Senior U.S. officials invoked Hamid, an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, repeatedly to explain why they brought America to the brink of an all-out conflict with Iran—days before the public knew his name. Donald Trump, who has vowed to end wars in the Middle East, was willing to risk a new one to avenge an American contractor’s death—including by killing the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, a step previous presidents worried could unleash a violent backlash. Yet when a terrorist attack killed two more American contractors and one U.S. soldier in Kenya about a week later, Trump barely reacted. “We lost a good person, just a great person,” he said of the soldier. He didn’t mention the contractors.
Read: America’s self sabotage in the Middle East
As America's interventions abroad have become more complex and open-ended, the country has relied on contractors more and more for essential jobs like guarding diplomats and feeding the troops. Even as the U.S. tries to end those wars and bring more troops home, contractors can stay behind in large numbers to manage the aftermath—especially since many of them are local hires in the first place.
The government has no data on exactly how many American contractors have died in the post-9/11 wars; in fact, it’s hard to get a full picture of how many contractors have been involved in those wars at all. The Defense Department publishes quarterly reports on how many it employs in the Middle East—close to 50,000 in the region as of last October, with about 30,000 spread through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Americans make up less than half the total, in a region where U.S. troop numbers fluctuate between 60,000 and 80,000. The contractor numbers fluctuate too, and the military’s data don’t include contractors working for other agencies, such as the CIA or the State Department.
The death toll is murkier still, though Brown University’s Costs of War Project gives a figure close to 8,000, counting Americans and non-Americans. “They are,” in the words of Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie, researchers who have studied contractor deaths, “the corporate war dead.”
Jabbar told me he was happy to take on that risk. Like Hamid, he was born in Iraq; from his middle-school years, he said, he wanted to become an American, and taught himself English in part by listening to Eminem and watching Prison Break. He dropped out of college at 19 to serve as a translator in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, and wound up alongside U.S. troops as they pushed toward the group’s Iraqi capital of Mosul in 2016. Instead of studying English and earning an information-technology degree, he was in the middle of a fight to wrest back territory from insurgents, translating battlefield instructions for the Americans’ Iraqi partners.
He later ended up with a Navy SEAL unit in Kirkuk, near where he grew up, and became all but officially part of the team; he lived with them, ate with them, patrolled with them, went to the front lines with them. Jabbar even once got beaten up and arrested while getting groceries for them—a case, he said, of mistaken identity, resolved only after he’d spent the night in jail.