Saturday, May 19, 2007

Contractor Casualties

The New York Times reports today that at least 146 private contractors died in Iraq during the first quarter of 2007. The total death toll for contractors in Iraq is now at least 917; another 12,000 have been injured or wounded.

According to the Times, this is the first time that specific figures--based on claims filed with the Labor Department and on interviews with insurers and others--have been reported. Private military firms (PMFs) are, of course, not eager to talk about employee casualties. As the Times notes, "Companies that have lost workers in Iraq were generally unresponsive to questions about the numbers of deaths and the circumstances that led to casualties."

The extent of the U.S. military's dependence on PMFs in Iraq is staggering:

Nearly 300 companies from the United States and around the world supply workers who are a shadow force in Iraq almost as large as the uniformed military. About 126,000 men and women working for contractors serve alongside about 150,000 American troops, the Pentagon has reported. Never before has the United States gone to war with so many civilians on the battlefield doing jobs--armed guards, military trainers, translators, interrogators, cooks and maintenance workers--once done only by those in uniform.

In the Persian Gulf war of 1991, for example, only 9,200 contractors--mostly operating advanced weapons systems--served alongside 540,000 military personnel. But at the end of the cold war, Congress and the Pentagon were eager to seize on the so-called peace dividend and drastically scale back the standing Army. The Bush administration expanded the outsourcing strategy to unprecedented levels after the invasion of Iraq.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has announced that he will schedule hearings on the use of PMFs this fall. Meanwhile, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rep. David Price (D-NC) (a former Duke University political science professor) have introduced legislation to require the government to provide information on private contractors in Iraq. (The House passed their legislation in the form of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday.) At present, "unless there is something specifically stated in the contract about accounting for personnel, there is no requirement for the U.S. government to track these numbers," as military spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph M. Yoswa notes.