These numbers are big. 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.
— Peter W. Singer, “Private contractors outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq” (Los Angeles Times 4 July 2007)
The more aggression you create, the more people that you zipper in front of their cars, the more people that get shot up, it’s gonna come back to you. You’re working in a Middle East country, it’s not like you’re gonna forgive somebody because they shot up your car.
— Robert Young Pelton, Shadow Company
[I]n Iraq, contractors are beyond the reach of the local Iraqi law enforcement agencies. Without U.S. government oversight, investigation and prosecutorial authority, contractors have criminal law immunity.
“Soldiers for hire invariably had no controls. It’s all about control,” says security contractor Cobus Claassens. “That’s what people fear.” One of several interviewees asked to define “mercenary” in the documentary Shadow Company, Claassens says that the contractor, whether paid by a government, another company, or an individual, is not bound by the same sorts of political, moral, or even legal obligations as members of a national military. As he recalls medieval mercenaries, “they paid their own way by raping, looting, and pillaging. So I think we’ve got a hereditary sort of recollection of mercenaries being bad dudes.”
The examination of private military companies (today’s preferred term within the industry) undertaken by Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s film is at once informative and provocative. Interview subjects range from former and current “hired guns” like Claassens and Robert Young Pelton (identified here as “author and adventurer”) to scholars, executives, ethicists, and analysts. (Even Stephen Cannell, co-creator of The A-Team, chimes in with a rather cunning appreciation of his show’s fictional excesses: “What is that testosterone cowboy that needs that adrenaline rush in order to make his life feel complete?”)
The movie opens with narration (by Gerard Butler) taken from Captain James Ashcroft’s Making a Killing, in the form of letters from Iraq. “The contract is huge,” James says over images of weapons, helicopters, men with blurred-out faces, and GMC trucks. “Two hundred men doing close protection tasks, or PSDs, the Americans call it. There are swarms of other private contractors all over the place, some complete cowboy outfits. But this one is fairly sharp, so I’m not too worried about getting killed.” Subsequent shots of explosions, burning vehicles, and locals celebrating over corpses intimate that his assessment may be premature. The film is structured by such punctuation, visuals alternately countering and confirming observations. As it pulls together multiple perspectives (none, it might be noted, from the current U.S. administration that is making such emphatic use of PMCs in Iraq), the documentary paints a fairly complicated picture of mercenaries’ historical, ethical, and political significance.
Before the nation-state, says Madelaine Drohan (who has also written a book called Making a Killing, her analysis of the business subtitled How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to Do Business), mercenaries were the standard means for waging war. “The whole process of state building was to take into the state that monopoly of the use of coercive force, and use your own army to do that. So really, the system that we have come to think of as normal has only been around for about 100 years.”
Drohan makes a compelling case that today’s mercenary companies were born of a crisis shaped by race: when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the suddenly unemployed white soldiers found work in South Africa (see also: a similar story told by Leo DiCaprio’s “adventurer” in Blood Diamond). In 1994, that government gig ended, and so they set up private security companies, in particular, Executive Outcomes (whose mission is “to provide the most professional military training related to land, sea, and air warfare”). Though Shadow Company does not pursue Drohan’s point concerning the racing of contemporary mercenaries, at least as an initial concept, it’s worth thinking through, with regard to the general structure and appeal of private military contracting as career and ethos.
But Shadow Company‘s focus is at once broader and narrower than the race and racism that inform much war-making: taking Iraq as its central example (with references to specific incidents in Africa), it looks at the relationships between contractors and local populations and American troops, as these make for complex decisions, structures of accountability, and image management. The danger in granting free or generous rein to PMCs in combat zones, argues Phil Lancaster, formerly of the Canadian Army and now a humanitarian worker with UNICEF, has to do with ethics and on-the-ground decision making. But while he worries about the “argument in favor of a kind of imperialism where might makes right,” perceived exigency tends to argue for forces that can be called up, inserted, and extracted without going through a cumbersome state apparatus.
Just so, according to Shadow Company, following 9/11, the business for PMCs increased exponentially. Given the downsizing of the U.S. military prior to the “war on terror,” outsourcing seemed a practical and immediate way to fill needs for “a U.S. army [that] finds itself overtasked,” as Pelton puts it. Firms like Blackwater and Triple Canopy were called in to “protect what we call nouns,” says Doug Brooks, president of the nonprofit International Peace Operations Association: people, places, and things. The contracts are variously “controversial,” most being no-bid, some working out in the short term, and some being unsuccessful (Drohan calls Tim Spicer and his company AEGIS an example of “someone failing upward,” as he’s hired after previous jobs go wrong).
The risks for contractors are various. Much like Iraq for Sale, Shadow Company argues that the flashpoint for the contractors crisis was Fallujah, when Blackwater employees were killed, burned, and displayed for TV cameras. While this incident raised questions about the contractors’ preparation and the corporations’ responsibilities to them and their families, it also raised the profile of companies that prefer to remain “below the radar.” This brings its own dangers. Contractors are at risk from insurgents, distrustful locals, and American troops, who are not typically informed of contractors’ activities.
Further, as Singer observes, PMCs “don’t typically operate in healthy states.” This means they are not regulated by local governments or by the U.S. military. And once the CPA stated the contractors did not fall under Iraqi law, Pelton says, they essentially “operate with impunity in Iraq,” producing situations like Abu Ghraib (where contracted interrogators and interpreters remain unnamed in the scandal) as well as daily encounters with local civilians. Pelton observes that the U.S. companies in particular tend to resist interactions: he contrasts “the British operation,” which encourages members to feel very comfortable with Iraqis, eating Iraqi food, working within an Iraqi system.” By contrast, he says, “Americans live in a bubble. Whether it’s the music they play, whether it’s the TV they watch, the clothes they wear, they just export Americana with them.”
Such persistent distance from local populations is something of a credo for mercenaries: they’re trained to be efficient, to get in and get out, to move on to the next mission. And, contrary to the popular image of the gung-ho cowboy contractors, they can and do take into account ethical frameworks. As Shadow Company argues consistently, “control” is always at issue. Claassens describes the dilemma this way: “Sometimes you have to force soldiers and that’s one of the bitter and less glamorous things about soldiering… And you can, because they are obliged to, because they’re in uniform and they swore an oath.” But, he says, “You cannot force a civilian to go forward… I believe that civilians should be deployed well back from that line, because after all, a civilian can turn around and say ‘Fuck this’ and get out.” This is a whole other potential problem for the government who outsources.