The first time I ever heard of leftist blogger Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas, was in 2004, when he figuratively joined in the Fallujah mob that was literally dancing in the street under the charred bodies of four American contractors hanging from a bridge. "Screw them," he infamously wrote – though the post later vanished from his weblog.
At the time, many people bought into the stereotype of security contractors in Iraq – they were paid incredible salaries to do things off the books for the military because they were able to follow less restrictive Rules of Engagement. I had no particular problem with that and assumed that each dead man had done more for his country every day before breakfast than Moulitsas would do in his whole life.
I still stand by that last sentiment. But as retired Green Beret Col. Gerald Schumacher terrific new book, A Bloody Business: America's War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq, reveals, all the rest of it is wrong – as is nearly everything reported about the contractors working for the U.S. government in Iraq.
While the idea of privatizing certain military functions may seem like some kind of Cato Institute dreamland, we've had similar arguments before.
Abolishing the draft was a scary notion to conventionally minded hawks in the 1970s, and the tenor of the current argument over war zone contracting is reminiscent of that past controversy. Check out this portion of the famous debate between economist Milton Friedman and Gen. William Westmoreland over the idea of an all-volunteer army.
At one point, Friedman challenged Westmoreland, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?"
Westmoreland, never the most adept of debaters, retorted defensively, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves."
Prepared for this, Friedman: then replied, "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."
In A Bloody Business, Schumacher makes a persuasive case that not only do most contractors sign up for combat duty for patriotic reasons but that, in a complex world with ever more far-flung and diverse needs for U.S. military presence, the flexibility of the contractors makes them a force multiplier that today's Pentagon could not live without unless we at least double the size of our military.
While some who share the Westmoreland point of view might still argue that abolishing the draft was the first step in creating a Hessian-like force, Schumacher looks at the practical applications of this persnickety point of view. The U.S. used PMCs to help stop the Serbs' attempted genocide of Croats in Croatia, he writes, and thousands of lives in Sierra Leone were saved when PMCs hired by business interests helped restore order.
Schumacher demolishes the major myths that surround war zone contractors one by one, not just by relaying the statistics but with on-the-ground stories that provide a unique look at the war in Iraq:
Myth 1: The surviving Westmoreland notion that contractors are highly paid mercenaries. While the media focuses on the top-paid positions – such as what an ex-Delta Force member would be worth to a security company – Schumacher writes that most contractors make only slightly more than they would in the military or civilian life. In the case of a U.S. military non-com, he shows that the job security and benefits are a far better incentive to stay in government employ, but working as a contractor is a good deal for military retirees who want the flexibility to return to civilian life at their own option. As one truck driver put it, "I make about the same as I would at home working overtime – there is just always overtime here."
Myth 2: Contractors operate under relaxed Rules of Engagement. This is the biggest lie put out by the media. Security contractors do not have the benefit of the doubt granted military members in combat situations, and most other contractors are required to be unarmed in their jobs, regardless of the danger. Among the most harrowing chapters in the book is a ride-along with civilian trucking contractors making the mail run for the troops. They run a gauntlet that makes the Pony Express look like easy duty – but Buffalo Bill Cody wasn't required to ride through Indian Country unarmed. (Many, though, carry at least a sidearm acquired in Iraq's thriving black market for weapons.)
Myth 3: PMCs are a talent drain on the force. While this complaint has been around since the first Air Force pilot quit to fly the friendly skies of United for a far more lucrative salary, it's especially untrue in this case. By providing specialized skills, training, and security for civilians, PMCs are a force multiplier. The publicized cases of the officer who quits for the big salary of a PMC are the exception, not the rule.
Myth 4: Contractors are out of control. Schumacher points out that while the protocol needs work, PMCs – as opposed to true mercenaries – have more constraints, and their continued existence depends on pleasing their biggest client, the U.S. government. Instances of conflict are few and far between, generally caused by the fog of war, and it usually is the PMCs who pay the price in blood for being restrained.
A Bloody Business is not a dry position paper. Schumacher illustrates his points through real people, such as a truck driver who was turned down by the military because of his age. He decides the best way to serve his country is to practice his trade in Iraq, and we drive the gauntlet with him. We also see the pride of a female cop who finds her niche in life by training police forces in places from Bosnia to Iraq in how to protect their populations, rather than oppress them. And we accompany a team from an unnamed security contractor as it tries to recover some kidnapped truck drivers by either bribery or force.
One interesting note: When I reviewed Caspar Weinberger's last book Home of the Brave, one of the stories was about Lee Ann Hester, the first woman to be awarded a Silver Star for combat actions. She was trained by contractors profiled in this book, who take great pride in the fact that she executed a specific maneuver they prepared her for.
It will also be interesting to see how Democrats on congressional committees handle the issue of PMCs. Halliburton is one of the Left's favorite whipping boys, and leftists ran with the "hired mercenary" ball for a brief time after the Fallujah incident, then curiously dropped it. Ironically, those who are most likely to object to PMCs are also the least likely to want to provide the massive Defense Department increases it would take to make up for their absence.
Schumacher reminds us that contractors in war zones suffer casualties at a similar rate to the military but usually don't receive the honor of their countrymen. Their deaths are more likely to get a milder version of the DailyKos reaction than a parade down Main Street.
These deaths should not be shrugged off with a mere, "That's the risk they take." At least not by anyone who cares about winning the war against Islamofascism. When you get the chance, honor these heroes, too.