Hiring gun slingers to fight our wars

It is difficult to believe that trying to return a two-bit country like Iraq to some sort of normalcy would so deplete this nation’s military and civilian security capabilities that it would have to rely on private gun slingers in a war zone. How can that be and how in the world did we get in this situation?

Everyone thinks he has a simple answer to those two questions when, in fact, the current dilemma was brought on by a complex series of colossal missteps based on erroneous suppositions and exacerbated by stubborn, politically motivated amateurs who refused to see the early warning signs or listen to those trying to point them out. The generals who appeared before Congress recently brought the bad news that the military’s current force size and readiness is stretched as thin as it has been almost since the Korean War when reserve and National Guard troops had to carry the brunt of the early fighting.

But that really comes as no surprise having been the object of considerable debate almost since the beginning of the Iraq invasion, when old line generals including then Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, openly worried about it and stated bluntly to their own detriment that calming Iraq after the invasion would take a standing force of from 250,000 to 300,000 troops. So long, Shinseki.

What most Americans didn’t realize, however, was how much the relatively small military occupation numbers would force the vast array of civilian contractors and government agencies to depend on outside hired guns to protect their employees and their interests in that dangerous land. For instance while the State Department has its own elite, highly trained Diplomatic Security Service, the number of agents available for assignment in Iraq is far below what is needed. It would be much less expensive to hire a private security firm than to permanently increase the size of its own force. Some day things may settle down in Iraq, after all.

So Blackwater USA and other contractors like it have been carrying the civilian security load at increasingly greater expense, both financially and politically. Blackwater has been paid $1 billion so far. In the latest of a series of questionable actions, the mercenaries from Blackwater managed to kill a passel of Iraqi civilians in a pretty fierce gun battle that has not only been embarrassing to the White House and the State Department but also raised the ire of the Iraqi government, which has demanded they be banned. There have been so many conflicting accounts about who fired first or who didn’t fire at all that what actually occurred may never be unraveled, especially since the FBI has been called in.

“The State Department has been using outside contractors for various jobs forever,” a former Diplomatic Security officer told me recently. “There is nothing wrong with it in most cases. The one thing that should be avoided is using them when guns are involved. But there was no choice.”

Whatever the outcome of two investigations into Blackwater’s actions, the use of these contractors isn’t likely to abate soon. They have been accused in the past of being too quick on the trigger and that seems to be borne out by new reports of earlier incidents involving Blackwater employees and civilian deaths. Their continued presence is just another problem for George W. Bush’s White House and whoever inherits it a year from now. But necessity may keep Blackwater’s men and those of other contractors involved for some time.

The United States is building one of the largest embassy complexes in the world in Baghdad, acres of buildings all fortified for the future. Unless Diplomatic Security beefs up and already overtaxed Marines agree to do the same with their embassy contingents, there is going to be a long -term need for private security forces. Also, the work of American contractors to rebuild the infrastructure from the oil fields to the water and sewage and electric plants will continue to rely on these guards.

This is just another dilemma in the continuing saga of Iraq and the efforts to draw down troops and extricate the nation militarily from the swamp. How long will that take? It is interesting to note that the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination who are among the loudest in disagreement with Iraq policy refuse to say that there will be an instantaneous withdrawal or to even predict a timetable for it.

Maybe we should just pull out all the troops and leave it to Blackwater et al. It might be far less expensive.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)


  1. Electric Bill

    Private armies and mercenaries have lots of dandy uses for dictators, like using them against your own people. The only problem with mercs is they work for the highest bidder. Someone with deeper pockets can always outbid you.

  2. adamrussell

    Seems to me that if we paid our military men half of what we pay blackwater then we would not have a shortage of volunteers.

  3. SEAL

    The guys I know were offered $150,000 for a 10 month tour in Iraq and $125,000 for Afghanistan by private agencies. Plus all transportation and expenses paid. The agencies furnish everything needed for the job and it is first class stuff. Go to Iraq for 10 months and come home with 150K in your pocket. In 3.5 years of the war, that computes to $525,000 PER MAN the private companies are paying out and charging back to us. Over a half million dollars for a security guard for 3.5 years!

    The assertion by the administration that it is cheaper to hire private security is absurd. They have paid Blackwater one billion for what? The war is three and one half years, so far. How much do you figure it would cost for the same number of regular army troops for that length of time? The average annual salary for a PFC is what, now? About $13,000? There is no way in hell it would cost a billion dollars to do the same job Blackwater has done for the same period of time with regular army and marine troops.

  4. ekaton

    I agree with everything you just said SEAL. The problem is that not enough troops can be recruited at the current salary to cover current needs, and Bush doesn’t dare try and reimpliment the draft as that would finally wake up the sleeping American public, especially the spoiled brat college students. Perhaps if military pay was doubled that would make a difference. But I don’t think the public would stand for that either. Better to just let the masses sleep and pay the mercs $150K for ten months.

    — Kent Shaw

  5. SEAL

    They can’t double the salaries for the military. We have over half a million troops world wide. Imagine what that would cost? The only way they have to entice is by signing bonuses. They already give a $10-20,000 bonus to new recruits.

    The way Iraq is acting right now, with the latest incident of private security killing another two innocent women yesterday to fuel their anger, the US may have no choice but to make some drastic reductions of private security guards. This latest killing by private security (not Blackwater) is blatantly unwarranted with a ton of witnesses.

    Iraq is now demanding that the guards responsible for killing innocents be turned over to them for justice and they are investigating about 25 other killings. They point out that the original immunity “they” gave expired back in 2003 or 4 (I forget which) and that Bremer had no authority to grant immunity from Iraq justice after that. They are correct. The Iraq government was officially in place at that time, therefore, Bremer could not set policy for them about justice.

    So, Bush has a real problem if Iraq stands their ground. Let’s hope their congress has more balls than our congress. Under Iraq justice those private guards would be facing the death penalty.

  6. douin

    When you take into account what these mercenaries have cost us in bad publicity, added to what Bush and Cheney have already done, there is not enough money to buy us out of this mess.
    Dictators have lots of dandy uses for mercenaries and private armies … like using them against our own people. Who wants to bet that is exactly what Bush has in mind ? After all, he has already had them practice in New Orleans after Katrina without any uproar made.
    Am I equating Bush with a dictator ? If the shoe fits, wear it. It certainly would not be safe to take your eyes off him…not for a second. Him nor Cheney.