Reader Dan on the Public versus Private War

Reader Dan sends a link to testimony by Jeremy Scahill before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Scahill, a reporter for the left wing magazine The Nation, was testifying “on the impact of private military contractors on the conduct of the Iraq War.”

As this Committee is well aware, we are now in the midst of the most privatized war in the history of our country. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is one that has greatly accelerated since the launch of the “global war on terror” and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many Americans are under the impression that the US currently has about 145,000 active duty troops on the ground in Iraq. What is seldom mentioned is the fact that there are at least 126,000 private personnel deployed alongside the official armed forces. These private forces effectively double the size of the occupation force, largely without the knowledge of the US taxpayers that foot the bill.

But despite the similarity in size of these respective forces in Iraq, there are key differences with the way our government approaches the active-duty military and these private war contractors. For instance, we know that nearly 3,400 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than 25,000 wounded. We do not know the exact number of private contractors killed or wounded. Through the US Department of Labor, we have been able to determine that at least 770 contractors had been killed in Iraq as of December 2006 along with at least 7,700 wounded. These casualties are not included in the official death count and help to mask the human costs of the war. More disturbing is what this means for our democracy: at a time when the administration seems unwilling to subject its war strategy to oversight by the Congress, we face the widespread use of private forces seemingly accountable to no effective system of oversight or law.

While tens of thousands of these contractors provide logistical support, thousands are heavily armed private soldiers roaming Iraq. We do know that there are some 48,000 employees of private military companies in Iraq alone.

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There is slang in Iraq now for this jump. It is called “Going Blackwater.” To put it bluntly, these private forces create a system where national duty is outbid by profits. And yet these forces are being used for mission-critical activities. Indeed, in January Gen. David Petraeus admitted that on his last tour in Iraq, he himself was protected not by the active-duty military but by private “contract security.”

Just as there is a double standard in pay, there is a double standard in the application of the law. Soldiers who commit crimes or acts of misconduct are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There have been some 64 courts martial on murder-related charges in Iraq alone. Compare that to the lack of prosecution of contractors. Despite the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have streamed in and out of Iraq since March of 2003, only two private contractors have faced any criminal prosecution. Two. One was a KBR employee alleged to have stabbed a co-worker, the other pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography images on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison. In four years, there have been no prosecutions for crimes against Iraqis and not a single known prosecution of an armed contractor.

That either means we have tens of thousands of Boy Scouts working as armed contractors or something is fundamentally wrong with the system. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst of the 3rd Infantry Division became so outraged by contractor unaccountability that he began tracking contractor violence in Baghdad. In just two months he documented twelve cases of contractors shooting at civilians, resulting in six deaths and three injuries. That is just two months and one general.

They have not been prosecuted under the UCMJ, under US civilian law or under Iraqi law. US contractors in Iraq reportedly have their own motto: “What happens here today, stays here today.” That should be chilling to everyone who believes that warfare, above all government functions, must be subject to transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

These are forces operating in the name of the United States of America. Iraqis do not see contractors as separate from soldiers–understandably, they see them all as “the occupation.” Contractor misconduct is viewed as American misconduct.


cactus notes: Yes, the guy is from a lefty publication, but does any of this sound, well, wrong? Does it sound exagerated?

Dan sends a few questions:

This huge experiment in privatization of armed forces has not been done with US forces before. It appears to have many intended and unintended consequences. Care to parse the dozens of ideas that come to mind?

1. Incentives for performance appears to be contradictory in nature and to divide loyalties because ratio of soldier to contractor is almost 1:1. How would this look to AB military experienced readers?
2. Lack of oversight by the Pentagon staggers the imagination.
3. The links to private companies appears to be more than suppliers of equipment and such. Does using private food contractors actually free up soldiers to fight? Or do other things happen that can be posited?

cactus again… I add one comment. Remember the letter Petraeus wrote the troops? About how soldiers need to behave in such a way to win over the hearts and minds? Does anyone think its happening? Does anyone think the lack of accountability of contractors has nothing to do with the losing of Iraqi hearts and minds?