In this post, we’re going to begin to explore the world of private military contractors, or PMFs. I’ll explain as much as I can here, but for anyone really interested in this subject, I would highly recommend two books: Corporate Warriors by P.W. Singer, and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. Singer gives a very good overview of the rise of the private military industry, while Scahill goes incredibly in depth in describing the PMF Blackwater, one the biggest and most successful PMFs ever. Most of the information in the post below comes from those books.
A Crash Course: PMFs
Military contractors have been around for a long time, and they take many forms. There are those who build the machines of war, like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, but don’t actually appear in the field themselves.
Then the military started shifting some basic functions over the contractors as well, like doing laundry on military bases or providing food. This was seen as a way to both lower costs and allow soldiers to focus more on their core missions.
So the use of contractors has always been seen as a way to lower costs for the government and make it easier for soldiers to do the jobs they had been trained to do.
But at least one man with whom I’m sure you’re all familiar envisioned another possibility. A devotee of the neoliberal theory that the private sector is always more efficient, more effective, and more innovative than the public sector, this man believed that we could privatize even our military’s “core missions,” such as guarding embassies and visiting dignitaries in combat zones, and even have private contractors working in concert with our soldiers to carry out missions.
This visionary was Dick Cheney.
His vision for the future was shared by another individual, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince. Initially, Prince founded his company, Blackwater (later called Xe Services, and now apparently going by Academi, a “security solutions provider”,) to train special forces soldiers, a task that had been partially privatized.
However, after 9/11, as the war on terror began and quickly grew to an ongoing struggle in which the world is a battlefield, the military and intelligence community started encountering more staffing challenges. PMFs provided what appeared to be an easy solution. They supposedly lowered costs (a myth that has been roundly debunked in most circles.) And since they weren’t officially U.S. soldiers, they had another benefit as well: their use didn’t have to be reported to the American public the same way.
Want to decrease the number of American “boots on the ground” in a conflict zone? Fine. Hire more contractors and bring some soldiers home. And just like you don’t have to count contractors in the reports on how many troops we have in a country, they also can be left out of casualty counts. So really, the American people only hear about private contractors when something goes horribly wrong.
And we can generally count on that happening.
PMFs and Accountability
Spoiler alert: PMFs encounter very little accountability.
In the upper levels of Academi, we can see a repeat of what was discussed in my previous post dealing with the revolving door. The world of private military contractors, like that of other major corporations, is one in which top officers have also served in various administrations.
The numerous name changes in the past several years for the PMF formerly known as Blackwater mostly traces back to 2007, when several Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a shootout in Nisour Square. They’ve also been implicated in cases involving gun theft and accused of doing cocaine at parties in the war zones where they were serving.
The Iraqi government banned Blackwater from operating in their country after the shootout. But in terms of its relationship with the U.S. government, there have been virtually no consequences. A U.S. court even initially dismissed charges against the contractors involved in the Nisour Square shooting. In other cases, contractors accused of wrongdoing have been quickly spirited out of the country and “fired” only to be rehired after several months.
Of course, Blackwater is far from the only PMF to have operated in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other conflict zones on behalf of the U.S. government. In fact, some companies got their start several years earlier. For instance, Dyncorp, another major PMF, also operated in Bosnia in 1999.
It was exactly a stellar performance. In fact, Dyncorp was involved a sex slavery ring in Bosnia in which they bought and raped girls as young as 12. Similar charges were brought in 2004, while the company was helping to wage the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia. They also used U.S. bought armored vehicles to bring prostitutes into the Green Zone in Baghdad during the war in Iraq.
Despite that, Dyncorp is still a major contractor for the U.S. government. As a matter of fact, it’s actually expanding into more international work as part of a restructuring process. The exact type of “international work” is unclear.
In the past several years, PMFs have become more and more involved in military operations and even in secret CIA activities. This includes maintaining and loading the missiles on drones. Blackwater was also involved when the CIA was first looking into the possibility of setting up hit squads to capture or kill terror suspects. According to some sources, they even help with the intelligence gathering and targeting for drone strikes, even for the most secretive drone program, the one run by JSOC.
PMFs at Home
While Blackwater was founded in the U.S. and much of its work has been for the U.S. government, it is hard to say that the U.S. is really the corporation’s home. For one thing, chairman Erik Prince has gone to Abu Dhabi (coincidentally, a country with which the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty…) and the company now also contracts with a number of other foreign governments, including the Saudis, and has tried to launch projects such as an anti-piracy force in Somalia.
Of course, Blackwater aka Xe Services aka Academi also contracts with other private companies. Recently, there have been rumors that Academi and its intelligence operations branch, Total Intelligence, have been hired by agribusiness giant Monsanto to monitor groups protesting the corporation. They have likewise done threat assessments for banks and even Walt Disney.
Even if Blackwater and other PMFs are not spying on U.S. citizens and activists on behalf of corporations, they still pose a lot of serious questions. One is that of accountability. Contractors can’t be court martialed or tried in a military justice system, since they are not members of the military. But they also have been shielded from civilian trials because they fulfill military functions and in Iraq and Afghanistan were considered part of the Total Coalition Force. As a result, contractors who kill civilians, torture prisoners, engage in the sex trade and commit acts of rape often face no consequences. And the companies that allow this kind of behavior to persist continue to win multi-million dollar contracts with the U.S.
Then there are the costs. Not only has privatizing core military functions wound up costing the U.S. government, as opposed to saving money, but there is also the cost in terms of how PMFs impact overarching counterinsurgency goals.
The key to counterinsurgency is winning hearts and minds. In other words, soldiers have to try to convince the local populace that they are working in the locals’ best interests, and supporting them makes sense and is the right thing to do.
But contractors don’t have that obligation. When a PMF sends a team of contractors to escort a State Department dignitary from one part of Baghdad to another, their one and only objective is to get that dignitary from Point A to Point B safely.
And Blackwater has a perfect track record on that. But in order to do so, they do things like run civilian cars off the road, based on the possibility that any unidentified car could have a bomb in it. Or, as was the case in Nisour Square, shoot civilians fleeing the scene of a car bombing. (Note for those who still seemed confused on this point after Boston: fleeing the scene of a bombing is a normal civilian response, not one exclusively practiced by villains trying to make a speedy getaway.) Those things are apparently pretty effective for keeping an individual secure on a trip across a war-torn city, but do the opposite of winning hearts and minds.
And even if it is only the private contractors doing such things, that is pretty much impossible for locals to tell. When things like Nisour Square happen, what the local Iraqis see is most likely just a bunch of foreigners in camo shooting civilians. They’re not going to differentiate and realize: “well, these guys seem like assholes. Good things they are totally separate from the U.S. military.”
Finally, there is the same fact that was addressed in the previous post discussing private prison corporations. Just like when we pay companies to hold people prisoner, they lobby for laws that will ensure more prisoners, when we pay companies to make war, they use those profits to lobby for more war. We don’t want to be a nation perpetually at war any more than we want to create a society of criminals. Some parts of the public sphere must remain public.