Monday, February 9, 2009


How much should one care about the plight of men who sell their martial expertise to nearly illegitimate "security agencies" that have discovered, and seek to exploit, a loophole in wartime (manufactured by an invading army seeking to avoid reporting death tolls to its citizenry) and who pay the ultimate price for their individual decisions? And so what if innocent citizens are murdered----shit happens during war, right? How would it look if American soldiers died protecting the free flow of frappachino? Now, if you paid civilians to do it. . . Perhaps that is the stand Bush, Cheney, and their cohorts took: they took the money, so there was no need to care. So much about Iraq was subterfuge---the construction of facades to obscure the true nature of the conflict, as well as the pain, piss-poor planning, and punishment. Who was actually doing the fighting and was anybody really in control? How many Americans (and non-Americans) perished? Although some journalists started asking questions, only a few are now publishing their findings and observations. One such report, part memoir and investigative journalism, is award-winning reporter Steve Fainaru's Big Boy Rules. He provides an insightful, often infuriating, look into mercenary activities in Iraq. And if one doesn't understand a little of why average Iraqis have no love for Americans, just come along for the ride (or should I say, convoy duty).

Early in the war, I incredulously asked my father, a military man, why the U.S. government was employing so many private contractors (at enormous cost) to provide security, infrastructure, and a host of other roles that one would think the military should be providing for itself, at a much lower price and with proper chains of command. His reply: so that the highest number of soldiers could be placed into the field. But in the convoluted battlefield that was Iraq, everyone serving the national goal (even contractors) of invading Iraq was at risk. There were no front lines, and some of the most dangerous areas were along the supply routes, beset by nationalists, terrorists, and regular criminals.

Pretty much everyone is now aware of the enormous profits realized by Cheney's former business colleagues, as well as other companies with ties to the Bush administration, but as a result of widespread lawlessness (caused largely by extremely ill-advised decisions made by Bremer and associates) an opportunity arose for a plethora of small "security" companies, newly formed, to hire men (and women) trained in warfare and to induce them to trade their skills in order to reap almost fantastical salaries to protect individuals and (profitable) supplies that poured into Iraq. The problem was that they were given almost free rein to kill and wound with impunity, to hire individuals the services spurned because of criminal or psychological problems, to brutalize and intimidate a populace whose hearts and minds the administration claimed to be hoping to win, to develop an unfair caste system of rewards based on nationality, to simply grab the money and run. And, as is usually the case, the individuals at the bottom of the pecking order paid the highest price.

Fainaru offers more than just a critique of the mercenary world, as a large portion of his story is about his own family problems and the personal attachments he developed with some of the men he followed while they worked in Iraq. He repeatedly visited the country, traveled alongside convoys, and spent time with the operators. He queried government officials. And he witnessed or heard many sordid stories (probably only the tip of the iceberg). While clearly he admired some soldiers and mercs, especially ones who followed proper rules of engagement and acted as if Iraq was a sovereign nation, he was sharply critical of "cowboy" outfits that allowed their employees to terrorize innocent Iraqis and then cover up their misdeeds. And even though some men have recently been charged with criminal deeds in the war zone, most have escaped prosecution (and probably will never be punished).

One of the interesting aspects of Fainaru's reporting is his insights into why people went back to Iraq, beyond the obvious monetary incentive. The war had created a whole phalanx of excitement junkies, for one thing, who found life back at home far less rewarding. The capture, torture, and execution of a small group of operators (several of whom had developed friendships with the author), and the fight to uncover the truth of what happened and recover their remains, forms the backbone of the story. What Fainaru discovers is a world in which many companies were ill-equipped, badly managed, put their employees at unacceptable risk in order to reap healthy profits, ignored what little regulation the authorities offered, and basically operated by the seat of their pants. Although the military experienced problems providing adequate equipment and sometimes failed to properly police their soldiers, they had in place a system of control and chain of command that could (and often was) put into play to correct misdeeds and inefficiencies. Not so with the private contractors. One cannot excoriate every company (Fainaru properly shows that some maintained high standards of behavior), but far too many exposed their employees and the citizenry to unacceptable risks. And others allowed sociopaths loose in a lawless arena with extreme (and often illegal) firepower.

This is a troubling book. There will be those who immediately jump to the defense of private security companies, pointing out that there were only a few miscreants, but in reality there was a dangerous subculture, unfettered and unregulated. It will take a long time to sort out (if ever) many of the true stories, from all sides. But what is certain is that far too many people, on both sides, died than was necessary. And another thought kept jumping into my mind: what would Fred Burton, the author of Ghost, have thought about the privatization of security, especially for State officials?

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