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.

The quasi-privatization of war has a long history and is consistent with America’s efficient capitalistic economy. The idea of a large American military presence anywhere without contractors is now unthinkable. Without firms like KBR, the support tail in Iraq would be infinitely longer than it is, with tens of thousands of more troops required to achieve the same result. Buildings need to be maintained; chow halls have to be run; showers and restrooms need to be cleaned. Mundane activities like these account for the bulk of what private contractors do. Of course, that raises the question of bidding fairness: Precisely because only a few such firms, including KBR, can handle massive logistical operations in sync with American military guidelines, taxpayers need to be protected from what are, in the absence of real competition, essentially no-bid contracts.

Private military contractors also perform more exotic missions. They work inside the defense ministries of fledgling democracies, where they train and equip police forces and troops (in Georgia and Liberia, for example). Private military contractors might even provide an alternative to conventional military intervention in humanitarian emergencies. If the so-called world community won’t intervene in a place like Darfur, maybe Blackwater will do so—for a price.

Were it not for American private contractors working at Thai military bases in January 2005, those bases would not have been able to play as constructive a role as they did in the tsunami relief effort. Throughout the world, and particularly in Asia, private contractors at foreign military bases are America’s eyes and ears. Their presence also allows countries to conveniently deny a direct relationship with the American military.

There is, too, the naval realm. Around the world, the U.S. military pre-positions cargo vessels on the high seas, close to world trouble spots. These ships hold many dozens of tanks, fighting vehicles, and other equipment for Army and Marine battalions, and are ready to put everything on shore at a moment’s notice. They are maintained not by sailors but by master merchant seamen—that is, by private contractors. I visited one such cargo ship crewed by only 15 seamen off the coast of Saipan, a few days’ sail from Taiwan. Had the Navy itself been doing the job, I was told—the government being the government and the military the military—it would have required a hundred sailors.

The more technological the military sphere becomes, the greater the emphasis on the quality of personnel, rather than on their number. And the private sector can offer trained personnel, whether on land or at sea. Rather than go back to a military draft, we’re more likely to see the further privatization of war.

Indeed, the private sector is so interwoven with our military that we’ve been indirectly outsourcing killing since the early days of the Cold War. Many corporations with classified units work intimately with uniformed personnel on weapons systems and so forth. This trend will gain momentum in a century of cyber warfare, when geeks with long hair and glasses working for computer companies will become part of the killing machine. Actually, setting guidelines for good old boys with guns could be the easy part.