Monday, August 15, 2005
The Arsenal of Democracy
You may want to read Daniel Bergner's colorful New York Times account of private security contractors in Iraq: The Other Army. (Hat tip: DL) The account is vivid and packed with incident. The author repeatedly refers to the private security contractors as "gunmen", but he is clearly ambivalent about them, repelled by their roughness yet attracted by their ingenuity and enterprise. Describing a meeting with a Triple Canopy company "gunman", Bergner writes:
He had jowls and loose swells of flesh beneath his T-shirt. ''Don't let the package fool you,'' the ex-Delta colonel who introduced us had told me. ''He's a commando from way back.'' After a career in Special Forces, the man said, he hadn't seemed able to survive in the civilian world. Work in construction fell apart. He drank heavily. He took a job as a cashier in a convenience store -- ''till I found out I had to smile at the customers.'' He laughed ruefully at his inability to adapt. ...
And back in the Chicago suburb where I visited the company in May, in its new, sprawling offices (which Triple Canopy would soon be exchanging for a similar setup outside Washington, in order to be closer to its main source of income, the U.S. government), I heard Matt Mann talk exuberantly about ''creating a national asset.'' It would have been easy to be exuberant merely because of the profits he was taking in; it would have been easy to be downright giddy.
But his enthusiasm seemed to come, as well, from other things. He spoke about the waste of Special Operations stars, ''men whose intelligence is equal to the best attorneys, the best doctors,'' men who had survived the harshest training, who had learned to operate on their own in alien cultures, who ''don't know how to fail.'' Their talents, he said, were going unrecognized and unused when they left the military and entered civilian society.
Although Bergner likes to believe the "gunmen" are in it solely for the money he is too intelligent not to see that Mann is telling at least a partial truth: that the hardest thing for a compulsive warrior in civilian life isn't getting a job, but forgetting his sense of specialness. Part of that specialness comes from living in a world of exotic experiences, dealing in things a cashier at a convenience store would strain to understand.
A few months later, (Hendrick) was riding in a convoy, in the back seat of a pickup's cab, escorting an Army Corps of Engineers team to a spot out in the desert, where they would blow up captured munitions. Across the desolate terrain, according to Hendrick and a colleague who was present that day, a white S.U.V. appeared from behind a berm. It was on Hendrick's side, 200 yards away. Hendrick wore a black helmet, tinted goggles and a black shirt, with a kaffiyeh wrapped around his neck and taupe-colored shooting gloves. He leaned out his window clutching a belt-fed light machine gun. The distance kept closing. ''He's coming in! He's coming at us!'' he heard someone on his team call out. He thought, Idiot farmer. He had the best angle; he fired warning shots. He could see the driver dressed all in white. The distance shrank to less than 30 yards. He aimed into the wheels. ''Idiot farmer turned to No, this isn't happening in a fraction of a second,'' he said. All was instinct. He riddled the driver's door and shot into the driver's window. The S.U.V. jerked to the side -- it exploded, ''went from white to a ball of bright orange,'' so close that the blast demolished a vehicle in the convoy, though the men inside weren't hurt. The S.U.V. all but vaporized. It had been packed with explosives -- a suicide bomber. The largest trace left was a scrap of tire. A bit of the bomber's scalp clung to one of the vehicles in the convoy.
Bergner worries about Iraq precisely because it is minting men like Hendrick: "with so many newly created private soldiers unemployed when the market of Iraq finally crashes, aren't some of them likely to accept such jobs -- the work of mercenaries in the chaotic territories of the earth? ... We may know less and less how to feel about a state that is no longer defended by men and women we can perceive as pure", an ironic characterization, if ever there was one, to apply in a theater where unemployed Iraqi thugs are paid thousands of dollars by Wahabi moneymen for every American soldier they kill. The bright side is that "the United Nations will soon hire the companies to guard refugee camps in war zones" instead of the assortment of Zambians and Bangladeshis the press can always portray as pure.
An interesting companion piece to this might be entitled The Other Military-Industrial Complex. A DOD briefing on the newest technologies being deployed to Iraq include items like the MARCBOT made by the Exponent Corporation, the TACMAV folding UAV of ARA and Z-Medica's Quickclot. Numerous items are being supplied by businesses no one would have heard of. Because of the nature of the war a large number of small companies are supplying critical equipment instead of the traditional aerospace contractors. Analysts have long known that the market (e.g. AQ Khan) responds to terrorist demand. It would have been surprising if the market had remained indifferent to the multi-billion dollar US war effort. Bergner's article suggests that official deployments are simply the tip of the iceberg. The US is more deeply mobilized than is evident, its politicians more tentative than its entrepreneurs.
Some interesting reading, that. Thanks for posting it.