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Friday, April 02, 2004

We’re Only In It For The Money?

As some of you may know, I am a fairly regular poster to a forum known as Daily Kos.

The owner of the site, made some indelicate remarks regarding the four American contractors killed in Fallujah the other day, who made world headlines, mostly because their bodies were horribly mutiliated by their killers and put on display.

As you can imagine, the warblogger community and the right in general jumped on it like vultures on a coyote carcass, taking his sentiments about the incident somewhat out of context.

It seems unspeakable to many to speak ill of the dead in such a fashion. I could expound hundreds of words on the hypocrisy of people who frequent some discussion forums where participants are all too eager to call for and celebrate the deaths of dark-skinned people the world over, in the Middle East in particular. If this sort of sentiment is the dominant one in America, then we are far closer to a fascist regime (or worse) than many of us realize.

The dead in this case were not U.S. soliders; they were private contractors working for a company called Blackwater Security Consulting. The link there suggests that they are a heavy-duty operation. This is a private company of the sort that conducts activities that government military forces, for whatever reason, are unwilling or unable to do. Personnel for this company and other operations like them are paid far better than soldiers of the United States or any other country. They’ve been known to hire veterans of the military forces from regimes like Pincohet’s Chile and apartheid-era South Africa, two of the more odious regimes of the last half-century, and one can guess they were not hired for their looks.

They are, in a sense, mercenaries, a word that carries a substantially negative connotation, and not without reason.

I was aware that there was some controversy in military circles regarding the increased use of contractors – most notably Halliburton (of which Vice President Cheney was formerly CEO) and Bechtel – to perform more services for the military. But this new information suggests that the lines between purely service functions which may be suitable for private-sector involvement and combat functions are becoming increasingly blurred.

What are the advantages of using a private military force? They are not covered by the Geneva Convention, or by other similar treaties. Their conduct is not governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or by the military law of any nation. They are not truly accountable to any nation’s law, or to international law, or to anyone save their employer.

As such, some unscrupulous or desparate governments the world over have turned to private para-military organizations. They could be, and in some cases around the world, have been, used to conduct operations that would be illegal if American soldiers performed them. One private unit allegedly ran a prostitution ring in Kosovo during operations there. It is not difficult to imagine a private unit being used to conduct torture, or assassination operations. In the fantasy world of some on the far right, a privatized military could conduct foreign operations wherever there was booty to be had, without having to worry about pesky things like Congressional mandates or the vagaries of public opinion. The idea of unaccountable private, corporate military forces in the world’s hotspots doing America’s dirty work is fundamentally at odds with the way Americans see themselves in the world

What were these men doing in Fallujah that our regular forces weren’t doing? We’ll probably never know. I would be quite surprised if it turned out their duties were limited to the guarding of food supplies.

On the other hand, if they actually were performing such mundane functions, then there’s something even more seriously wrong with our military planning than I had suspected. In such a case, the use of private security forces would be a colossal waste of money and may reflect that we are undermanned in the area, which in turn would reflect neo-conservative fantasies about how smoothly military occupation of Iraq would go and what would be needed to successfully rebuild Iraq.

Either way, however, these people are not there to serve their country, protect their homeland, or for any reason other than a fairly large paycheck. They went into what they had to have known was a risky line of work, and paid the ultimate price.

The difference is that once a solider enlists, where he is sent and what he is ordered to do is entirely up to other people – generals and their advisors, politicians and their spinmeisters. Yes, the solider assumes the risk that he will be sent into hostile territory, but, particularly in the case of those who sign with the reserve units, the solider has nothing to do with the decision to go into harm’s way. Furthermore, the ultimate mission of the solider is to protect his nation, his people, his family, and not simply his employer. (The orders he is given may not be in the nation’s ultimate interest, but that is a separate issue entirely.)

Is it a tragedy when the hired guns die? It is a tragedy when anyone dies, and I can especially conceive of almost nothing that the victims here could have done that would possibly justify such a gruesome means of death and savage mutilation.

But implicit in that special kind of grieving for the fallen in a war in which your country is involved is the idea that they died for you, sacrificing their lives so that you might live in freedom from the threat of whatever adversary they faced. And these people, whatever their individual merits might have been, made no such sacrifice.

Kos, himself a military veteran, happens to think there’s a substantial difference there - and I agree with him. He phrased his objection, to be sure, in a most intemperate fashion, but at its root is a truth that’s being buried under all the sound and fury.

Perhaps these thoughts are political poison in this climate, and indeed some Congressional candidates who had advertised with Daily Kos pulled their ads once the bad publicity spread.

But far more poisonous to me is the notion that forces in government are hiring unaccountable private armies in my name.


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