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Who Are the Contractors in Iraq?
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Public anger is still smoldering in Iraq over the deaths of eight civilians Sunday, which the Iraqi government blames on the private U.S. security company Blackwater USA. Since that incident, the Iraqi government has ordered all Blackwater personnel out of the country and the U.S. Embassy warden has issued a message to essentially ground all U.S. civilian government employees throughout Iraq.
Filmmaker Nick Bicani said these private military companies are necessary for the U.S. military to fill security demands in Iraq, but they can provide a questionable role without clear accountability for their actions. The following is a transcript of Bicani’s take on the film, which ran on the “World News” webcast.
“Shadow Company” is a documentary about the modern world of private warfare, the phenomenon of modern-day mercenaries. Who are these guys? What do they do? And why?
I would estimate there are aspects of private armed corporations in every country in the world. What’s unique about Iraq is that private military companies are used alongside soldiers in a fairly major way … But there are now over 100,000 members of private military corporations in Iraq, almost the same number as the troops. That’s a huge part of the war effort in the private sector.
I had this stereotyped idea when I started that it’s modern-day mercenaries, so it’s this stereotyped idea of guys with knives between their teeth who plan overthrows of foreign governments, but that’s not the case. The majority of people I met who are security contractors and operate in very high-risk areas like Afghanistan and Iraq are guys with 10-15 years of experience in the highest echelons of the military. Often special forces or SEALS. A lot of these guys, after spending a number of years in the military, are often looking for somewhere else they can use their skills in the private sector.
So in the early days of Iraq, they didn’t have enough soldiers to do the tasks that soldiers usually do. So the solution was to say that every company involved in the reconstruction contracts has to hire private security.
Immediately, 20 percent of every reconstruction contract went into the private military companies. So a lot of companies got very rich, very fast. And the only reason this job existed in Iraq was because the U.S. military went in to try and perform a task in a dangerous environment without any solid plan.
How They Are Used, and When They’re Allowed to Shoot
Private military companies provide a number of different tasks. It’s tempting to assume that a guy walking around with a weapon on his shoulder protecting an individual is the only thing a contractor does. Contractors do many soft tasks.
They provide cooks or drivers or people push boxes around from point A to point B. There’s a small number that do armed security contracting. They’re armed civilians in a conflict zone that look like soldiers and behave like soldiers and use their guns on a daily basis. “Shadow Company” focuses on the armed security contractors because they’re the most fascinating part.
The basic roles of a private security contractor are that they protect individuals, locations and convoys on the move. They have clear rules of engagement. They’re used in a defensive way.
If they’re attacked, they’re allowed to shoot back. But they’re allowed to shoot back in order to get away from the area and keep their client or their object or the convoy they’re protecting alive.
A soldier has different responsibilities because if a platoon of American infantry is fired upon, they might seek and destroy the enemy firing at them. A private security company is allowed to do that and they aren’t officially involved in missions where they have to do that.
They might behave in a similar way, but the traditional difference is that private security companies operate in a defensive fashion, whereas military operates in both offensive and defensive fashions.
Private Security vs. the Military
You can imagine the conversation in the cafeteria. A soldier goes, “This dude is making five times as much as me and risking his life in the same way I am, what gives? Why am I not getting paid more?”
For every person who says something like that, you have another person who thinks, “My tour is about to end, maybe I’ll go work for a private security company.” So there’s a revolving door both at the higher levels of D.C. within the private security companies, but also on the ground with guys thinking this is an alternative, maybe when I get home from the tour this is something I can do to provide for my military.
It’s a love-hate relationship between the U.S. military and private security companies.
Policing the Private Contractors
One of the most surprising facts we discovered was in the early stages of making “Shadow Company” when we discovered local laws in Iraq do not apply to private military companies.
They don’t operate in a lawless environment because anybody in this environment is bound by certain international laws.
In the early stages of the use of private security companies in Iraq, by U.S. decree, no private security contractor who operated in Iraq could be prosecuted under local Iraqi law. It’s an interesting problem because it was a necessity to do this in order to allow them to operate freely.
It creates a massive accountability and transparency problem.…You might not deliberately run over or kill someone when you’re traveling at high speeds, protecting yourself from suicide bombers; however, if you do, you’ll get away scot-free. Because the private security companies will fire said individual who transgressed, they’re shipped off to the U.S., an investigation, if it even does happen, it’s superficial and nothing gets discovered.
The overwhelming majority of people who work for private military companies, because they are career veteran soldiers, the loyalty and honor, all the things that are drummed into them overnight don’t disappear.
But the fact that some of them could loot and potentially get away with it because a loophole in the system exists, was something that fascinated me. It’s something that unfortunately the U.S. government created and is now slowly trying to get out of.
A lot of things about Iraq would have benefited on a much higher level from more accountability and transparency. It’ll be interesting to see how the next year takes place as far as pulling the troops out, how quickly and whether or not it happens, especially vis-a-vis the private security companies.
It’s tempting to think, oh, our boys will be home by 2008, but who will fill the gap in the meantime?
The slack will be taken up by the private sector if the troops numbers start to decrease. A lot of people on the Democratic side of the government perhaps might not realize that this might take place. It’s something that a lot of American people know very little about, which was one of the reasons why we made this movie.
Filmmaker Nick Bicani produced the documentary “Shadow Tour.”