Hired Guns

Reviewed by Ralph Peters
Sunday, December 21, 2008


America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq

By Steve Fainaru

Da Capo. 254 pp. $26

During the American struggle for independence, German mercenaries employed by the British crown terrorized rebellious soldiers and civilians with equal enthusiasm. This formative experience imprinted an abhorrence of mercenaries on our national character: We never hired our guns.

Until now. As a result of its mania for outsourcing essential government functions, the administration of George W. Bush found itself embroiled in Iraq without sufficient troops on the ground and with a secretary of defense who resisted deploying additional soldiers, preferring to channel funds to private contractors.

The result was the unleashing of renegades on the people of Iraq. The sadistic, too-often-murderous conduct of thousands of private security contractors -- our contemporary euphemism for mercenaries -- not only shattered critical relationships between our troops and the local population but also shamed our country.

Washington Post columnist and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Fainaru's Big Boy Rules is the most vivid account to date of the misfits, thugs and outright psychotics who kill with impunity under corporate flags. Describing the legal vacuum that prevailed until 2007, the author writes: "They give them weapons . . . and turn them loose on an arid battlefield the size of California, without rules. . . . None of the prevailing laws -- Iraqi law, U.S. law, the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], Islamic law, the Geneva Conventions -- applied to them." Again and again, taxpayer-funded mercenaries shot down Iraqi civilians without provocation, sometimes just because "I want to kill somebody today," as one mercenary put it before going on a rampage. Much of the media and the U.S. government looked the other way -- the first because its narrative line was military failure, the latter because it was stunned when ideology collided with reality. Denied authority over the hired guns, the military seethed at the damage done to its mission.

Worst of all, the State Department hired Blackwater USA (now Blackwater Worldwide), a politically well-connected firm with a reputation even among mercenaries for renegade behavior. Capping dozens of disgraceful incidents, in September 2007 Blackwater gunmen allegedly killed 17 unarmed Iraqis in a matter of minutes in downtown Baghdad, an atrocity for which five contractors were indicted this month. Afterward, the State Department still insisted its diplomats needed Blackwater for protection. The firm's contract was renewed, and "by the end of 2007," Fainaru notes, "the company had made a billion dollars off the war."

Our diplomats hired gunmen to protect them, and the gunmen ravaged our diplomatic efforts. According to one Iraqi security official quoted in Big Boy Rules, "Blackwater has no respect for the Iraqi people. They consider Iraqis like animals, although actually I think they may have more respect for animals." In my own visits to Iraq, I found our troops consistently disgusted with the private security contractors, not least because our soldiers often were blamed for the mercenaries' outrages. Our troops saw outlaws, but the Iraqis just saw Americans.

Not all of the contractors were Americans, of course. As Fainaru reports, the security shortfall in Iraq was so dramatic that the Bush administration blessed the hiring of dubious foreign companies with morphing names. Qualified security operatives were available only in limited numbers, so the fly-by-night firms took on virtually anyone who sought employment: military washouts, ex-cons, gunmen fired by other contractors and the utterly unqualified. Mercenaries conducted a wide range of missions, from checking identification cards at dining facilities, to guarding convoys and protecting dignitaries with pre-emptive firepower. The gunmen -- some illiterate -- came from the United States, Britain, South Africa, Australia, Peru, Uganda, Nepal and various other countries. Many of the Western hires were dysfunctional characters who could make it in neither the military, with its demands for emotional stability and discipline, nor in the civilian world.

More than a few of the mercenaries were looking for trouble, and in Iraq they found it. Fainaru, who made 11 reporting trips to Iraq, deserves great credit not only for pursuing this inadequately covered, infuriating story but also for searching beyond the pseudo-professionalism of the big-name contractors to investigate the dozens of smaller outfits preying on the war. A significant portion of Big Boy Rules follows five mercenaries from the Crescent Security Group, a Kuwait-based, minimally credentialed firm that sent convoy guards into Iraq with third-rate weapons, poor communications, death-trap vehicles, no qualified medics and resentful Iraqi hires who eventually betrayed the men with whom the author traveled.

The mercenaries Fainaru covered were taken captive a week after he left them. Their eventual murders were gruesome. Parts of their bodies surfaced several months later. The tale of how these men who had failed at everything else blundered into their new line of work (for up to $7,000 per month) is harrowing and well told, but it leads the author into a trap: He bonded with the "mercs" and their families to the extent that he regards their fates as tragic. Yet nothing in their public lives rose to the level of tragedy. They weren't going anyplace, so they went to Iraq. Not even Fainaru's considerable skill can make us care much about these lost souls.

Nonetheless, this book is consistently engaging and powerfully instructive. As a retired soldier, I found only one (offensive) inaccuracy: Fainaru's claim that the mercenaries were "composed mostly of retired soldiers and marines." That's simply wrong. Very few of the mercenaries in Iraq had made it through full military careers (those interviewed in detail by the author either bailed out after a single hitch or never served at all). Even many of the former special-operations personnel hired by firms such as Blackwater either left the military because they ultimately didn't measure up or simply got out to grab the contractor money (a sin of the first magnitude to honorable soldiers). The gulf between those who wear our country's uniform and mercenaries is at least as wide as the gap between good cops and criminals.

Attempting to excite sympathy for the mercenaries he rode with in Iraq, Fainaru reveals personal histories of feckless amorality. When these men died, their families suffered, but society did not. The Bush administration may have served as Mephistopheles, but there was no Faust among its hired guns. ยท

Ralph Peters is a retired U.S. Army officer and the author of 23 books, including the recent "Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."

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