August 23, 2010

Sixty-six years ago this month, the American and Free French forces landed in southern France to liberate this half of the country, link up with General Eisenhower in the north and drive the Germans back to Berlin. After the US Seventh Army landed at Saint Tropez and nearby beaches, it famously fought its way “€œfrom the Riviera to the Rhine.”€ Ten days after the southern invasion, Paris was liberated—and a million French men and women poured gratitude on American troops. It seems remote from the way the US fights wars today. Then, the American Army did its own fighting and protected itself. Now, the Army hires private contractors to protect it. You have to wonder. The reason most countries have armies, or at least the reason they say they do, is to protect their citizens, territory and liberties from attack. If the army you pay to protect you has to pay someone else to protect it, something is up.

The privatization of war may have begun with G. W. Bush’s and Richard “€œRick”€ Cheney’s invasion of Iraq. A Congressional Research Service Report of 25 August 2008, “€œPrivate Security Contractors in Iraq: Background, Legal Status, and Other Issues,”€ seems to say so. Or not.

Iraq appears to be the first case where the U.S. government has used private contractors extensively for protecting persons and property in potentially hostile or hostile situations where host country security forces are absent or deficient, but it is not the first time private contractors have been used for such purposes.

Congress is just as confused as two presidential administrations about what the private armies are for. Read that statement again. “€œ…the first case where the U.S. government has used private contractors extensively for protecting persons and property… but it is not the first time private contractors have been used for such purposes.”€ Iraq was the first time, but it was also not the first time. The one certainty is that it will not be the last time.

President Barack Obama has just announced that, as part of his semi-withdrawal from Iraq, the US will hire about 7,000 more mercenaries to protect its embassy, consulates and bases. Obama is treading the road pioneered by G. W. and “€œRick,”€ paved by Kellogg Brown Root, victualed by Halliburton, secured by Falcon Group and trumpeted by Kroll Associates. No longer will the twenty-four member companies of the Private Security Association in Iraq with their more than 30,000 armed contractors merely protect the US Army, its bases and the oilfields. It will be the main army in Iraq. Seven thousand or so additional “€œsoldiers of fortune”€ (as transparent a euphemism as “€œladies of the night”€) will guard the intelligence bureaus to be called consulates in Erbil, Kirkuk, Mosul and Basra at a cost of about a billion dollars. “€œOne American official said that more than 1,200 specific tasks carried out by the American military in Iraq had been identified to be handed over to the civilians, transferred to the Iraqis or phased out,”€ wrote Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times on August 18. Among the activities of the extra 7,000 would be, according to Pentagon officials briefing the Times to “€œsearch for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress.”€ That is a wider gambit than the first US troops had in Vietnam. Quick reaction means battle, and battle means armed men unaccountable to the US command structure will fight Iraqis who probably don”€™t want them in their country. (Would you?) If it gets bad, as it did when contractors were lynched in Falluja, can the US Army stay out of it? If the 7,000 suffer the fate of Travis and Crockett at the Alamo, will the US government merely resign itself to losing control of Iraq by private proxy or come barreling back in?

“Thanks to Obama’s imprimatur on a Bush-Cheney innovation, Americans will soon have the choice of where to pledge their allegiances—to Blackwater (rechristened the catchy but unprounceable Xe) or Armor Group or BH Defense (‘Total Solutions in Difficult Environments’).”

The Italian city-states paid Francesco Sforza to do their fighting for them, but then found themselves taken over by Sforza’s freebooters. The US armed forces always had their sutlers, Mother Courages and other camp followers to claim their ten or twenty per cent of the blood shed by American soldiers on the field of battle. It was either Mother Courage or “€œRick”€ Cheney, who said, “€œI won’t let you spoil my war for me. Destroys the weak, does it? Well, what does peace do for “€˜em, huh? War feeds its people better.”€ While young men lost eyes, legs and limbs for their country in the perennially charming enterprise that is war, the private sector was right behind them to demand payment for the little luxuries that the state itself refused to provide. The US Army cut back on the sutlers every time Congress investigated their books and found someone in the War Department on the take, someone in the field feeding the troops fetid meat and someone else providing rifles that blew up in the user’s hands. The muckraking press would write about war profiteering, and basic military services would devolve to the army itself—ordnance, feeding, clothing, housing and transporting. When the scandals were forgotten, the sutlers would return—as they did with gusto in Iraq.

It would be churlish in this epoch of sanctified free markets (fully backed by the unfree market extorted from the taxpayer) to deny shareholders the opportunity to cash in on the paraplegia of impoverished boys from South Carolina and Indiana or to seize their portion of the spoils when an Afghan family is pulverized by explosive devices guided to their front door from a video game console in McLean, Virginia. Corporate colonels and multi-national majors once settled for the rake-off from manufacturing weaponry, developing computer programs of mass destruction, building barracks and fortress walls along the ramparts of empire, stitching the clothing that would be torn to shreds by the other side’s firepower and delivering cold bottles of Coca-Cola to the frontlines of freedom. Now, the executives of Executive Outcomes and other freelance armies are sending their own hussars and dragoons to foreign lands to protect the state’s armies and, when they depart, to supersede them.

Antiquated, state-run armies, despite their historic “€œbrands”€ (the Irish Guards, the Foreign Legion, the Big Red One) and superlative slogans (“€œSemper fi,”€ “€œRemember the Alamo,”€ “€œI regret that I have but one life to give for my country,”€ “€œPraise the Lord, but pass the ammunition”€) are so yesterday and so bloated by the inevitable waste that comes with government bureaucracy that they must be replaced by slim, trim and full-of-vim commercial ventures. There is an ideology behind this, as there is whenever there is money to be taken and justifications needed for taking it. In the old Ayn Randite cells on a few college campuses of the 1970s, war (or defense, that wonderful euphemism) and policing were the only activities that most of the comrades permitted to the state. Everything else had to be privatized: road building, schools, medical care, old age insurance, etc. A few of the more far-seeing conspirators put forward the anarchist project of “€œcompeting defense establishments.”€ These private armies would bid for contacts to defend the state, or the neighborhood, in peace and war. And so, thanks to Obama’s imprimatur on a Bush-Cheney innovation, Americans will soon have the choice of where to pledge their allegiances—to Blackwater (rechristened the catchy but unprounceable Xe) or Armor Group or BH Defense (“€œTotal Solutions in Difficult Environments”€).

Why were these resources not made available at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill and Guadacanal? During those “€œtimes that try men’s souls,”€ couldn”€™t the Minutemen have incorporated themselves, hired their services out to the highest bidder and paid themselves dividends when the British left? When Grant took Richmond, why didn”€™t he do it as C.E.O. of UnionForce Solutions? Ike might have done a niftier job managing the Normandy landings from the board of directors of GI Joe For Hire, Inc.

The prince of private armies, fortuitously named Prince (Eric), has just moved to Abu Dhabi, where he cannot be subpoenaed to testify in court or to Congress about his Blackwater firm’s alleged murders, torture and other rackets. A friend of Prince’s told the New York Times, “€œHe needs a break from America.”€ Such is private patriotism in our time. Perhaps Iraq and America need a break from him.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!