Contractors were the bane of my existence. It was first apparent to me in Iraq in 2007, at the height of the civil war. A bunch of Blackwater mercenaries had decided to swing through my assigned sector and shoot up a bunch of civilians in a crowded public square. As they do…
The next day I had to clean up the mess. See, Iraqis didn’t understand the distinction between (officially) uniformed white boys and quasi-uniformed mercenaries making three-times the pay to do the same work. Why should they? Heck, it’s their country. Vaguely camouflaged Christians with pale skin were all the same to them. Our actions; our sins – we shared them. Regardless.
I always resented that. Here I was, all of 23-years old, trying to pacify a dense Baghdad neighborhood through a combination of charisma and kindness, "hearts and minds," and all. Then these mercenary bastards would swing through, massacre civilians, and leave it to me to explain away the war crime to the locals. Truth is, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, these fellas were a worse enemy than the insurgents. Implicitly, they served as, essentially, recruiting sergeants for the "terrorists," all the while earning six-figure salaries while my troopers – the heart and soul – made $40k (max!) to wage America’s endless, hopeless, wars! The contrast was as staggering as it was instructive.
So, I guess you could say I was feeling somewhat vindicated when I recently read that a bunch of Gold Star families had decided to sue some contractors for paying off the Taliban in Afghanistan to keep their business running. I mean it was the worst kept secret of that war – which I also fought – that American-run firms would routinely pay kickbacks to the Taliban as a means to an end – the end being profits and protection to ensure those profits.
Afghanistan was, and is, an ugly place. It’s long been said that the land is the "graveyard of empires," but it’s also the place that binaries, platitudes, and morals go to die. Tim O’Brien, the finest novelist of the Vietnam generation, once wrote: "If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty." That could sum up the entire American crusade in Afghanistan, in Central Asia, in the Greater Middle East even.
Which brings me to my main point: what does it say about a war if supplying it, maintaining it, requires paying extortion money to the Taliban, to the purported enemy? What does it say about a war if private corporate contractors are, by default, working at cross-purposes from the American troops? Surely that wasn’t the case on D-Day, in the Second World War, when the U.S. Army fought nazism. Yet here we are.
The litigant families may never be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the contractors who paid off the Taliban directly caused the deaths of their sons. But they don’t have to. It’s a civil, not a criminal, case. Beyond a reasonable doubt doesn’t apply. Preponderance of evidence will do. And there’s plenty of that. The Gold Star families should win, must win. Sure, there’s some sentimentality in my position – I’m aware – but I’m also rationally correct. Of course the contractors contributed to the mess that stole the lives of some 2,400 American soldiers.
But here’s the rub: in doing so, the mercenaries didn’t act alone. They were but a symptom of a failed modern method of American war-making; a symptom of a nearly two-decade crusade of absurdity. A crusade, mind you, that defined my adult life. Only a nation so arrogant, so self-important, and self-righteous as ours would dare attempt to build a Jeffersonian "democracy" in Afghanistan. The very enterprise borders on tragicomedy. Yet how few actually question the foundation of American military policy these days. Would a reinstitution of the draft change the calculus? Maybe. But, of course, that’s not even on the table in the iPhone, digital-to-the-end America of 2019…or is it 2020?
The Gold Star families are going to lose, though. That’s my hunch. On the merits of the case, maybe they should. Holding a bunch of corporations vaguely accountable for the very real, visceral, deaths of their sons and daughters is a stretch. Then again, so was OJ’s acquittal. In the face of irrefutable DNA evidence of his (obvious) guilt, a jury of his peers decided to acquit him, mainly, I think, as penance for an LAPD that had veritably waged war on the black community for decades. So, while I’m not one to condone the vicious murder of Ron and Nicole, I can’t help but think an OJ-level legal fluke is in order. To hell with these contractors. Money they have; souls they don’t.
I, for one, would like to see a bunch of lower-middle-class families – the ones that serve their sons and daughters up to this country’s silly wars – secure a windfall. Maybe their legal case is flawed, but so is American foreign policy. Count me a hopeless romantic, but I still believe in happy endings. I sure hope they get to spend next Christmas on a beach in St. John…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen