Soldier of Misfortune
Fighting a Parallel War in Iraq, Private Contractors Are Officially Invisible -- Even in Death
Monday, December 1, 2008
Adapted from "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq" (Da Capo Press, 2008)
As US Airways Flight 1860 eased into Gate 4 at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the pilot's voice came over the intercom: "Can I please have your attention? We are carrying with us tonight the remains of a fallen American in Iraq. Please remain seated for the movement of the remains and for the American escorts to deplane."
The cabin fell silent. No one moved as the two men seated in the first row rose to gather their belongings. They were the white-gloved master sergeant who had accompanied Jonathon Coté's body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the American drug enforcement agent who, after a 16-month search, had recovered the headless corpse in southern Iraq.
The two men were led down to the tarmac, and the master sergeant climbed up into the belly of the plane. He draped an American flag over the silver casket and made sure that Coté's body was placed feet-first on the conveyor belt.
There was a light drizzle, the temperature at 40 degrees. A bitter wind blew off Lake Erie, snapping a half-dozen flags held by members of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York, a biker group that supports the families of fallen Americans. Police flashers and a Buffalo TV crew's equipment threw light and shadows over the plane. From the ground you could see the passengers, still frozen in their seats in the lighted cabin, and the baggage handlers, waiting off to the side in fluorescent orange vests and knitted caps.
I stood with Jon's family beneath the wing, buffeted by the freezing wind. Five men and one woman from New York's 107th Air National Guard lifted the casket from the belt and slowly marched it across the tarmac to an idling hearse.
Anyone watching might have thought they were witnessing the somber homecoming of an American hero killed in Iraq. That was technically true: Jonathon Coté had fought in the U.S. Army. He was killed in Iraq.
But it was far more complicated than that.
The Money and the Life
I covered the war in Iraq from the fall of 2004 through 2007, and the story that, to me, captured its essence turned out to be about a mercenary.
This was a war with its own original sin: the Bush administration's failure to provide enough troops. To make up the shortfall, the government chose to outsource responsibility for deciding who can kill and die for the United States to 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.
It was, in many respects, a parallel war, one that ultimately came to define the darkest aspects of the entire Iraq conflict. Under the shadow of officially sanctioned impunity, the mercenaries killed Iraqis, and Iraqis killed them. Only after employees of Blackwater Worldwide -- one of hundreds of private security firms in Iraq -- massacred 17 people at a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007 did the magnitude of this private war become apparent. By then, going on five years into the conflict, the U.S. war effort could not have been maintained without mercenaries.