Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Blackwater Back Story

The following may be either a gratuitous plug for Seeking Security in an Insecure World or it may be useful background information regarding the wrongful death suit against Blackwater USA. You can decide. Nonetheless, the following passage appears on pages 31 and 32 (in the chapter on conventional weapons and war) of the book that appears under my photo on the right:

We turn now to an issue that holds the possibility of transforming the ways wars are waged in the twenty-first century: the rise of privatized military firms (PMFs). Over the course of the past two decades, states--both rich and poor--have increasingly turned to private companies to provide services that were previously considered the responsibility of governments alone.

On March 30, 2004, four employees of Blackwater USA, a private security firm hired to protect the employees of one of the Defense Department’s many suppliers in Iraq, were ambushed as they drove through the city of Fallujah. They were shot, their bodies were dragged from their vehicle, mutilated and burned. Two were suspended grotesquely from a bridge. Photographs of the grisly scene were published or broadcast in less discreet media outlets around the world.

The incident in Fallujah drew attention to an issue that had, up to that point, attracted relatively little attention. From the very beginning of the war, privatized military firms were employed in Iraq to perform services traditionally considered the responsibility of uniformed military forces. In Iraq at the time of the Fallujah killings, at least twenty thousand private military contractors were employed to protect diplomats (including the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer), American and Iraqi businessmen, aid workers, and many others.

While the large number of private security contractors in Iraq may be surprising, the role of privatized military firms has been even more important in a number of other conflicts. During the 1990s, the government of Sierra Leone halted a bloody civil war and recaptured the country’s diamond mines from rebel forces by hiring Executive Outcomes, a PMF based in South Africa. Executive Outcomes used airpower, armored vehicles, and a small but highly trained force to accomplish what the government had been unable to do in years of fighting.

Privatized military firms are employed by governments for a variety of reasons, some that appear legitimate and some that may not be. First, PMFs allow the military to contract-out jobs that are temporary, that involve skills that are in short supply among the armed forces, or that can be performed more efficiently by contractors. Second, when private contractors sustain casualties, those casualties are not typically reported in the media and do not affect public opinion in democracies the way military casualties do. (The Pentagon does not include contractor casualties on its casualty lists in the Iraq War.) The use of PMFs, in other words, may serve to conceal the true human costs of military operations, but it may also permit defense establishments to keep fewer troops under arms, since shortfalls can be handled by calling in the private sector.

The rise of privatized military firms also means, however, that defense establishments may find themselves competing for the services of military professionals. In February of 2005, the Department of Defense approved a plan to offer financial incentives (up to $150,000 for a six-year reenlistment) to stem the flow of experienced Special Operations Forces personnel to private security companies. The bonuses were devised to deal with a situation in which Army Green Berets or Navy SEALs with twenty years' experience and making fifty thousand dollars in base pay could leave the military and go to work for a private security firm at salaries close to two hundred thousand dollars a year.

Perhaps more troublesome for the international system is the fact that an industry has emerged that gives those who can pay, whether governments or corporations--or even rebel organizations and drug traffickers (PMFs are reported to have trained drug dealers in Mexico and UNITA rebels in Angola in military tactics and the use of advanced weapons)--access to military force. In spite of certain advantages associated with contracting-out warfare, a tremendous potential for abuse exists as well.

For more on this subject, I recommend P. W. Singer's Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Robert Mandel's Armies Without States: The Privatization of Security. Also, there is an excellent documentary from PBS entitled Private Warriors available in its entirety online.