One Difference Between Iraq and Vietnam

(Or) I've Looked at Blackwater From Both Sides Now

One of the most arresting aspects of the war in Iraq is the chance it gives us to watch the conversion of war into a corporate activity. With military contractors in Iraq outnumbering even the British contingent, the importance of military contractors can only rise one more notch.

The advantages of an “off-the-shelf, self-sustaining, stand-alone entity” are obvious: although we can't claim we were unaware of their actions, the claims fall mainly on their employers rather than the government. Thus we can mourn their deaths without counting them as military losses; the insurance and compensation issues will be handled by the marketplace. And the corporations provide the equipment.

Private occupying commandos? Corporate military helicopters in a battlefield situation? An integrated occupation private intelligence network?

Isn't this just obviously a horrible idea?

Seems to me.

Here's one of the obvious differences between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq: in Vietnam, everything was official government action, without even a veneer of deniability. But now, as Mokhiber and Weissman say, “Contractors are complicating traditional norms of military command and control”: they can, for example, leave if they decide things are too dangerous. And there are issues with the dispensation of justice as well:

It is unclear exactly what law applies to the contractors, explains Peter W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors (Cornell University Press, 2003) and a leading authority on private military contracting. They do not fall under international law on mercenaries, which is defined narrowly. Nor does the national law of the United States clearly apply to the contractors in Iraq -- especially because many of the contractors are not Americans.

These days everyone has heard of Blackwater U.S.A., a pricey but well-regarded corporation that, among other things:

  • Provides the security for the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer
  • Employed the four contractors who were ambushed and killed in Fallujah and their bodies mutilated
  • Employs the eight commandos who recently repelled an attack on US government headquarters in Najaf

It may be true that corporate commandos tend to be better qualified than “regular army” because they have more experience. But it's also true that they are much more expensive—some Blackwater employees are apparently paid a thousand dollars a day.

But perhaps most important, at least the way I see it, is the fact that the President can send more corporate commandos to Iraq at will. If all the talk about an upcoming draft doesn't provoke heavy voting among young men, perhaps the draft itself will; but hopefully it won't come to that. Regardless of the outcome of the election, though, all the predictions seem to favor a continuing increase in the number of private contractors undertaking combat tasks.

This arrangement allows both the corporations and the US government to avoid accountability. This is not a good thing.

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