America's private military

[Phillip Carter, Thursday July 5, 2007 at 6:14am ]

Two of America's leading newspapers have important front-page stories yesterday and today about the private contractors serving in Iraq alongside America's military.

T. Christian Miller (author of "Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq") reports in the Los Angeles Times about new estimates pointing to a much higher number of contractors in the war zone than previously thought. The latest figures, published by the Washington Post, had put the number of contractor personnel (U.S. and other) at 126,000. Mr. Miller reports that number has gone up to 180,000:

The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.

More than 180,000 civilians — including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis — are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Including the recent troop buildup, 160,000 soldiers and a few thousand civilian government employees are stationed in Iraq.

The total number of private contractors, far higher than previously reported, shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq — a mission criticized as being undermanned.

"These numbers are big," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written on military contracting. "They illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It's the coalition of the billing."

The numbers include at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis — all employed in Iraq by U.S. tax dollars, according to the most recent government data.
One important note about the force structure of these contractors: the vast majority of them are not triggerpullers. Even if they were fully counted in this number, the private security contractors from Blackwater, AEGIS, Triple Canopy, etc., would make up a tiny fraction of the contractor work force in Iraq. To use a metaphor from Peter Singer's book "Corporate Warriors," the private military contractor force structure looks like a spear, where a tiny fraction is represented by the pointy tip (the security guys), and the vast majority is represented by the shaft (logistics, reconstruction, etc). If you look at the table in the L.A. Times story, this becomes abundantly clear. The biggest contractors are those providing logistical and reconstruction support to the effort, not security support. And so, the debate isn't really so much about whether we want contractors fighting for us or not. Rather, it's whether we want contractors engaged in support functions like reconstruction and logistics that were previously done in other wars by units like the famed Seabees and the Red Ball Express.

However, this is not to minimize the role of contractors, nor to say they do not engage in combat. James Glanz reports in today's New York Times about the difficulties faced by contractor personnel when they come home. Unlike soldiers, who have a vast support network of medical and mental health personnel, contractors typically come back home to a civilian health care plan with doctors and clinicians who are not experienced in dealing with combat trauma. The results can be disappointing:

With no widespread screening, many workers are not identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other problems, mental health experts and contractors say. And, they add, the quality of treatment for others can vary widely because of limited civilian expertise in combat-related disorders.

Only a few mental health professionals have focused on the issue, but they warn that the number of contractors leaving Iraq with mental health problems is large and growing.

“I think the numbers are in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands,” said Paul Brand, a psychologist and chief executive of Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago firm hired by Dyncorp International, a major contractor in Iraq, to assess and treat its workers. “Many are going undiagnosed. These guys are fighting demons, and they don’t know how to cope.”

* * *
The federal government, which has paid billions of dollars to corporations for services in Iraq since the war began, has not examined the issue of mental health problems among private workers, according to Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs officials.

“To my knowledge, it has not been looked at systematically,” said Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, a V.A. official who directs the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Contract workers who are wounded or disabled in the war zone are treated in military hospitals in Iraq and Germany, but once home, they are not eligible for care in the military or V.A. system. And unlike troops, they are not routinely evaluated for mental or stress disorders after their tours.
More needs to be done here. The Defense Department now includes contractors as part of its "total force." They serve alongside our troops, often in roles which are indistinguishable from U.S. military personnel in this war and wars past. (I had civilian police advisers on my team, much like the man profiled in the story, and they were an integral part of our mission.) Congress went so far last year as to make them subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And yet, we do not offer these contractors anywhere near the level of support that we do soldiers, despite asking them to bear many of the same risks. That is, of course, part of the bargain. The U.S. Government has chosen to outsource many functions to contractors precisely because it does not want to pay costs like these. I don't think that's right. We should not be able to outsource combat missions and then avoid responsibility for the care of those men and women who serve in our name, but as contractors instead of soldiers.

These two stories raise larger questions, however, which deserve a national discussion about the wisdom and efficacy of privatization in the national security context. Have we gone too far in deciding what is (and is not) "inherently governmental," such that we have privatized certain functions which should have remained in the Government? What is the optimal force mix of public and private soldiers? Or is this less a matter of fundamental decisionmaking, and more a matter of ensuring proper oversight, accountability and management of contractors? These questions and others will need to be engaged as we learn the lessons of Iraq and prepare for the next fight, whatever that may be.