Dispatch September 2007

Outsourcing Conflict

For all the notoriety of private military contractors like Blackwater, they represent an important aspect of the future of war. And that future is not all bad.

Private military contractors are again under public scrutiny, following the September 16 incident in western Baghdad in which at least eight Iraqis were killed by employees of the North Carolina-based Blackwater USA, who were protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy. It’s not the first time the company has been in the news in Iraq. The bestial killing of four Blackwater employees on March 31, 2004, in Fallujah led to a U. S. Marine-led invasion of that city, during which many people, including marines, were killed for no demonstrable benefit: The city returned to insurgent rule weeks later, and Fallujah had to be invaded a second time, in November 2004.

Both incidents raise the question: Just who controls these seemingly trigger-happy guys? For that matter, who told them to open fire on civilians? And who sent them into Fallujah without a much larger armed escort?

The issue of command and control of private military contractors—where exactly they fit in the military chain of command—is important not just in a practical sense, but in a profound, constitutional one. The military makes war and conducts peacekeeping operations in our name. But when private contractors open fire, in whose name are they shooting?

The Defense Department and congressional committees will need to sort out such questions. Private military contractors are not going away. To the contrary, they represent an important aspect of the future of war. And that future is not all bad. My purpose here is not to defend Blackwater’s actions, but to describe the larger context in which private military contractors operate.

Mention private military contractors to many civilians, especially to liberals, and they’ll think of red-state good old boys working for a firm like Halliburton—the Texas-based corporation formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney—who appear to constitute a rogue, mercenary element favored by a Republican administration.

In fact, the former Halliburton subsidiary of Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) consummated its veritable marriage with the  U.S. military during the Clinton administration, when the firm’s logistical capabilities were indispensable to the Balkan interventions that many liberals supported. The KBR-designed military bases in Bosnia and Kosovo became templates for those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rather than mercenaries who will fight for the highest bidder, private contractors like KBR and Blackwater are composed mainly of retired American noncommissioned officers (NCOs), working alongside the same military to which they used to belong. Just as other professions tap the wisdom and expertise of retirees, so does the American military. Indeed, some contractors, like Triple Canopy, are known to hire veterans of the most elite Special Operations units in the U.S. military. “I’m hiring the elder statesmen of the combat arms community,” one Army colonel told me, referring to some private contractors he was taking on to supplant his uniformed troops in a noncombat capacity. “They won’t have to go through any sniff test when they arrive in the field as consultants. They’ll be instantly looked up to.”

Using exclusively active-duty sergeant-majors and master sergeants of the quality and numbers that this Army colonel required would have drained the Army of some of its best NCOs. The most-seasoned people can’t be produced overnight. Meanwhile, there is a ready-made retirement pool from which to draw, courtesy of the private sector. In the case of this colonel, the contractors were to be under the operational control of active-duty personnel; they would be allowed to fight only in their own self-defense.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the author of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground.

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