Military for Hire
Claremont Port Side (2008-02-04) Karthik Reddy
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By Karthik Reddy
February 04, 2008
The Bush administration has responded to America’s new military commitments by relying heavily on mercenaries. These private security contractors do everything from protecting diplomats to vehicle maintenance to laundry services. Their defenders argue that the companies perform a great public service and are indispensable to the success of the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a time when military resources are spread thin, they argue, these firms provide well-trained security professionals. Blackwater Worldwide, one of the world’s largest private military companies, assisted with security and relief efforts following the Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and provided displaced Californian families with food, supplies, and temporary shelter after last year’s devastating wildfires.
Despite this seemingly rosy portrait of private military companies (PMCs), they should not be a permanent solution. Blackwater, for example, has performed a substantial amount of work for the government since the beginning of the War on Terror and has received more than one billion dollars in government contracts. A 2007 congressional investigation of the company’s activities, however, determined that Blackwater’s troops had fired first in 163 out of 195 skirmishes that involved Iraqi casualties. The investigation was itself spurred by the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians, which occurred in September of 2007 when Blackwater employees opened unprovoked fire in a Baghdad square. The same investigation revealed that a 2004 plane crash, which killed American military personnel, occurred because the pilots, who were Blackwater employees, were not properly trained and failed to follow procedure. It was recently revealed that in 2005, Blackwater helicopters dropped tear gas on a peaceful Iraqi street, temporarily incapacitating American soldiers on the ground. Blackwater’s record has raised questions as to whether or not employees of private military companies are trained to follow the same standards and rules of engagement that govern conventional military operations.
Furthermore, Blackwater employees do not face the same accountability for their actions as do American soldiers. On Christmas Eve of 2006, a drunken Blackwater employee murdered a security guard for the Iraqi vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi. Blackwater whisked the employee out of Iraq, and he has faced no criminal charges. There is chaos surrounding the legal status of PMCs and their employees. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 allows for the prosecution of security contractors for crimes that occurred abroad if they are working for the military. Blackwater, however, is technically employed by the State Department and, is not directly working for the military. In 2006, Congress placed security contractors under the military court-martial system, but the system has not yet been tested because the Department of Defense has not prosecuted any private military companies. Under Iraqi law, private security companies have enjoyed immunity from prosecution since Paul Bremer issued Order 17 when the Coalition Provisional Authority governed the country. The result is that companies such as Blackwater fall into a legal void that allows them to evade prosecution. According to the New York Times, the Bush administration is even trying to obtain a clearer guaranteed immunity for contractors in Iraq.
Private security contractors are, in the short run, vital to the success of our ongoing military operations in the Middle East. They perform an important service for our military and diplomatic personnel, and it would be unwise to revoke the licenses of private security contractors to operate in the Middle East. But the growth of PMCs represents a disturbing trend of dubious responsibility. Our government must avoid using them as a long-term solution. We cannot trust the private sector to hold personnel to the same standards that our military follows nor expect that mercenaries, many of whom are foreigners, will be as committed to our missions as American soldiers. We should strengthen our military, improve our Diplomatic Security Service, and ensure that our aid agencies are well equipped to deal with domestic disasters. By doing this, we can decrease our dependence on private military companies and halt the privatization of the military. The growing reliance on companies such as Blackwater is akin to a patient taking a painkiller for a broken limb; the fundamental problem must be fixed or the patient will develop an unhealthy addiction to a short-term solution. Our national security should be defended by a well-trained and well-equipped army of American soldiers, not an unregulated team of mercenaries.