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Sunday, August 14, 2005

The condottieri of Iraq

New mercenaries for Iraq

The Other Army

Fourteen armed security men, traveling in a convoy through Fallujah in May, were detained by U.S. Marines, the first and only time, it appears, that the military has made such a detention. A Marine memo, quoted in The Washington Post, accused the men, who worked for a company called Zapata Engineering, of ''repeatedly firing weapons at civilians and marines, erratic driving and possession of illegal weapons'' -- six anti-tank weapons, the Zapata men later explained, kept for defense and condoned, they claimed, by the U.S. military. The security men (eight of them former marines) said they had fired only typical warning shots at civilians. They insisted that their bullets had never struck close to any servicemen. They suggested that their detention -- which lasted three days before they were released, without charges so far -- was driven by jealousy over their pay. They told of being roughed up and taunted, of being asked, ''How does it feel to be a rich contractor now?''

This kind of resentment may be deepening. What Matt Mann called a ''national asset'' may be corrosive. And the private security companies are, almost surely, eroding elite sectors of the military; the best-qualified troops, the men most desirable to the companies, are lured by private salaries that can be well more than twice their own. The Special Forces have lately responded with re-enlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. It's not enough. One Triple Canopy man in his mid-30's, with about 15 years of Special Operations experience, told me that his commander had begged him to stay in the service. ''But there was no way,'' he said. ''Here I get to be with the best and make so much more money.'' Triple Canopy, Mann had said to me, has a policy of never recruiting directly from the military. But when this man quit the Army, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. And plenty of his old friends from ''the unit'' -- a Delta soldier's oblique way of referring to his exclusive caste -- were poised to follow.

There may be a danger that something else could erode eventually, if there is a drift toward using more private gunmen -- in yet more military ways -- to compensate for the inevitable reduction of troops in Iraq or to wage other wars. There may be the loss of a particular understanding, a sense of ourselves as a society, that we hold almost sacred. Soldiering for profit was taken for granted for thousands of years, but the United States has thrived in an age when soldiering for the state -- serving your country -- has taken on an exalted status. We often question the reasons for making war, but we tend to revere the soldiers who are sent off to fight. We honor their sacrifice, we raise it up and in it we see the value of our society reflected back to us. In it we feel our special worth. We may not know what to think of ourselves if service and sacrifice are increasingly mixed with the wish for profit. We may know less and less how to feel about a state that is no longer defended by men and women we can perceive as pure.

But that is an abstract and perhaps a distant worry. To wonder what will happen when the private work in Iraq finally winds down is a more concrete concern. What will happen to these companies, these men, without these thousands of jobs? Some will get contracts protecting U.S. departments and agencies around the world. Some will do the same for other governments. Doug Brooks, whose Washington industry organization, the International Peace Operations Association, represents several of the largest firms, says he believes the United Nations will soon hire the companies to guard refugee camps in war zones. But some of the firms and some of the men will no doubt be offered work by dictators or terrible insurgencies -- or by the kind of oil speculators who reportedly backed a recent mercenary-led coup plot in Equatorial Guinea (a plot involving former members of Executive Outcomes), in an attempt to install a ruler to facilitate their enterprise. And with so many newly created private soldiers unemployed when the market of Iraq finally crashes, aren't some of them likely to accept such jobs -- the work of mercenaries in the chaotic territories of the earth?

Are we creating freebooting armies, ready to kill for a dollar? Or is this extreme war, a sport for 40-something fomer operators, now with no rules and plenty of ammo, lawless men in a lawless time. When do they start to switch sides to the highest bidder, like condottieri did? Looking for quick cash, will they join Sadr in his drive to seize power? We could have Western mercenaries fuelling a future Iraqi civil war, paid off with stolen aid money.

When mercenaries fight, they do so without the protection of law or custom. And this nonsense about them being "private security companies" is just that, nonsense. Armed men who fight a war for money are mercenaries. Anything else is just nonsense.

posted by Steve @ 10:59:00 AM

10:59:00 AM

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