Subcontracting War, part II

September 3, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Erich’s comment on my post about the increasing use of contractors as warfighters reminded me of a couple of issues that I had forgotten to raise.

First, the use of these contractors also makes is easier possible for the Executive Branch to fight unpopular wars.  CNN released a poll yesterday showing that the oppostion to the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time high, and even über-conservative George Will has said it’s now “Time to get out of Afghanistan.” Imagine how much more forcefully the nation would be calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan if the draft had to be re-instated in order to continue to attempt to impose our will on Afghanistan. Jeremy Scahill reports that

According to new statistics released by the Pentagon, with Barack Obama as commander in chief, there has been a 23% increase in the number of “Private Security Contractors” working for the Department of Defense in Iraq in the second quarter of 2009 and a 29% increase in Afghanistan, which “correlates to the build up of forces” in the country….

Overall, contractors (armed and unarmed) now make up approximately 50% of  the “total force in Centcom AOR [Area of Responsibility].” This means there are a whopping 242,657 contractors working on these two US wars.

Chuck Hagel, Vietnam veteran and former Senator from my state of Nebraska, has an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post that echoes a similar theme.  Although he doesn’t cite the use of mercenaries specifically, he argues that

Too often in Washington we tend to see foreign policy as an abstraction, with little understanding of what we are committing our country to: the complications and consequences of endeavors. It is easy to get into war, not so easy to get out. Vietnam lasted more than 10 years; soon, we will slip into our ninth year in Afghanistan. We have been in Iraq for almost seven years.

Speaking of those complications and consequences, very little attention has been paid to the munitions used in these conflicts.  Sky News reported on Tuesday about an epidemic of infants in Iraq born with deformities, linking it to the use of chemical weapons by U.S. forces during the infamous bombing campaign in Fallujah.  Others have criticized the use of munitions tipped with depleted uranium.  Depleted uranium is very hard, making it ideal for use in armor plating or armor-piercing weaponry.  However, it’s also considered “both a toxic and  radioactive hazard that requires long-term storage as low level nuclear waste.”  There is now an international effort underway to ban the use of these munitions, citing the increase in the rates of cancers, leukemia and birth defects in areas where these munitions have been used.   Jeremy Scahill wrote in Blackwater about the deployment of unapproved “armor-piercing, limited-penetration” rounds, or APLPs.  These bullets are “like hitting somebody with a miniature explosive round”, and instead of creating a clean wound or “passing through a body, it shatters, creating ‘untreatable wounds’.”  A Blackwater contractor was allegedly threatened with court-martial for using unapproved ammunition (APLP rounds) after he was mistaken by a Pentagon official for an active-duty soldier.

MQ-9 Reaper in flight (2007).jpg  A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. From Wikipedia (Commons)

MQ-9 Reaper in flight (2007).jpg A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. From Wikipedia (Commons)

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or other drones to strike at targets is also provoking criticism.  David Kilcullen, former senior counterinsurgency advisor to the U.S. Army, told Congress in June that “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes. In the same period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area.”  A concerted effort is only now being made to avoid civilian casualties, as “The U.S. and NATO saw Afghan anger over the deaths as a major impediment to a new counterinsurgency strategy.”  Guess which company holds the contract to load the bombs on these drones? You guessed it- Xe, nèe Blackwater.  You see, these aircraft are piloted remotely, keeping U.S. forces well out the way of any actual engagment.  It seems reasonable to conclude that the expanded use of these remote-control death machines might encourage the use of terrorist strikes in retaliation.  Consider how the Afghan people must feel- missiles are routinely fired from these unmanned robots, killing innocent civilians.  There is no way to strike back militarily at the occupying forces– the drones are typically flown from bases hundreds of miles away.  Even in strikes in which we are ‘successful’ (meaning we kill the intended target), we often kill large numbers of civilians in the process. In what way does that alter the traditional calculus of warfare?  What new forms of anti-Americanism are we provoking with this arrogant military policy? Ramzy Barzoud concludes that our policy can only have harmful effects on our stated goal to win hearts and minds:

But one thing cannot be disputed regarding US contributions to the people of Afghanistan: a lot of people have been ripped to pieces by botched drone operations, a lot of young minds have been molded, through the tragedies that they endure and witness each day, to distrust this notion of “democracy”. This dilemma is of great concern to the US Army. In fact, in responding to this very problem, National Security Advisor James L. Jones stated regarding the use of drones in targeted assassinations, “In one mishap you can create thousands of more terrorists than you had before the mishap”.

Well, if this is our sole concern, and if the pointless loss of life in itself is not deplored, if the suffering of the Afghanis is only a point of unease when it could potentially breed more “terrorists”, then “winning their hearts and minds” is quite simply outside the realm of possibilities.

To me, it’s clear that our policy over the last several years has attempted to distance the wars from the consciousness of the American people.  I applaud Obama’s decision to lift the ban on media coverage of the remains of fallen soldiers.  Only by keeping the full costs of our conflicts in our awareness can we decide if they are worth pursuing.  The use of unaccountable private contractors and remote-control warfare minimizes the true costs to the nation in ways that we are only now beginning to grasp.


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Category: American Culture, Censorship, Current Events, Military, Politics, Technology, War

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    Perhaps a simple way to undermine this system is to require any US security contractor to be at the mercy of the domestic laws of whatever country they are fighting in.(I HATE ending a sentence in a preposition ARGH!!!)

    While this may be problematic in enforcement during an active invasion. In the case of an occupation like now the Afghanistan government should be allowed to petition our government for the UAV pilots/whoever commits the atrocities and then hold them to the punishment of an Afghani court.

    Contractors are NOT in the military and should not expect the protections of the government or the military.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:


    I agree, that seems like a just and fair solution–which is why it will never happen. While I agree that contractors should not expect the protections of the government or military, I would like to see them bound by the same laws governing warfighting that our military is governed by, if not by more stringent regulations. This article delves into some of the legal complications, if you're interested.

  3. Jay Fraz says:

    Brynn : Thanks for the link to the article, it was exceptionally well documented and researched with numerous insightful links within the text.

    This problem is a mess, one epic screw up that I do not see being corrected anytime soon. *hangs head in shame*

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: The drone "success" ratio of 700/14 is reprehensible. Shame on us. I've often wondered how long it is before we suffer revenge inflicted by an organization using a remote-controlled flying device firing on an American politician at an outdoor rally. We further invite that tragedy every time we use these devices ourselves, especially when we kill so many innocents.

    Speaking of killing, I think Dan Savage has it right when he suggests that our own right wing extremists are becoming viciously homicidal in their use of language combined with lots of plausible deniability. Savage stated: "The Becks and Bachmanns Of The World Are 'Trying To Get the President Killed' . . . "

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