A cover-story in the August 14 New York Times Magazine reports that, while the Department of Defense will not disclose figures, one rough estimate is that 60 to 80 companies, operating under DOD contract, have provided at least 25,000 armed soldiers to assist the U.S. military in Iraq. These private soldiers offer protection from enemy insurgents to both U.S. military installations and to American companies carrying out reconstruction protects.
The Times article reports that the private companies and the U.S. government bristle at the mercenary label to describe these soldiers because of the unsavory gun-for-hire connotation. The soldiers, they counter, are merely providing protection. However, according to facts outlined in the article, the mercenary label fits like a glove.
The DOD private security contracts run into unknown billions of dollars. The companies are cleared by DOD to stockpile weapons. The companies recruit largely from the ranks of ex-military. They pay their American employees $400 to $700 per day. Many of the soldiers hail from third-world countries (and are paid considerably less). The soldiers interviewed by the Times make no bones about it: they are in Iraq for a hefty payday.
How did the policy to use mercenary forces develop? In preparing its article, the Times failed in repeated efforts to obtain an explanation from DOD. One thing though is clear: despite being a departure from established U.S. military policy, the mercenary policy was not subject to any type of public debate. There was no Congressional authorization, nor even an Executive Order. Incredibly, as far as the public knows, the policy just happened.
General Jay Garner, who initially led American forces in Iraq, told the Times that the genesis for the private security forces happened in spring 2003 when they were hired to guard him and his staff. Garner candidly went on to say what everyone knows but the government refuses to admit: that when the insurgency exploded, large numbers of private soldiers were needed because the U.S. fighting force on the ground was much too small to handle the job. This issue is touchy for the Bush Administration which continues to reject any criticism that it failed to adequately prepare for the war.
According to the Times article, the private security companies, while receiving boatloads of U.S. cash, operate independently; for example, the U.S. does not prescribe training standards or rules of engagement, or require background checks of company employees. The official U.S. line is that the company conduct is regulated by to Iraqi law enforcement, a laughable notion given that Iraq is an essentially lawless country.
The frightening reality, of course, is that these companies simply govern themselves. In a belated attempt to assert some control, a bill was introduced in Congress last year to require DOD to adopt operating regulations for these companies. In response, DOD promised to produce a plan in six months. According to the Times, that was nine months ago, and no plan has yet materalized.
As with many other aspects of the Iraq War, on the mercenary issue, Congress has largely abdicated its oversight role, and continues to simply appropriate large vast of money for the Administration to spend at will.
The bottom line is chilling: private companies with scary macho names like Blackwater USA and Triple Canopy are killing people in a military role in Iraq with massive U.S. financing but without the accountability that accompanies being part of the U.S. military. It was one thing in the Nineties for the government to begin outsourcing non-combat military tasks; it is something quite different to outsource the combat mission.
Mercenaries raise other troublesome issues. They better enables a government to conduct a war that lacks popular support. As documented in the Times article, the high pay scale for mercenaries' pay in Iraq has bred intense resentment within the low-paid military, and in fact the private security companies often lure away top military talent. In short, the Bush Administration has spawned an industry that undermines military recruitment and morale.
In his book, Corporate Warriors, historian P.W. Singer recounts that the long world history of reliance on mercenaries started to fade in the 18th and 19th centuries (the Age of Enlightenment) in large part because of new notions of both national pride and the honor of soldiering. Those who fought for profit rather than patriotism were completely delegitimated, Singer writes.
It all leaves one to wonder: what ever happened to the Age of Enlightenment?
Mr. McCartan is an attorney and freelance writer living in Olympia, Washington.