Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Soldiers for Hire

Huck Gutman teaches English at the University of Vermont and is senior staff aide to Representative Bernie Sanders. He is political columnist for The Statesmanof Kolkata, India, and also contributes regularly to the editorial pages of Dawn in Karachi, Pakistan, and Common Dreams, the progressive Web site. He is coauthor with Sanders of Outsider in the House (Verso, 1997). This essay is adapted from his column, “Soldiers on Hire,” in The Statesman, April 26, 27, 2004.

During the era of colonial expansion, trading entities such as the Dutch and English East Indies Companies operated as near sovereign powers, commanding armies and navies larger than those in Europe…These firms dominated in non-European areas considered beyond the accepted boundaries of the sovereign system, such as the Indian subcontinent, where local capabilities were weak and transnational companies the most efficiently organized units.

Peter W. Singer

The situation in Iraq is going badly for the occupying U.S. forces. Despite a staged-for-television proclamation of victory aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean last year, President Bush has recently found his policies, from spurious reasons for waging war against Iraq, to the badly bungled early occupation, to politically-inspired deadlines for handing over “authority” to an as yet nonexistent Iraqi government, criticized more and more frequently.

We live in an age of television, and so it was a televised event that precipitated the current sense of political siege and crisis within the White House. Four Americans were ambushed as they drove through Fallujah in north-central Iraq. They were killed, dragged from their vehicle, set afire, and dismembered. The charred remains of one body were hung from a bridge; those of another were dragged behind a car for 50 kilometers.

The broadcasts of these events were “read” very differently in West Asia than in the United States. In West Asia, despite the horrendous brutality of the Iraqi mob—even in warfare, even in great enmity, human tradition demands respect for the bodies of the slain—many cheered the pictures as signs that U.S. power was vulnerable and capable of being attacked. Their response was understandable: the world’s sole superpower seemed, as images flashed across the television screen, to be unable to ward off attacks from indignant and angry civilians. The power of the street met the power of a mechanized, automated army, and for a few minutes at least, the street won.

U.S. reaction was shock. The images were indeed brutal, and the multiple violations—of the safety of American persons, of civilized norms of behavior, and ultimately of U.S. supremacy and invulnerability—were shocking to the U.S. public. The Bush administration kept quiet, for what could the president say: his victorious war no longer looked victorious, not when images of the barbaric treatment of Americans flashed on the television screen. It was a very tough day in the White House.

As the world knows, the aftermath was powerful and disturbing. Iraqis were emboldened to attack Americans all over the nation, with Sunnis and Shias (those formerly supposedly implacable antagonists) promising to aid one another in driving out the occupying aggressor. U.S. troops, for their part, mobilized and both surrounded and penetrated Fallujah, with heavy and bloody casualties, mostly Iraqi citizens, not all of whom were in any way combatants.

I want to look at one of the many issues that arose from that moment of violence in Fallujah, that moment when four Americans were killed. Why, Americans wondered at first, were there no U.S. forces ready to intervene? Even if it is impossible to prevent or undo an ambush, it is certainly possible to move in militarily to prevent bodies from being dishonored. After all, the record, both in literature and history, of military men showing great courage to protect both their wounded and their dead is extensive. So why didn’t U.S. troops rush in to protect their fallen comrades?

The answer is profoundly revealing. The fallen men were not, in any real sense, their comrades. They were Americans, and they were soldiers of a sort, but they were not U.S. soldiers. They worked for a corporation, Blackwater Security Consulting, which supplies military personnel on a contract basis: these were soldiers for hire, or, as they would have been called in a time when English had not been debased by the spin of political posturing, mercenaries. They were in Iraq not to fight for democracy or even domination, but because they were paid handsomely to be there—and paid by a company whose sole business is to make a profit.

Sometimes dramatic changes take place in the world, hidden from sight, until a moment occurs when they erupt into public consciousness. So it was with the four Americans killed in Fallujah. The existence of a privatized military industry was known to military leaders around the globe, to corporate executives of multinational companies engaged in business in “risky” areas, and to despots and insurgent militias all over the developing world. But, in general, the citizenry of the world, and especially the United States, was unaware that the nature of warfare is changing, and changing rapidly.

Warfare is less and less the domain of states, and more and more an area for corporate investment, growth, and control. Warfare, in blunt terms, is being increasingly privatized as we enter the 21st century.

There is no arguing with economic facts. The privatized military “industry,” in the words of Peter Singer, an expert on this new economic reality, “has several hundred companies, operating in over 10 countries on six continents, and over $100 billion in annual global revenue.”

Though writing in an academic publication, Singer maintains his great real-world cogency. “PMFs [privatized military firms] represent the newest additions to the modern battlefield, and their role in contemporary warfare is becoming increasingly significant. Not since the 18th century has there been such reliance on private soldiers to accomplish tasks directly affecting the tactical and strategic success of engagement…PMFs may well portend the new business face of war.”

Singer and I disagree about the importance of structure, since he maintains that PMFs are “fundamentally different [than mercenaries]: the critical analytic factor is their modern corporate business form.” That modern mercenaries are employees of a modern corporation, hired through “conventional” hiring practices, serving in a hierarchical business administrative structure, generating returns for investors, does not mean that they are not fundamentally soldiers for hire, nor that those who supply them are not in it for the money.

Singer is remarkably cogent in his analysis.* He points out that the market-based approach toward military services is as, “one analyst puts it, ‘the ultimate representation of neo-liberalism.’” In particular, he sees PMFs as a logical consequence of the two major capitalist innovations of the late 20th century, outsourcing and globalization. Military affairs—from maintenance and supply, to support, to actual fighting—can profitably be outsourced; the labor supply to provide trainers, logistical support, and warriors is an international market.

The former apartheid military and militias of South Africa are fertile hiring sources; so too are former Soviet soldiers, and officers and operatives of the KGB. Those who were behind the Bank of Credit and Commerce International debacle are deeply enmeshed in arranging financing in the new military-for-hire industry, as are those who supplied illegal arms in the Iran-Contra scandal. Employment in this new industry—soldiers for hire—is more about toughness and getting the job done, than about vetting potential employees for any ethical standards, even vestigial ones.

Which brings us to Iraq. There are important reasons why the United States has depended heavily on PMFs to undergird the war and occupation efforts in Iraq. Most of them are not pretty—to my mind, some are actually corrupt.

First, PMFs allow placing many of the costs of the Iraq occupation “off budget.” In the United States, as in all democracies, funding for government activities is ultimately in the hands of the people, through their elected representatives in legislative bodies.

But the 20,000 international PMF employees in Iraq (equal to over 15 percent of the official U.S. military presence of 130,000 soldiers) are off budget. They are not listed as military expenditures. Instead, they are paid out of the money budgeted for Iraqi reconstruction. Recent government estimates are that as much as one-quarter of the $18 billion budgeted for reconstruction will be paid to those who perform military operations of one sort or another. That means money dedicated to rebuilding schools and hospitals will, instead, fill the coffers of private firms that supply guards, analysts, security, and convoy protection.

In merchandising, this technique is called “bait and switch” and is widely used by unscrupulous salesmen, who offer something at an announced price, and substitute another item of inferior quality or lower value. Offer reconstruction, substitute military and paramilitary activity. In the marketplace, bait and switch tactics are illegal. That does not seem to hold for White House policies in Iraq.

Second, hiring PMFs bails out the questionable defense policies of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Contrary to the advice of his generals, the secretary insisted on downsizing the military. His vision is of a corporate military, and so he imitates the efficiencies put in place by modern multinational corporations. On one level, he is merely continuing what his predecessors in the defense department did, and indeed what every imperial power has done for many centuries: he has moved toward further mechanizing warfare. For Rumsfeld, it is not just that killing efficiency—horrible term, horrible concept—is enhanced by mechanization: the automated battlefield can work like an automated factory, so that fewer workers are needed. Secretary Rumsfeld has been insistent that the U.S. military can be downsized. And not just by, for example, using fully automated drones instead of bombers with crews, or substituting laser-sighted weapons in the hands of two or three soldiers in a Humvee instead of sending forth a platoon of men.

Rumsfeld has tried his utmost to privatize the U.S. military. For him, following corporate strategy, downsizing means moving to “just in time” hiring, using private firms to provide what the military formerly did for itself. He has insisted that it makes no fiscal sense to keep and pay for a well-trained standing army, when the United States can purchase every sort of service on an “open market” whenever there is a need for military action.

Why should soldiers, in Rumsfeld’s view, cook for themselves, move their trash, provide supplies, run and maintain their technology—why not privatize these activities? Even in the case of actual military duty— guarding public officials from hostile attack, fighting guerrilla assaults— much of what soldiers traditionally do can be performed by the mercenaries hired by private firms. All of these services can be hired only when needed, and the army can be kept small, and hence inexpensive in terms of manpower. Weapons systems, produced at high profit by huge corporations, are another matter: cost efficiency here seems to be of little or no concern.

Rumsfeld’s strategy may well be flawed, which is why the use of PMFs is so suspect, since PMFs allow him to escape oversight and deflect criticism. In Iraq today, U.S. forces are stretched thin. That situation was highlighted recently when tens of thousands of soldiers slated to come home after a year’s term in Iraq found those returns cancelled, some as they were on their way to the airport for a flight home. U.S. troops have discovered, contrary to both planning and promises, that their presence in an increasingly hostile war zone has been extended. Additionally, the defections of Spain, the Dominican Republic and Honduras from the U.S. “alliance” has stretched the U.S. forces so thin that Rumsfeld’s downsized army is further unprepared to fight the rising Iraqi insurgency.

Thus, the privatized military forces cover up the flaws in Rumsfeld’s downsizing strategy. Secretary Rumsfeld, today, staves off criticism that his lean military is not able to do what it has to do in Iraq, by paying privatized firms and their subcontractors to do it instead of army or air force personnel. That privatized firms charge more for the activities is of no concern, even though the point behind downsizing was supposedly cost-efficiency.

PMFs have an additional “benefit” never mentioned by U.S. government officials. If there is brutal military repression to be done, an ex-KGB agent or a man with a lifetime of service in South Africa’s apartheid forces can work more brutally than an enlisted U.S. soldier. Paul Bremer, the American who “rules” Iraq as the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, does not trust his defense to U.S. soldiers. Cadres of mercenaries guard him.

An instance of this “outside the army” brutality came to light in the shocking revelations of American abuse of Iraqi inmates in Baghdad. A confidential U.S. Army report said that at least one employee of the firm CACI was among those “either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib” the report also mentioned an employee of another PMF, Titan, in the context of the abuse. In the two months since that report was compiled, even though the Army recommended “termination of employment” of one of the employees, neither corporation removed them. There are judicial consequences for military men and women who use excess brutality in war, but there seem to be few avenues for prosecuting such brutality among employees of the PMFs which operate in a war zone.

If the United States’ use of privatized military services in Iraq seems to transgress the boundaries of corruption to a rational mind, a mildly paranoid mind can have a field day with some established facts. The major subcontractor in Iraq is Halliburton; Halliburton provides extensive security and military support through its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root. Halliburton’s former chief executive, of course, is the sitting vice president, Dick Cheney. Recent testimony before Congress and in a startling new book by the journalist Bob Woodward indicates that Cheney was the single most influential force driving Bush, and the United States, into war against Iraq. From the most cynical angle—and some resort to cynicism to explain a war whose purported cause, eliminating stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), has proved fraudulent since no WMDs ever turned up in postwar Iraq—one might see the entire war and occupation as a business decision which provided huge contracts to the vice president’s former company.

There is one undeniably corrupt purpose behind the use of PMFs, one so patent that it is beyond any taint of paranoia or cynicism. Four decades ago, when the United States was mired in a war in Vietnam and casualties were mounting, that war became a greater and greater political liability for successive administrations, first Democratic, then Republican. Both resorted to a strategy—in the heinous language of those in charge of managing the war—to “change the color of the corpses.” In other words, if U.S. soldiers died, the public would be outraged. If the Vietnamese could be pressured into taking the casualties, there would be little outcry in the United States.

With this in mind, there is another, nefarious reason for the use of PMFs in Iraq. As casualties mount, and there have been over 100 American deaths in April alone, using private military operatives may (and the emphasis must at this moment, with the situation still in flux, be on the very conditional nature of that verb) allow the United States to reduce U.S. casualties by the substitution of foreign troops.

When those four American operatives from Blackwater Security were killed, there was great outcry and anger because they were Americans who were killed and mutilated—even though it quickly became apparent that they were private operatives paid for working quasi-military operations in a war zone.

Yet a similar event—not the abuse of the corpses, but the murder of four PMF agents—occurred four months earlier, in January, to no outcry at all. The reason? The four casualties, were employees of a British firm, Erinys, and all were former members of apartheid-era security forces in South Africa. This is the principle, without the usual racial overtones, of changing the color of the corpses.

Erinys alone employs about 14,000 Iraqis. It is not hard to find information about Erinys, since the company seems to have no shame about promoting its military services to all and sundry: advertising and self-promotion seem to be necessary aspects of the business of privatized warfare. “Erinys is an international Security Services and Risk consultancy. We provide clients with a range of services and capabilities to reduce the impact of operating in volatile, uncertain or complex environments such as sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia….Erinys Iraq is a prime contractor to the Gulf Regional Division of the United States Army Corp of Engineers, tasked with providing nationwide personal security details and protective services,” the company proudly states.

Their postimperial world sounds suspiciously like the colonial world that has supposedly been long displaced: those 14,000 Iraqis are “directed by former senior members of the UK armed forces.” It even has its own military command structure, independent of the U.S. and allied forces, as it provides support and protection for the U.S. military and—no surprise—the multinational petrochemical companies in Iraq. “Erinys Iraq operates throughout the country under a North, Centre, South regional structure, each with its own independent headquarters, and a further 14 subsidiary sectors each with their own headquarters.”

In conclusion, let us examine the new pressure on the U.S. army that will almost certainly result from the use of PMFs in Iraq, the creation of a split-level military, part privatized and highly-paid, part nationalized and greatly underpaid. Nor are those pay differentials commensurate with risk: quite the opposite.

Today, there are tens of thousands of men and women who were called away from their jobs and families—they entered the National Guard, which requires under most circumstances a six-month training period and then just two weeks of active service each year—because their nation required them to serve in the deserts of Iraq and in the treacherous streets of cities deeply angry with the U.S. occupation.

According to figures current during the active war a year ago, the base salary of a soldier in the lowest rank who has one year’s service was $15,480 a year—only a thousand dollars more than the average pay for an usher in a movie theatre in the United States. The base pay for an experienced corporal of three years of service was $19,980 a year.

For this, U.S. soldiers are on the front lines in Iraq, risking their lives; with over 700 dead, and many more returning home amputees and permanently impaired, they have much at risk, yet their nation recompenses them with minimal pay. Meanwhile, the government pays private firms between $500 and $1,500 a day for the experienced military personnel they supply in Iraq. In stark terms, a mercenary works in a less risky position, providing support to fighting men or guarding oil wells instead of going on patrols in hostile territory under enemy fire and assault—and makes 10 to 20 times as much money as a soldier who serves his country instead of a corporation. There are a sizeable number of mercenaries making more than General Tommy Franks, who commanded the U.S. armed forces in last year’s war in Iraq. With more than 36 years of service, Franks’ annual base pay was $153,948.

Is it possible to sustain an army when mercenaries for private contractors take fewer risks and earn 10 times as much as soldiers? Is it possible to delude Iraqis and Americans alike that a reconstruction budget is for reconstruction, when a quarter of it pays for private military forces? Is it possible successfully to change the color of the corpses in Iraq? Is this sort of warfare sustainable, and more tellingly, is it by any measure ethical? Time will tell.


* Peter W. Singer, “Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry,”

2004, Volume 56, Issue 02 (June)
Comments are closed.