As Congress is threatening to set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq the Bush Administration is stepping up deployment of its own private army of independent mercenaries to augment to so-called surge in Iraq. There are close to a 100,000 private contractors in Iraq, providing everything from logistical support to private security. These are for-profit forces that often rake in six times what the average grunt in the field earns. Indeed, the most elite mercenaries, those that protect top Iraqi and American officials, earn about a $1,000 dollars a day, all of it tax-free. Given the public’s growing public antipathy to the war it is doubtful the administration could sustain the campaign in Iraq without its army of private contractors. However, given the billions at stake in highly profitable wartime contracts, it may be harder than ever to pull the plug on America’s misadventure in Iraq. Let me explain.
Blackwater, a private security firm based in North Carolina, is only one of many independent contractors operating in Iraq, but it is undoubtedly one of the best connected. Founded by a former Navy Seal, and composed of ex Special Forces personnel, Blackwater boasts close financial and political ties to the Bush Administration. In short, Blackwater has been a huge benefactor for the Bush dynasty, and a huge beneficiary of billions the administration has spent in Iraq.
Blackwater, of course, first popped into the public consciousness when four of its employees were ambushed and brutally murdered outside Fallujah in April 2004. In many ways the horrific events of that day proved to be a turning point in the war; the administration launched a series of reprisal assaults on Fallujah that killed countless Iraqis, decimated entire neighborhoods, and helped solidify Iraqi public opinion against the American occupation. The U.S. never achieved its military objective of pacifying Fallujah, but it certainly undermined its political objective of winning hearts and minds.
Hawkish journalist Robert Kaplan, who covered the Fallujah offensive from the trenches – literally feeding ammo to the U.S. troops he was embedded with – describes the Bush Administration’s strategy in Fallujah as absolutely feckless. The administration would launch an attack, and then suspend it, allowing political sensitivities to trump military objectives. Of course, the catalyst for the entire fiasco was the presence of private contractors operating according to their own rules in the middle of a war zone.
The rational for “outsourcing” military functions to the private sector is that private enterprise can perform things more efficiently than government run bureaucracies. Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, needless to say, were instrumental in moving America in the direction of a privatized military. This trend provides policy makers with numerous advantages: 1) private security forces are not subject to Congressional oversight, 2) private security firms are reliable political donors, and 3) casualty figures among private security firms can be kept off the books, so to speak.
The disadvantages of using private mercenaries, however, are considerable. First, the opportunity of private firms to profit from war makes going to war more likely. Second, private contractors are not subject to the U.S. military code of justice, thereby increasing the risk of rogue behavior. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were fostered or encouraged by private security personnel. And third, resentment among ordinary enlisted personnel to the spectacular salaries earned by soldiers employed by private security firms damages the morale of U.S. troops.
The rise of a virtual for-profit private military is an ominous development for America’s democracy. The synergy between the Bush political dynasty and companies that profit from going to war threatens to irrevocably alter the character of the United States. The dangers posed by this vicious synergy will not be just felt abroad; Blackwater and other private security firms have taken up quasi-official security functions within the United States (most notably in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina). Thus, the same heavily armed, unaccountable people running around Baghdad as Iraq burns may someday be patrolling your neighborhood. Privatizing the military was predicated on saving taxpayer dollars, but the real cost of for-profit armies are likely to remain hidden from the public, until it’s too late.