Soldier of Misfortune
Monday, December 1, 2008; 2:00 PM
Jonathon Cote had fought in the U.S. Army. He was killed in Iraq. But it was far more complicated than that.
Washington Post foreign correspondent Steve Fainaru writes: "To make up the shortfall of not enough troops in Iraq, the government chose to outsource for-profit companies that employed tens of thousands of soldiers-for-hire: mercenaries, or private security contractors, as they were known. The mercenaries developed their own language and subculture, and they fought their own secret battles under their own rules -- "Big Boy Rules," as they called their playbook, with more than a hint of condescension, to distinguish it from the constraints of the military's formal code. They weren't counted by our government, alive or dead."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author was online Monday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his book, "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq," which tells the stories of private security contractors in the war zone.
A transcript follows.
Steve Fainaru: Hi everyone. Very sorry for the delay. We were experiencing technical difficulties here in New York. I'm here to answer any and all questions related to my recently released book "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries
Fighting in Iraq" and today's excerpt. Many thanks for your patience. Here goes....
Philadelphia: Thank you for this piece. I'm sorry to admit that I, probably like many of us, don't know as much about the U.S. use of mercenaries as I should. I have a few questions, if you don't mind. Are we using mercenaries anywhere other than Iraq (such as Afghanistan)? Why are the rules for them different from the military? Finally, if we are going to use mercenaries to the extent we are in Iraq, why do we even have a standing army? Why not eliminate that branch entirely?
Steve Fainaru: Mercenaries are used in other conflict areas, and are widespread in Iraq. The commonly cited estimate is that the private military industry, largely because of Iraq, is worth roughly $100 billion and encompasses more than 100 countries. Of course accountability is so loose and the industry so diffuse it's difficult to get hard numbers. The primary reason they were used in Iraq was that there simply were not enough troops to cover the security requirements after the invasion.
Overseas: Thank you Steve for bringing the PSD issue with particular reference in Iraq to the public's attention. Yep...and I bought/ordered the book today!
Many of us who have served both in Iraq (2005) and Afghanistan (2003) had an opportunity or two to interact with some of the PSD people -- although, no questions or names, they all seemed very similar. That said, the question:
Who or what U.S. agency was or is directly responsible for contracting out security to support Iraqi operations?
And, lastly, what is your current "take" on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with respect to PSD's in Iraq with reference to Iraqi arrest-detainment powers over PSD personnel. How will this affect infrastructure and general freedom on movement.
Currently in Spain
Steve Fainaru: This was one of the central issues with regard to accountability. A wide range of entities -- the U.S. military, the State Department, private businesses, Iraqi politicians -- signed thousands of private security contracts in Iraq. Many were buried under layers of sub-contracts, complicating accountability further. The new SOFA supposedly will lift the legal immunity for contractors that was granted by L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the occupation government, in 2004. But it remains to be seen how it will work in practice.
San Clemente, Calif.: I've heard that some military officers think that Blackwater's uber-aggressive tactics have far less to do with security than with marketing themselves to their current and prospective clients. They're putting on a show and the Iraqis they injure, kill and traumatize are nothing more than handy props to make the limp-wristed pansies at the State Department think their lives are in critical danger every second they are in Iraq and the billions paid to Blackwater is money well spent.
Steve Fainaru: Some people certainly claimed that not only Blackwater but also other security companies developed a posture that raised the tensions and emphasized their importance to their employers. I think it's more complicated than just preening. Iraq was and is an incredibly dangerous place. Many operators acted with the intensity that one would expect in a warzone. Some were obviously over the top and acting out some kind of role they thought they were expected to play. And the State Department and others often simply deferred to the security experts.
A block from the White House: What a story! What a way to sum up the Iraq/Afganistan Wars! In a word: WOW!
I don't say this with any contempt toward Mr. President but I wonder if President Bush hears of these stories, knows of the personal sacrifice that thousands give to fight a war that he has waged. How has it ultimately affected our president?
Steve Fainaru: Thanks. I'm really not sure that the president was ever ware of the magnitude of the private security industry in Iraq, and the effect it had on day-to-day operations. There's a scene in the book in which a Georgetown grad student whose husband was run off the road by Blackwater in Baghdad asked President Bush what laws apply to private military contractors.
His response to her, literally: "Help!"
He had no idea.
Alexandria, Va.: I heard something this morning on the radio that suggested that we have more people in Iraq conducting the war who are contractors than are U.S. military. Did I hear that right? Are these support logistic people or are they fighters? Are they ever included in casualty reports?
I hope I heard wrong here. The implications are pretty serious.
Steve Fainaru: The latest figures suggest a total of 190,000 contractors in Iraq, some 30-40,000 more than conventional troops. My book focuses on the subset of private security contractors, modern mercenaries, of which there are at least 25,000 and perhaps twice that or more. The figures continue to be elusive. The government doesn't keep track of casualties unless a claim is made under the Defense Base Act, in which case casualties are reported by the Department of Labor.
Rockville, Md.: "more than a hint of condescension" could also describe your reporting of this issue, and how you write about these contractors. It's obvious that you disapprove of them; what was the point of this book, since "Shadow Company" already covered this ground?
Steve Fainaru: If that was your impression, I'm sorry, but that's not true. As I write in the book, it is difficult to disapprove of people who have acquired their skills in the armed forces, then apply those skills to get jobs that are fully sanctioned by the U.S. government, and which pay them multiple times more than they would make in the United States. If they started handing out $20,000 a month jobs for elementary school teachers in Iraq, they would have flooded into the country by the thousands.
I do have serious questions about the government outsourcing the solemn responsibility for deciding who can kill and die for the country.
Wisconsin: Thank you for the article, it was very well done.
When you spoke with men like Mr. Cote, was there much resistance to using the term "mercenary?" Do they prefer being called "security contractors," or are they generally unconcerned with semantics?
While the second term is rather sterile and almost vague, the first certainly conjures up mental images and attitudes. Thanks for the discussion forum!
Steve Fainaru: Most of the security contractors do not use the word mercenary, and many are offended by it, for exactly the reasons you suggest. I chose to use it because I think it's important to call the job what it is: these are people who are fighting the war for money. That is their primary motivation for being there. Some have argued that because they are operating in support of the US-led coalition, and not a foreign government, they do not meet the definition. My point is that the companies hire not only Americans but also hired guns from other countries that have nothing to do with the Iraq war. They work side by side. So the companies are mercenary, but some of their employees are not? To me, that's parsing it too far. And Private Security Contracting, to me, is a meaningless term. It obscures more than it describes, like collateral damage and improvised explosive device.
Virginia: No one is helping contractors who returned to the states. Many have PSTD. I hope your book can highlight this in your book tour.
Steve Fainaru: This is an enormous problem, and to me one of the most perverse aspects of the whole private security world. Many of the people who get out of the military after doing tours in Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling with post-traumatic stress, and yet there's very little screening when they want to go back. And so you have people like Jon Cote, who come back to the US unable to cope, and their strategy for dealing with it is to go back. It's not healthy for anyone.
Wheaton, Md.: Thanks for your important work. It really raises bottom line questions about what we as a society think is important enough to stand up for or what we decide we are going to send someone else to do by offering enough money.
Question: Why is it difficult to obtain information about contractors (i.e., numbers of contractors we have hired, the number of contractors who have been killed, etc.)? When these questions are asked, what are the responses?
Thanks again for your work.
Steve Fainaru: Thanks. This is a really complicated question. Part of the issue is that the industry is so vast and grew so quickly in Iraq that the US and Iraq governments have had trouble getting their arms around it. Even now. Part of it certainly, though, is that it hides the true cost of the war. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which relies on a half dozen security companies for reconstruction in Iraq, began to report casualty figures for contractors when they began to spiral in 2006. The figures were deleted by command and not included in annual reports. The perception was that they reflected negatively on the mission.
Rome, N.Y.: What does the SOFA mean for private contractors in Iraq? Will they be drawn down along with the uniformed troops? Will they face trial in Iraqi courts if charged with criminal behavior?
Steve Fainaru: This is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out. The head of the private security lobbying group, the International Peace Operations Association, recently said the US threw the security contractors under the bus with this agreement, which among other things lifts the legal immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
As a matter of reality, however, I find it difficult to believe that a security company would turn itself over to a Iraqi security forces on a question of criminality. There is too much ingrained suspicion on both sides. We're going to have to see what the lifting of the immunity really means.
Moab, Utah: Your excerpt in today's Post gives one person's view. Does your book address the overall effect that these guys are having on the war? (Any statistics to back it up?) In a nutshell, what kind of effect are they having?
Steve Fainaru: Part of the book revolves around Jon Cote, and his experience with Crescent Security, as well as the four colleagues who were kidnapped with him. Each had his own story. Part of the book revolves around the explosion of private security generally in Iraq, and involves other contractors, leading up to Blackwater's massacre of 17 people at a Baghdad traffic circle in Sept. 2007.
One of the main goals of the book was to describe who these people are, and the complicated reasons why they went to Iraq.
Washington, D.C.: I think you'd perform a public service if you noted that, as of 30 June 2008, more than 1,350 civilian contractor personnel had died in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of U.S. military and political operations. Another 29,000 contractors have been injured; more than 8,300 seriously. During 2007, some 353 contractors died in Iraq, compared with 901 U.S. military personnel. Were the U.S. military less dependent upon contractors, many of these fatalities would have been service members.
If you'd like support for any of this, see the recent article in Parameters, the Army War College Journal, entitled "Why Contractor Fatalities Matter." It tries to make the simple point that In a representative democracy, public awareness of the human cost of our nation's security and foreign policies is critical.
As I noted in my online comment, thanks for bringing attention to this critical issue. Best wishes,
Prof Steve Schooner, George Washington University Law School - I'm co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program here (and I'm former Army officer and a White House policy guy).
washingtonpost.com: Why Contractor Fatalities Matter (Parameters, Autumn 200 )
Steve Fainaru: Thank you for noting this. And of course you're exactly right: the people who are paying the price are taking the place of soldiers and Marines who didn't have to go in harm's way.
One thing I would say about the numbers: I think they're wildly inexact, like everything about this world. Everything we know about contractor casualties comes through the Department of Labor under the Defense Base Act, but there are many, many companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan that do not have DBA insurance. Crescent Security -- Jon Cote's company -- was one of those. With the levels of violence we've seen, I think the numbers are much higher.
Vienna, Va.: Steve, Thanks for the insightful article. How do the regular military soldiers view these contractors? Do they resent them, appreciate them, loathe them, etc.?
Steve Fainaru: I've always felt that the military regarded the mercenaries/security contractors with a mixture of resentment, curiosity and awe. Resentment of course because of the money and many of the incidents that have tarnished the U.S. mission, but awe as well because of not only the money they made but the freedom they enjoy. Of course most of the people who do these jobs come out of the military. It's a mixed bag, for sure.
Rochester, N.Y.: Why have most others in the media ignored the issue of the outsourcing of our military?
Steve Fainaru: It's interesting, because I had covered the U.S. military for 14 months before I started writing about the security industry in Iraq. And I was stunned by its hugeness; everyone knows Blackwater, but we're talking about hundreds of companies. I think for a long time people were unaware of how massive it was, and the enormous significance that these people played on the battlefield.
That said, the media is strapped for resources, too. And many outlets don't have the time or money to examine these issues in depth. My editors made a conscious decision to cut me loose to work on this for a year. That's a luxury that many media outlets don't have.
Follow-Up: Do the number of mercenaries fluctuate to more or less hide the actual need of troops? We know that we had a surge which is supposedly ending. But, did it really end (meaning things have genuinely calmed down) or are we simply replacing U.S. military with mercenaries (suggesting that things remain more dangerous than is being acknowledged)
Steve Fainaru: This is a really good question, and the answer is we don't know yet. The military and the mercenaries surged at the same time last year, ramping up with personnel and more armor. If the US begins to draw down, some people believe this will be a watershed event for the private security firms, freeing up more jobs for them to do in Iraq, as long as the security environment remains tenuous. One official told me last year: "It's just gonna get better and better."
San Clemente, Calif.: Regardless of what led the Crescent Security contractors to become entangled in Iraq, it was sad to see them treated like so much trash to be disposed of by the U.S. government.
Still, the tens of thousands of Filipinos, Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis, Fijians, etc. who make up the bulk of U.S. private forces in Iraq would probable give a lot to be elevated in the eyes of their American overlords to even that level of concern.
Steve Fainaru: One of the more mind-blowing aspects of this business model,to me, is the use of so-called Third World labor to fill out security teams. People from these countries doing exactly the same dangerous work are often paid ten times less than their American or British counterparts.
Virginia: President-elect Obama mentioned he appreciated Blackwater's bodyguards who protected him when he was in Afghanistan last summer. Why do so many liberal Democrats hate contractors?
Steve Fainaru: I'm not sure this is the case, but I think many people have been offended by the impunity that was granted to these companies to operate in Iraq. They were above the law.
Rochester, N.Y.: Mr. Fainaru:
Wonderful article on Mr. Cote.
1. Are you aware of any American mercenaries/employees of Private Military Companies who may have joined the French Foreign Legion? If so, how many? If few have joined the Legion, why do you suppose that is? It seems as if money may be a secondary motivator in many cases.)
2. I always thought the U.S. outlawed the use of mercenaries by the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 (5 USC 3108), as affirmed in 1977 by US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. How is this law circumvented.
Thank you and best wishes.
washingtonpost.com: Soldier of Misfortune (Post, Dec. 1)
Steve Fainaru: I don't know the answer to the first part of your question, but it has been argued that the use of private security contractors in Iraq is a violation of the anti-Pinkerton Act. Appeals to U.S. authorities on those grounds have been rejected.
Fort Bragg, N.C.: I disagree with the phrasing "...the people who are paying the price are taking the place of soldiers and Marines who didn't have to go in harm's way."
The soldiers and Marines do go in harm's way; just different "harms." A simple fact is that we've privatized some of the peripherals of warfighting, allowing the private, for-profit sector to share in the Defense "pie." This administration is a believer in smaller "official" government; that the private sector is doing government work is, somewhat, incidental to real government operations.
Steve Fainaru: Thanks for your comment. I disagree, though. Private security contractors/mercenaries were used to protect some American generals in Iraq, the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats, the movement of all material related to Iraq's reconstruction. It's all incredibly dangerous work and not what I would regard as peripheral.
Los Angeles, Calif.: How did Cote find the lead to get the job? It struck me that his mother worked for the DEA. Also, it was quite a bit of pull to get the DEA to send an agent out, right?
Steve Fainaru: He got the job through an army buddy, who recruited him. And, no, it's no small thing to get the DEA mobilized on a kidnapping mission. Quite extraordinary, actually.
Savannah, Ga.: I resent most of the questions, and your apparent tone, regarding these guys. It is obvious that 99.9 percent of the people griping have ZERO experience with PSD's. I spent nine months in Iraq, riding almost daily with them. Until you have been out on your own, with any help at least an hour away, don't make any comments about what they do or do not do.
Having said that, let me make some comments about problems with PSD's. The military has problems because one, they take the best and brightest soldiers and pay them way more money and give them way better conditions, and two, they are operating beyond military control. That can be a bad thing, but their operation centers are supposed to clear missions with the military to ensure that they don't bring a convoy of civilians into a hot zone.
Are some of them too aggressive? I don't know. I worked in the south, and some of my PSD's felt that Blackwater and the other companies up north brought a lot of stuff on themselves. However, I wasn't in Baghdad, but the security situation was a lot worse there, so maybe some of the things they did are justified.
I could go a lot further into detail but this is long enough already...I just wanted for you to have the perspective of someone who actually used these services.
Steve Fainaru: Thanks for your comment. I think I was around enough companies and operators to get a pretty good understanding for what they do, and how that relates to the military, which I covered for 14 months. What I think is problematic is the lack of accountability you refer to: you have a wide range of companies and people; some are squared away, some have no business being anywhere near Iraq. And the military generally had no idea what they were doing, despite attempts to deconflict.
Philadelphia, Pa.: These mercenaries have been used for the last 16 years by the last two administrations (although less by the Clinton administration). What will President Obama do about this situation? Have mercenaries become so integral to the job that the U.S. can't do without them?
Steve Fainaru: This will be very interesting to see. Obama as a senator was outspoken about the need to regulate the industry, but he's stopped short of calling for an outright ban. I think he's in a bind, frankly. If you pulled the security companies out of Iraq unilaterally right now, the mission would implode.
Many thanks for the fantastic questions. Sorry I didn't get to all of them.
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