Private Military Companies
Guns For Hire: Secrecy, Torture, Religious Zeal Distinguish Mercenaries
August 12, 2007 Iraq and Afghanistan dominated our news headlines. But our media continue to overlook the growing privatization of military operations - a major historical development.
George W. Bush vigorously backs privatization and frequently awards huge contracts to companies owned by political contributors, such as Halliburton and Blackwater.
During his years in the Oval Office, Bill Clinton also embraced the emerging military privatization.
Today, our government pays mercenaries billions of dollars to fight and kill "enemies," protect government officials and deliver food.
American taxpayers pay the bill. But few know much about the growth of private military companies, or PMCs.
Two new books - Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Robert Young Pelton's Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror - tell that story.
Hundreds of companies, most formed recently, rake in billions of dollars to provide mercenaries for operations, often top-secret, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, to name a few.
"Private forces are almost a necessity for a United States bent on retaining its declining empire," Scahill writes. "Think about Rome and its increasing need for mercenaries."
Our government, Pelton believes, is creating a "freelance warrior class that operates under murky legal restraints."
A Shift of Power
The use of contractors, and their secrecy, shifts more and more authority from Congress to the White House, which makes its own decisions without any public input.
Secrecy hides the real costs of military operations and enables widespread legal abuses, including capturing prisoners and "rendering" them to unknown locations for questioning and torture - a policy also backed by Clinton.
Today, Blackwater, the nation's largest private military company (PMC), operates its own aviation division to "render" prisoners to countries with questionable human rights records.
Suspected "terrorists" don't get lawyers. Their families are not told where they are. And those prisoners frequently disappear forever.
Pelton and Scahill emphasize how unaccountable contractors are to anyone, except to a handful of officials in the White House.
"The vast majority of [violent] incidents involving contractors and civilians go unreported and unexposed," writes Pelton, who himself has spent months living with mercenaries around the world.
Mercenaries get paid much more than regular soldiers, making $750 a day, $1,000 a day or even more.
Almost every one is a veteran of elite military groups, such as the Navy SEALs.
Companies like Blackwater also recruit and hire hardened soldiers from repressive regimes such as South Africa during the apartheid era and Chile under Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Salvador Allende in a Sept. 11, 1973, coup and remained in power until 1990.
Between February 2004 and March 2006, for example, Jose Miguel Pizarro, a Pinochet operative, recruited 756 Chilean soldiers for Blackwater and other companies, Scahill reports.
Many American veterans eagerly sign up to become mercenaries. Typically, extensive military training and experience qualifies them for little more than low-wage security jobs at home, but enables them to earn much higher wages working for PMCs.
Many welcome the return of excitement while confronting dangers and quelling them.
Today's mercenaries have a macho culture, Pelton writes. "Sharp-edged swirling tattoos, shaved heads, bulging biceps, and short beards or goatees comprise the common 'look' they wear."
As of Aug. 8, 3,668 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq. Mercenaries also suffer disastrous injuries and deaths.
This week, the U.S. Labor Department said 1,001 mercenaries have died in Iraq and another 76 have died in Afghanistan.
Probably the best-known are four slain Blackwater contractors hung from a bridge in Fallujah on March 31, 2004. Pelton and Scahill tell their human stories.
After the four men died, Katy Helvenston-Wettnegel and other parents asked Blackwater officials why they failed to follow their own procedures to protect employees' lives.
"I hold Blackwater responsible one thousand percent," said Katy, mother of Scott Helvenston.
After the four men's parents and other survivors got to know each other, they jointly filed a wrongful death lawsuit, seeking damages and answers.
Blackwater gave no answers, but filed a $10 million suit against the estates of its workers who died in Fallujah, arguing that the families are now violating the terms of the dead employees' contracts.
The U.S. military reaps rewards from this privatization.
"The biggest benefit for the U.S. military is that using contractors adds no long-term liability in insurance, retirement, training, benefits or medical costs," Pelton writes.
"Contractors are the ultimate use-once, throwaway soldiers - an expensive but disposable source of muscle and steel when problems occur."
Private contractors also lead to increased violence against local people in Iraq.
Pelton and Scahill both describe how mercenaries rained gunfire on "moving targets" in Iraq and Afghanistan, without knowing whether the targets were insurgents or peaceful citizens, adults or small children.
For example, they routinely shot at ambulances bringing wounded Iraqis to hospitals in Fallujah, Scahill writes, hospitals that were already "a death row for innocents" because the U.S. embargoed medical supplies.
The Mercenary Ideology
Blackwater executives, and many government officials who work with them, are evangelical ideologues, both authors point out.
Edgar Prince, founder of Blackwater, grew up in a politically conservative, evangelical Catholic family near Detroit.
Blackwater, based in the Great Dismal Swamp near the North Carolina coast, has become the nation's largest mercenary company.
L. Paul Bremer, who oversaw Iraq for one year after the U.S. invasion, is also a conservative Catholic, who was always protected by Blackwater guards during his time in Iraq.
John Negroponte, who succeeded Bremer, previously helped create "death squads" in Vietnam in the 1970s and coordinated Washington's "covert support for the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and for the Honduran junta" in the 1980s, Scahill writes.
Jim Steele, who worked for both Bremer and Negroponte, also helped organize counterinsurgency groups and death squads in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Joseph Schmitz, forced to resign as the Pentagon's Inspector General amid growing controversy, took a job with Blackwater in 2005. His government resume lists membership in the "Sovereign Military Order of Malta," a Christian militia founded in the 11th century before the Crusades.
"It all comes down to this," Schmitz said in a speech while at the Pentagon. "We pride ourselves on our strict adherence to the rule of law under God."
The irony, Scahill points out, is that while Iraq goes up in flames, Blackwater's future seems bright.
Both authors warn of increasing dangers to world peace and American democracy.
Many of our own intelligence and military officials fear a continued backlash from the brutal actions of many mercenaries.
In addition, Scahill notes, many active-duty American soldiers harbor resentments toward mercenaries paid so much better and accountable to no one.
What the future holds is unclear.
By reading these two books, Americans might feel a more pressing duty to play a bigger role in shaping that future.
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill, Nation Books, 2007, 452 pages. Hardcover, $26.95.
Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror by Robert Young Pelton, Crown Publishers, 2006, 348 pages. Hardcover, $24.