why are we paying these guys so much more when the money could be spent training and supporting our own troops?
In the same article, Representative Jan Schakowsky had some very smart things to say:
Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, has also argued that the United States' growing use of private military companies hides the financial, personal and political costs of military operations overseas, since the concerns face little public scrutiny.
In particular, Ms. Schakowsky has objected to administration plans to increase the number of private military contractors in Colombia, where three American civilians working for a Northrup Grumman subsidiary have been held hostage by Marxist rebels for more than a year. The three were on a mission to search for cocaine laboratories and drug planes when they were captured.
"I continue to oppose the use of military contractors who are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny and accountability as U.S. soldiers," Ms. Schakowsky said last week. "When things go wrong for these contractors, they and their families have been shamefully forgotten by their American employers."
BY THE WAY, it seems to me that I ought to discuss the composition process of my post Iraq: The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Particularly among the trolls whose posts I've deleted, there seems to be the general assumption that the post is in response the deaths of the civilian commandos. It was not.
Rather, I had been working on the post for three days, accumulating links and quotes on the problem of mercenaries overrunning Iraq and was adding the last few links before publishing the post. I wanted an appropriate picture of mercenaries to link to and has having a hard time finding one, a much harder time than I would have expected. I guess they don't like having their pictures taken and they have guns, so photographers don't mess with them. I was trying out all kinds of euphemisms for mercenary on Google Images, and finally got this picture of a burning car.
I noticed a few minutes later that the date associated with the picture was the 31st, that very day. I followed the link to the story, and that is when I found out about the deaths. My brief write-up and links were nearly the last things I did on that post. It was pure coincidence that it was timely.
I do not believe that private military firms are all bad nor that they can do only harm. Most of the world's removal of mines from former combat zones is contracted to private military companies. This is appropriate and all for the good.
But what's going on in Iraq is very large scale, anarchic, and probably largely untracked. (I don't think most of my questions above can be answered by Bremer because I think he doesn't know the answers.) And what's worse, the Bush Administration is doing this as a matter of conscious strategy because of an ideological commitment to outsourcing and because it is politically expedient even though the longterm result of this policy will be to seriously weaken American armed forces by robbing them of money and personnel while at the same time hatching new military actors with desires that will eventually run contrary to our national security.
The descriptions of how many private military companies operate strike me as awfully similar to the lengthy explanations of why al Qaida is so insidious: the portability and discretion of their operations, etc. Also, Sandline, at least, was know to use an Enron-like maze of shell companies to hide the true nature of its dealings. Never mind that the high salaries paid by companies like Blackwater are luring the best and brightest from our military forces out of public service. It is very hard to distinguish this realm of free enterprise from organized crime.
What I think is it's most important point of that first post, one that the emoters seem not to get, is that this security blanket being spread over occupied Iraq has become the UK's largest export. That's how big this thing is. This is not really about the morals of four commandos, but about an immense economic shift, one that should make all of us uncomfortable because it is so little examined. Also, this is not really a left vs. right issue. This shift has been going on since about 1990 and administrations from both parties have participated. This is a shift that neither party has properly examined, and neither has coherent policy statements on. My fear is that the industry has grown so big so fast, that for economic reasons, we may already be too late for policy.