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From Draft NOtices, January-March 2006

Private Soldiers and the New Age of Warfare

— Michelle Gutiérrez

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall when militaries seemingly shrank in size, many military personnel from around the globe became part of the privatized military industry (PMI). PMI has grown to operate in more than 50 nations, generating over $100 billion in revenue annually. With a growing military presence around the world, recruitment difficulties, and public policy determined by war profiteers, the U.S. has become the largest consumer of PMI of any nation. While the official number of private contractors in Iraq has been recorded at 20,000, which represents 15% of the troop strength, this figure only accounts for security contractors, those who “carry arms.” Recent estimates of all private contractors have been as high as 100,000. Clearly, private contractors are essential for operations in Iraq, and U.S. military projects are fueling this growing business.

Since the mid 1990s, PMI has been one of the fastest growing industries. Military downsizing, smaller scale conflicts, and the ideological push toward privatization have contributed to the industry’s growth. The U.S. has used private contractors in the small “peace-keeping” conflicts at the U.S.-Mexico border, to train militaries in Latin America for the “war against drugs,” and for an array of duties in Iraq, including transportation, security, construction, food service, housing, laundry, and other non-combat jobs that support military operations.

Contractors for these security and other essential services come from various countries around the world. Many security officials now working in Iraq were once trained by the United States. Another source is elite security personnel who previously worked under such notables as the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, and military officials in El Salvador. Former apartheid special forces from South Africa make up the largest number of armed security personnel in Iraq. In fact, Aegis Defense Systems, originally formed in the 1980s as Executive Outcomes by South African military elites, won a $1.8 billion contract to coordinate all other private security companies in Iraq.

Sometimes trained by the U.S. in repressive war tactics, private contractors allow the government to circumvent international law that protects civilians and enemies during war. For example, in Iraq confusion arises because private contractors are neither bound by local laws nor are they technically considered soldiers. In another case in 1998, while under contract to the U.S. military to spray toxic herbicide over fields in Bosnia (without regard to the devastating consequences on the villagers below), personnel of the U.S.-based DynCorp were caught trafficking sex slaves, but no charges were made. The advantage to the government, and the problem for everyone else, is that private firms remain unaccountable to anyone, even for the most egregious behavior. In Abu Ghraib, for example, PMIs were contracted to translate for interrogators but were later implicated in abuse, torture, execution, and rape of prisoners without facing any sanctions.

Another little-known aspect of PMI is the use of contractors from developing countries. While some individuals can make up to $1,000 a day working for a military firm, other contracted workers make much less. Coming primarily from Nepal, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, but also from Latin America, these private contractors are paid low wages and work in the most dangerous conditions, usually performing grunt work such as cooking, serving, and cleaning. While it may appear that workers from the poorest nations put themselves in harm’s way only because they are in need of money, there have been widespread reports that many of these people are intentionally misled and abused by labor brokers, who find the jobs and move laborers from base to base. Often workers are promised a non-dangerous zone to work. They take loans to pay for their travel, but in many cases their brokers then inform them that their assignments have changed and they end up in Iraq. Because they owe money, many are trapped there, becoming modern-day indentured servants.

The danger to these low-paid contracted workers is clear. Individuals doing menial labor account for one-third of the 255 contractors reported killed in Iraq since March 2003. There is little protection of these workers’ rights. The dangerous conditions have caused the governments in the Philippines and Nepal to forbid their citizens to work in Iraq, but labor brokers still get contracts through loopholes. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported that even after their government’s disapproval, there are more than 5,000 Nepalese working in Iraq.

PMI has been used by the United States since the war in Vietnam. However, its exponential growth in recent years must bring us to ask questions about the ways in which wars are being fought. Few Americans realize that the war in Iraq would not be possible without the labor of people from the Philippines, Chile, or Nepal. The “coalition forces” could not sustain the U.S. occupation without these contractors. The use of PMI demonstrates clearly that markets are more important than workers’ rights or democratic accountability for yet another U.S. neocolonial project.

Information sources: “Privatised war: the South African connection,” by Salim Vally and Andy Carno, Indymedia South Africa, March 6, 2005; Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, by Peter Singer (Cornell University Press, 2003); “Iraq's foreign laborers face exploitation, death,” by Christian Miller, Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2005; “Lawsuit over 4 slain in Fallujah is crucial; Civilian contractors in Iraq watch closely,” by Bernard Debusmann, San Diego-Union Tribune, December 27, 2005.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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