The war in Iraq has brought to light a new and disturbing mode of modern warfare: privatized military forces.

"Soldiers on Hire: Part II"
April 28, 2004

Huck Gutman

        Private Military Firms (PMFs) allow placing many of the costs of the Iraq occupation “off budget.” In the USA, as in all democracies, funding for government activities is ultimately in the hands of the people, through their elected representatives in legislative bodies.

        But the 20,000 international PMF employees in Iraq (equal to over 15 per cent of the official US military presence of 130,000 soldiers) are off budget. They are not listed as military defense. Instead, they are paid out of the money budgeted for Iraqi reconstruction. Recent government estimates are that as much as one quarter of the $18 billion budgeted for reconstruction will be paid to those who perform military operations of one sort or another. That means money dedicated to rebuilding schools and hospitals will, instead, fill the coffers of private firms that supply guards, analysts, security, convoy protection.

        In merchandising, this technique is called “bait and switch” and is widely used by unscrupulous salesman: offer something at an announced price, and substitute another item of either inferior quality, or higher price. Offer reconstruction, substitute military and paramilitary activity. In the marketplace, bait and switch tactics are illegal. That does not seem to hold for White House policies in Iraqi military affairs.

        Second, hiring private military firms bails out the questionable defense. policies of secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Contrary to the advice of his generals, the secretary insisted on downsizing the military. His vision is of a corporate military, and so he imitates the efficiencies put in place by modern multinational corporations. On one level, he is merely continuing what his predecessors in the defense department did, and indeed what every imperial power has done for many centuries: he has moved toward further mechanizing warfare. For Rumsfeld, it is not just that killing efficiency – horrible term, horrible concept – is enhanced by mechanization: the automated battlefield can work like an automated factory, so that less workers are needed. Secretary Rumsfeld has been insistent that the US military can be downsized. And not just by, for example, using fully automated drones instead of bombers with crews, or substituting laser-sighted weapons in the hands of two or three soldiers in a Humvee instead of sending forth a platoon of men.

        Rumsfeld has tried his utmost to privatize the US military. For him, following corporate strategy, downsizing means moving to “just in time” hiring, using private firms to provide what the military formerly did for itself. He has insisted that it makes no fiscal sense to keep and pay for a well-trained standing army, when the USA can purchase every sort of service on an “open market” whenever there is a need for military action. Why should soldiers, in Rumsfeld’s view, cook for themselves, move their trash, provide supplies, run and maintain their technology – why not privatize these activities? Even in the case of actually military duty – guarding public officials from hostile attack, fighting guerrilla assaults – much of what soldiers traditionally do can be performed by the mercenaries hired by private firms. All of these services can be hired only when needed, and the army can be kept small, and hence inexpensive in terms of manpower. Weapons systems, produced at high profit by huge corporations, are another matter: cost efficiency here seems to be of little or no concern.

        (Rumsfeld’s strategy may well be flawed, which is why the use of PWFs is so suspect, since in the US vernacular PWFs allow him to cover his behind. In Iraq today, US forces are stretched thin. That situation was highlighted recently when tens of thousands of soldiers slated to come home after a year’s term in Iraq found those returns cancelled, some as they were on their way to the airport for a flight home. US troops have discovered, contrary to both planning and promises, that their presence in an increasingly hostile war zone has been extended. Additionally, the defections of Spain, the Dominican Republic and Honduras from the US “alliance” has stretched the US forces so thin that Rumsfeld’s downsized army is further unprepared to fight the rising Iraqi insurgency.)

        Thus, the privatized military forces cover up the flaws in Rumsfeld’s downsizing strategy. Secretary Rumsfeld, today, staves off criticism that his lean military is not able to do what it has to do in Iraq, by paying privatized firms and their subcontractors to do it instead of army or air force personnel. That privatized firms charge more for the activities is of no concern, even though the point behind downsizing was supposedly cost-efficiency.

        PMFs, have an additional “benefit” never mentioned by any US government official. If there is brutal military repression to be done, an ex-KGB agent or a man with a lifetime in the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa can work more brutally than an enlisted US soldier. Paul Bremer, the American who “rules” Iraq as the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, does not trust his defense. to US soldiers. Cadres of mercenaries guard him.

        If the US use of privatized military services in Iraq seems to transgress the boundaries of corruption to a rational mind, a mildly paranoid mind can have a field day with some established facts. The major subcontractor in Iraq is Halliburton; Halliburton provides extensive security and military support through its subsidiary, Brown & Root. Halliburton’s former chief executive, of course, is the sitting Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Recent testimony before Congress and in a startling new book by the journalist Bob Woodward indicates that Cheney was the single most influential force driving Bush, and the American nation, into war against Iraq. From the most cynical angle – and some resort to cynicism to explain a war whose purported cause, eliminating stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, has proved fraudulent since no WMDs ever turned up in post-war Iraq – one might see the entire war and occupation as a business decision which provided huge contracts to the Vice-President’s former company.

        There is one undeniably corrupt purpose behind the use of PMFs, one so patent that is beyond any taint of paranoia or cynicism. Four decades ago, when the USA was mired in a war in Vietnam and casualties were mounting, that war became a greater and greater political liability for successive administrations, first Democratic, then Republican, in the White House. Both resorted to a strategy – I hope readers will excuse the use of a heinous phrase, one that is not the writer’s but that of those in charge of managing the war – to “change the color of the corpses.” In other words, if US soldiers died, the public would be outraged. If the Vietnamese could be pressured into taking the casualties, there would be little outcry in the USA.

        With this in mind, there is another, nefarious reason for the use of PMFs in Iraq. As casualties mount, and there have been over 100 American deaths in this month alone, using private military operatives may (and the emphasis must at this moment, with the situation still in flux, be on the very conditional nature of that verb) allow the USA to reduce US casualties by the substitution of foreign troops.

        When those four American operatives from Blackwater Security were killed, there was great outcry and anger because they were Americans who were killed and mutilated – even though it quickly became apparent that they were private operatives paid for working quasi-military operations in a war zone.

        Yet a similar event – not the abuse of the corpses, but the murder of four PMF agents, occurred four months earlier, in January, to no outcry at all. The reason? The four casualties, were employees of a British firm, Erinys, and all were former members of apartheid-era security forces in South Africa. This is the principle, without the racial overtones, of changing the color of the corpses.

        Although even that principle is, tragically, alive and well: Erinys alone employs about 14,000 Iraqis. It is not hard to find information about Erinys, since the company seems to have no shame about promoting its military services to all and sundry: advertising and self-promotion seem to be necessary aspects of the business of privatized warfare. “Erinys is an international Security Services and Risk consultancy. We provide clients with a range of services and capabilities to reduce the impact of operating in volatile, uncertain or complex environments such as sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia. . . . Erinys Iraq is a prime contractor to the Gulf Regional Division of the United States Army Corp of Engineers, tasked with providing nationwide personal security details and protective services,” the company proudly states.

        Their post-imperial world sounds suspiciously like the colonial world that has supposedly been long displaced: those 14,000 Iraqis are “directed by former senior members of the UK armed forces.” It even has its own military command structure, independent of the US and allied forces, as it provides support and protection for the US military and – no surprise – the multinational petrochemical companies in Iraq. “Erinys Iraq operates throughout the country under a North, Center, South regional structure, each with its own independent headquarters, and a further 14 subsidiary sectors each with their own headquarters.”

        The nature of modern warfare is changing. But further aspects of that are subject for another column.

        In conclusion, today, let us examine the new pressure on the US army that will almost certainly result from the use of PWFs in Iraq, the creation of a split-level military, part privatized and highly-paid, part nationalized and greatly underpaid. Nor are those pay differentials concurrent with risk: quite the opposite.

        Today, there are tens of thousands of men and women who were called away from their jobs and families – they had entered the National Guard, which requires under most circumstances a six month training period and then just two weeks of active service each year – because their nation required them to serve in the deserts of Iraq and in the treacherous streets of cities deeply angry with the US occupation.

        According to figures current during the active war a year ago, the salary of a soldier in the lowest rank who has one year’s service was $15,480 a year – only a thousand dollars more than the average pay for an usher in a movie theatre in the USA. The pay for an experienced corporal of three years of service was $19,980 a year.

        For this, US soldiers are on the frontlines in Iraq, risking their lives; with over 700 dead, and many more returning home amputees and permanently impaired, they have much at risk, yet their nation recompenses them with minimal pay.

        Meanwhile, the government pays private firms between $500 and $1,500 a day for the experienced military personnel they supply in Iraq. That works out to mercenaries who often earn between $1,50,00 and $2,50,000 a year.

        In stark terms, a mercenary works in a less risky position, providing support to fighting men or guarding oil wells instead of going on patrols in hostile territory under enemy fire and assault – and makes 10 or 20 times as much money as a soldier who serves his country instead of a corporation.

        There are mercenaries making more than General Tommy Franks, who commanded the US armed forces in last year’s war in Iraq. With more than 36 years of service, Franks’ annual base pay was $1,53,948.

        Is it possible to sustain an army when mercenaries for private contractors take less risks and earn 10 times as much as soldiers? Is it possible to delude Iraqis and Americans alike that a reconstruction budget is for reconstruction, when a quarter of it pays for private military forces? Is it possible to successfully change the color of the corpses in Iraq? Is this sort of warfare sustainable, and more tellingly, is it by any measure ethical? Time will tell.

The author, a former Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University, is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.