The Wars Will Be Outsourced

The Iraqi government has let it be known that it doesn’t recognize any immunity for the private military company Blackwater USA, and it’s starting to look as if Blackwater’s contract to serve as bodyguards for U.S. State Department personnel in Iraq will be ended sooner rather than later, despite Blackwater taking on high-priced legal counsel to make whatever case needs to be made on its behalf, whether in court or in the world of lobbying. But whatever happens to Blackwater in the short run, unless U.S. foreign policy changes drastically, we can expect private contractors to play a large role – uncomfortably large in the eyes of many – in U.S. military actions for some time to come.

The Blackwater imbroglio has placed the key questions of who actually controls these private forces and to whom they are accountable front-and-center, and we can expect a fair amount of chin-scratching and policy tweaking in the next few months. But unless we take the advice of that fellow from Texas who ran for president in 2000 promising a humbler and more modest foreign policy that leaves nation-building to those who actually live in the nations in question – whatever became of the guy, anyway? – the implementation of the activist and interventionist foreign policy we have in place now will require plenty of private contractors.

It is hardly unprecedented to have private contractors participate in military activity, including in combat or near-combat. During the early 19th century the U.S. commissioned private ships as privateers to carry out missions at sea, including missions that sometimes involved interdicting or engaging ships from other countries. Civilians carried out many supply functions for both the Union and Confederate armies during the War between the States. Private contractors have long been part of the American way of war.

However, things changed significantly, quantitatively if not qualitatively, after the fall of the Soviet empire. The U.S. military had already gone to a professional volunteer military in the 1970s – in part to defuse domestic opposition to the Vietnam war on college campuses, which actually worked pretty well. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when traditional large-scale warfare seemed unlikely in the near future, the active military was downsized and greater emphasis was placed on making it technologically competent as a force multiplier.

Concurrent with these developments was a shift in the definition of combatant and non-combatant necessitated by the introduction of a lot more women into the military than had been the case before. Since the decision had been made not to use women in direct combat roles and the dividing line between combat and non-combat is sometimes less than bright in an actual battle, that question is not settled as definitively as the authorities pretend it is.

Is an intelligence officer called in to interrogate a prisoner who has just been captured a combatant or a non-combatant? In most such cases he or she will be close enough to the battlefield as to be vulnerable to a misfired (or well-aimed) mortar round, but since interrogators aren’t expected to fire back, they’re usually considered non-combatants. Traveling on a road in Iraq is generally not considered to be combat duty, but driving on Iraqi roads has turned out to be one of the most dangerous things soldiers can do. So the question is still a bit unsettled.

The introduction of the all-volunteer military and the integration of more women into the military are related. Without conscription it has been necessary to recruit quite a few women to meet recruiting quotas. But the perceived need to keep them in non-combat roles has been a factor in the redefinition of the concept of combatant.

When the military was made up largely of conscripts who were expected to serve their two-year hitch and go back home, and were therefore not highly trained, it made a fair amount of sense to have them peeling potatoes, cleaning up the camp, cooking, running supply trains, and performing other support services that were fairly often far from the frontlines. As the concept of the volunteer professional military evolved, with those who volunteered generally expected to stay for a considerable period of time if not for the full 20 years it takes to make a "career," it made less sense to have this limited pool of people, who were expected to be more intensively trained in combat-related skills, performing supposedly menial but necessary tasks.

Thus the notion of privatizing the delivery of some of these services, which also correlated with Reagan-era friendliness toward the concept of privatization in general, came to seem attractive. Blackwater USA was founded in 1997, initially as a state-of-the-art firing range to be rented both by the military and civilian law enforcement entities. Founder Erik Prince, who reaped many millions when his family business in Michigan was sold, was also politically connected – an enthusiastic evangelistic-oriented conservative Republican who had actually spent some time in special forces, so the company started to get more government contracts.

After 9/11, however, the private military-oriented contracting business, which includes not only Blackwater but Halliburton, Fluor, DynCorp, Triple Canopy and others, really bloomed. This had something to do with Don Rumsfeld’s insistence that the army of the future was a lean, mean, technological fighting machine at the same time the administration decided to undertake an open-ended invasion of Iraq. Nearly every authority, military or civilian, I talked to in the months leading up to the invasion said the ideal size of such an invading army should be in the 300,000 to 500,000 range, not so much for the initial invasion (though it might well have been a harder fight than it turned out to be) as for the aftermath.

Unless we planned to attack, win, track down Saddam and be out by Christmas (which Rumsfeld might have thought was the plan), the force of 170,000 or so would be insufficient for the occupation phase, as it has proven to be. That made it all the more important to use private contractors in technically non-combat roles, and inexorably – especially given the fuzziness of the lines – in roles that approached closer and closer to actual combat and in some cases can sensibly only be called combat roles.

This creates problems, of course. The private contractors – especially when they are working for the State Department rather than for the military itself, as was the case with the Blackwater employees involved in the September 16 shootings that have precipitated so much concern – have not been integrated into the military chain of command. So you have private contractors – and CIA operatives tool let us not forget – running around an ill-defined battlefield but not subject to military command or military discipline. Perhaps it’s a minor miracle that more outrages haven’t occurred.

We had better hope the government learns from mistakes made in Iraq some improved methods of holding private contractors accountable, because there’s little chance the imperial vision of the United States is going to be downsized in the near future – though it may turn its fiery eye on places like Darfur or Burma under the next president. Since the military is already having trouble recruiting enough people to fill its quotas now, expect the government to continue using private contractors – perhaps even more of them – to carry out its imperial tasks.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).