The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Throwing a Spotlight onto the "Shadow Army"

Jul 25, 2004

In April, four former U.S. Special Forces commandos, working under contract for Blackwater Security Consulting, were killed in Fallujah, their mutilated bodies hung from a bridge. A few days later, commandos that Blackwater had installed to guard the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Najaf were involved in a full scale battle, and Blackwater helicopters engaged a firefight in the area while re-supplying them. Following on the heels of these stories, the Abu Gharig scandal broke—and an employee of a sub-contractor for Titan Corporation and another working for CACI International not only were implicated in it, they seem to have been directing at least part of the operations, while a third contractor was accused of raping an Iraqi teen-ager in the prison. And, as the prison scandal unwound, information came out that two of the top directors of Coalition prisons in Iraq were employed by private military contractors—having carried out similar functions in U.S. prisons run by private contractors. (Their qualifications for the work in Iraq included having resigned from the U.S. prisons after severe brutality scandals broke there too.)

What had for the most part been overlooked by the U.S. media burst onto the front pages: the United States military in Iraq was widely engaging the services of so-called "private military companies," which provide what some people call mercenaries and what the New York Times called, "Shadow Soldiers."

In the Coalition of the "Willing"—the Most Willing Are Soldiers for Hire

The Pentagon claims not to know for sure how many contracts it has with private military companies nor how many mercenary forces there are working in Iraq under contract (apparently despite the half a trillion dollars a year the Pentagon gets, nobody bought a calculator!) In any case, the Bush administration has done what it can to obscure the issue, maintaining no centralized records of the contracts, many of which have been issued by agencies other than the armed forces or the Pentagon. A multitude of contracts were issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority before it went out of existence. Others were issued by different military or intelligence services in Great Britain. Beyond that, U.S. oil and construction companies or media companies have hired private military companies, paying them out of U.S. "reconstruction funds." All sorts of government departments got in on the act. For example, the private contractors who interrogated prisoners at Abu Gharig were hired under a contract for computer services, issued by an Arizona office of the Department of the Interior—which department is charged with managing public lands inside the U.S. and the resources found therein. (Perhaps the Bush administration was planning to make Iraq the 51st state?)

In any case, it is known that the U.S., through various agencies, has contracted with at least 50 private companies to provide military services and forces in Iraq, with these companies contracting out part of the work to still more companies. Estimates by people knowledgeable in the field, including inside the military itself, put the total number of private military forces in Iraq at somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 in April. The CPA itself estimated, before it went out of existence at the end of June, that the number could rise to 30,000 after sovereignty was handed over. This does not count the tens of thousands working in Iraq on construction projects.

The U.S. currently has about 140,000 troops in Iraq. Second in line in the "Coalition of the Willing," is NOT Great Britain, as Bush would have it, but the joint forces of the private military contractors. One company alone, Global Risk Management, is currently providing more troops than 30 countries in the so-called "Coalition of the Willing."

Doing More than KP

Talk about private contractors providing services to the military, and what springs to mind are cooks serving meals to the troops in a chow line or civilians whose technical expertise turns them into instructors preparing soldiers to use high-tech weapons. Of course, such people are employed by the companies who own some of the military contracts for Iraq—but they’re not nearly the whole story. Private military contractors on the ground in Iraq are doing everything from operating supply lines, to maintaining and even operating high tech weapons systems and aircraft with their own personnel, to providing military security, to recruiting Iraqi informants, to analyzing intelligence—or, as Abu Gharig revealed, to giving regular troops orders to brutalize prisoners in preparation for the "interrogation" the contractors themselves would carry out.

Security is provided by an assortment of private military companies at the Baghdad airport, at the various Iraqi ministries and government buildings, at the U.S. and British embassy compounds, and surrounding the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad where the U.S. military is centered. Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, which studies military affairs, describes their work thus: "Sometimes, these assignments are described euphemistically as `private security’ to make them sound less military. But these are not private guards who stroll at the local shopping mall. They involved personnel with military skills and weapons who carry out military functions, within a war zone, against military-level threats." The private military contractors may be formally prohibited from engaging in "offensive" military actions, but in a war, especially like the one in Iraq, there’s no dividing line between defense and offense. They are effectively combat forces. Why else would the "private security" companies hire their personnel out of the U.S. Special Forces or the British SAS or from the security forces of former military dictatorships like that, for example, of General Pinochet in Chile or of the old South African apartheid regime—as do all these companies?

DynCorp has the contract not only to train the Iraqi police—but to recruit them first. The contract to train the new Iraqi army went to Vinnell, which then subcontracted it to another company. The contract to train Iraqi paramilitary forces to guard oil installations went to Erinys. Why not? Some of these same companies already had experience training troops—they had helped train U.S. troops in the Kuwaiti desert, as well as assisted in war gaming and battle planning before the invasion.

Global Risk Strategies, a British firm, was given the contract not only to guard the changeover of the currency, but also to organize it and produce the currency.

The most well-known of the contractors of course is Halliburton’s subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, which won a 10-year contract in 2002 (called LOGCAP) to provide field logistics support to the army—that is, to provide water, food, shelter and mail to troops; to provide services like KP, laundry, etc. that keep the army functioning; and to transport all these supplies, including ammunition and fuels, in the midst of battle. Some of the people hired by KBR or its subsidiaries come from the U.S.—as did the hard-up Mississippi dairy farmer who took a job driving an oil supply truck because of the big money attached. But many more come from Third World countries, as did the Filipino captured and then released in July, or the seven truck drivers captured shortly thereafter—three from India, three from Kenya and one from Egypt. Hired by a multitude of sub-contractors that KB&R engaged, they are paid much less than the people hired in the U.S.—but much more than wages in their home countries. It is estimated that the Philippines itself has provided 4,000 of the private personnel working for the contractors who run the U.S. military bases in Iraq. And India—which refused Bush’s demand that it send its own troops—has already seen 500 of its former soldiers signed up by headhunters who scoured the milieu of former Indian military men to put them into the field in Iraq as "private security guards."

These companies live their own private existence in Iraq, not exactly controlled by the army, as shown by the recent contract awarded to Aegis Defense Services to coordinate the security services provided by all the private military contractors. Significantly, these companies have banded together to establish their own intelligence network. It’s an admission that the army itself isn’t—or perhaps can’t—control and direct them.

The "Dogs of War" Roam Far Afield

The war in Iraq may have brought the situation into focus, but it’s not just in Iraq that private companies have been taking over from the military. In the U.S., not only has most of the clerical work previously done either by the military or its civilian employees been turned over to private contractors, almost everything involved in running bases in the U.S. and around the world is handled by private contractors, running the gamut from food, entertainment, housing, laundry, up to the guards at the bases. The provision of medical services to the dependents of military personnel has been contracted out.

But that’s just the beginning. Several private companies run and staff the armed forces recruiting offices. Other contractors are in charge of training the Reserve Officers Training Corps at 200 universities. Still other contractors train Special Forces troops or provide training in guerrilla warfare for the army. Other companies run the intelligence and communications systems of the U.S. Northern Command at Cheyenne Mountain—the command responsible for deciding whether to unleash the nuclear weapons resting in silos across the northern plains states.

One company has even been given the contract to authorize contracts for the military, and another has the contract to audit the fulfillment of military contracts. MPRI has written field manuals for the army, including one that lays out the rules of engagement for private contractors in the field.

In recent years, the U.S. has leaned heavily on the use of private military companies to carry out operations in other countries. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. has paid private military companies, including DynCorp and Northrop Grumman, over 1.2 billion dollars to provide reinforcements for the Colombian government’s war on the guerrillas and the peasants—under the pretext of a war on drugs. DynCorp was carrying out similar activities in Peru in 1992, when one of its planes was shot down. In 1994, the U.S. firm, MPRI, provided military training for the Croatian army, preparing it with the plans to carry out "Operation Storm" in 1995, which ended with the uprooting and slaughter of Serbian civilians. Trying to "even the playing field" in advance of the Dayton "peace accords," the U.S. arranged to issue a contract to MPRI to do the same work for Bosnia—paid for by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates, but administered by the U.S. State Department. In 2000, Brown & Root was given a contract by the U.S. government to aid the Russian government in dismantling some of its nuclear ICBM’s.

Mercenaries Listed on the Stock Exchange

Of course, the army has always used civilians to back it up, including in combat situations on the battlefield. In the heaviest days of the Viet Nam war, for example, with a U.S. population increasingly up in arms over the war, the Johnson administration stayed within the overall mandated troop strength—then 3.55 million total, with 531,000 in Viet Nam—by quietly farming out the work. The Defense Department used 80,000 civilians, including 4,000 provided under contract from Vinnell, to provide support services, freeing up more troops for direct combat operations.

The U.S. has also long resorted to paying mercenaries from secret slush funds, then using them to engineer the overthrow of governments or carry out combat that the government wanted to hide for political reasons: for example, the incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the wheelings and dealings of the Iran-Contra affair, or the funding and supplying of Osama bin Laden during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

Moreover private military companies have existed for quite a few decades now, providing "security," for example, for regimes the U.S. wanted to prop up, like Saudi Arabia’s, or for the imperialist corporations that suck up resources from around the world. In Angola, where big oil and mining interests from the U.S. and other imperialist countries have mines and oil pumping installations, there were reputed to be 80 different companies providing security for them during the two-decades-long civil war that the big corporations and their mercenaries helped foment. The private military companies, in fact, grew up in such situations as Angola.

But what is entirely new is the degree to which the direct military work of the U.S. armed forces themselves is being openly contracted out today to private companies.

Moreover, today these companies are not unknown entities, functioning only on the fringes. Many are registered on the stock exchange, for example, carrying out a perfectly legal, respectable and very profitable existence putting ex-soldiers and others to work in the military field. It’s not simply, or even essentially a question of the U.S. military sloughing off some of the work it doesn’t want to private mercenaries. Today the work is being handed over to big corporations who hire and direct the private mercenaries.

Some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies have entered the field themselves, as ITT did, when it gained a contract to provide armed security guards for U.S. installations overseas. Others have simply bought up the more specialized military companies, adding them to their stable. Computer Sciences, for example, bought DynCorp; NorthropGrumman, the big armaments contractor, bought Vinnell; L-3 Communications bought MPRI.

When it took over MPRI in 2000, L-3’s CEO explained the decision this way: "MPRI is a growth company with good profit margins and competitive advantages that no other training business can match and its services are complementary with our products. In addition, the company is at the forefront of two positive defense industry dynamics. The U.S. military is privatizing many of its functions.... MPRI is also active on the international front, as changing political climates have led to increased demand for certain services.... These programs tend to expand and lead to other opportunities."

With only a few word changes, the speech could have been written for Bill Gates, as Microsoft swallowed another up-and-coming small company.

Taking Over Logistics—and Quite a Bit More

In 1991, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney awarded Brown & Root Services a nine-million-dollar contract to study how private military companies could be used to supplant active duty soldiers. Brown & Root—a Halliburton subsidiary—had worked for the U.S. military in the first Gulf war. Just one year after getting the contract to study the situation, Brown & Root was awarded the first five-year LOGCAP contract (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program). LOGCAP was a kind of retainer contract, which allowed the army to call on the company for logistical support in any of the army’s field operations, including combat. In exchange, Brown & Root could bill the army for all its "costs," plus a bonus ranging from one to nine percent of the cost—one of the famous "cost-plus" contracts. This one contract was said to have produced two and a half billion dollars for Haliburton. It was through this contract that Brown & Root (later Kellogg, Brown & Root) really took flight and Halliburton, which had been a relatively small construction and oil services company, became a big player on the corporate scene. When Clinton defeated the elder Bush, Cheney went to Halliburton as its CEO.

No one should believe, however, that this was nothing but another scheme by that scheming coterie around the Bush family. The move to privatize many of the functions of the armed forces was a policy carried out by both parties. Its beginnings trace back to the Reagan-Bush years. But it was during the Clinton years that things really got going. When the Republicans took back the White House, Rumsfeld simply continued the plans laid out in the Clinton administration.

Between 1994 and 2002, the U.S. Defense Department authorized almost 3100 contracts, worth more than 300 billion dollars, with U.S. based private military contractors to pay for services or forces supplied to the military—and this figure was before the Iraq war started, when the military contracting business really took off. Of course, this is only what the press or researchers have been able to dig up. What the real total is, no one knows. It’s been estimated in studies done for the Brookings Institute that the world-wide privatized military industry today takes in over 100 billion dollars in revenue a year.

There has been a real sea change since Brown & Root studied the question 13 years ago. In the first Gulf War, there were two civilians working with the army for every 100 soldiers. About half of them were civilian employees of the armed forces, leaving only about one employee of a private military company for every 100 soldiers in the field. Today, there is at least one private contractor employee for every ten U.S. and British soldiers in Iraq—and the ratio is probably closer to one for every eight, and expected to go even lower.

When Congress asked the Pentagon for an accounting, it reported that the armed forces had contracted out work in 2001 equivalent to between 124,000 and 605,000 people. (No, that’s not a typo—it’s just the Pentagon’s usual way of answering inconvenient questions!) In any case, with fewer than 1.4 million people in the active armed forces in 2001, this gives some idea of the magnitude of the changes.

Big Business—Always on the Prowl for Another Pocket to Pick

The move to contract out work previously done by the military should come as no surprise. It only continues down the road already laid out by the privatization and outsourcing of other government services. The postal service, many social services, prisons, police, general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, city lighting or water and sewage systems, transportation systems, even whole school systems have been outsourced or privatized.

Sooner or later, it was only natural that the move to privatize and contract out would turn its spotlight on military activities—and all the more so since there already was such a friendly relationship between the military brass and the major corporations that supply vehicles, planes, ships, military hardware, armaments and ammunition, computers, uniforms, protective gear, etc. etc. etc.

When you look at the arguments made for outsourcing work previously done by military forces, we could have been listening to the arguments advanced 15 years ago for turning over any of the public or social services to private industry to run.

In 1997, for example, the Defense Department issued a document under the signature of William S. Cohen, Clinton’s secretary of defense. Its title gives away the whole story: "The Business Strategy for Defense in the 21st Century." Cohen puts it plainly: "This Defense Reform Initiative reflects the insights of numerous business leaders who have restructured and downsized their corporations and not only survived but thrived in a rapidly changing marketplace." The army services are admonished to adopt "best business practices," and to turn over work to private industry. Cohen underlined that goal in the following words: "Eliminate: Reduce excess support structures to free resources and focus on core competencies."

Private enterprise is supposed to be more "efficient." Despite all proof to the contrary, the proponents of privatization drag it out over and over again. It’s been argued by school boards that hand part or even all of their school system over to private companies to run; by city administrations that privatize their water system; or by the federal government when it proposed to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority water control and electrical system—a system which, by the way, never would have been built if it had been left up to private industry.

Efficiency? The only efficiency involved in privatizing public functions comes in the providing of profits. First of all, there are the profits to be made by the private companies that take over the actual work, and these profits can be considerable. But more commonly this call to "privatize" has been used as a way to pay out less for government services—resulting, of course, in a degradation of services—thus opening the government’s pocketbook to hand over still more money to the big corporations, whether in the form of other contracts, or tax breaks or outright subsidies.

Pumping Up Profits Was Only the Beginning of the Story

While more money for the corporations might have been the main reason for this recent move to privatize military work, there are also political and social benefits to the imperialist bourgeoisie, its state and the politicians who serve it.

In the first place, using private military companies has allowed the U.S. to intervene in a number of "smaller" wars that have raged through the underdeveloped world in the last period, without having to confront problems at home over the issue. The reaction of the American population to the 1993 downing of the Blackhawk helicopter in Somalia and subsequent parading around of the crews’ bodies demonstrated that the so-called "Viet Nam syndrome" not only hadn’t died, it was alive and kicking. The Clinton administration carried out a number of military interventions after Somalia—in fact, the most in a comparable period since the end of the Viet Nam war—but by using private military contractors in place of U.S. troops or by supplementing the troops it did send with contractors, the administration was able to make most of these interventions seem insignificant or even non-existent. Who noticed that the U.S. was carrying out wars big and little in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo; or in Haiti, Peru and Colombia; or in Rwanda, Angola and Sudan? Contracting out much of this work is a way for the bourgeoisie to avoid paying the full social price at home for the wars its state carries out.

A spokesperson for one of the companies used by Clinton during this period stated it succinctly: "When the going gets rough, they call on us. We do the dirty work they don’t want to do."

Starting in August 2003, the U.S. was able to withdraw some of its troops from Iraq, replacing them with contractors. For a period—at least up to February 2004 when the U.S. reversed gears, beginning to increase troop strength once again—the Bush administration was able to give the sense that the war was starting to wind down. Even today, the administration is able to obscure certain aspects of the war by using the contractors. The fact that the contractors have absorbed almost 100 deaths has prevented the U.S. casualty toll from hitting that horrid 1,000 number—at least, Bush can hope, before the election.

With the development of these private companies, the U.S. government now has more ready access to military forces brought in from around the world, including especially third world countries. What the older imperialisms used to do by including in their armies troops from their colonies, the U.S. is doing today via the private military companies.

Finally, the development of these private military companies and the paramilitary forces they recruit could give the bourgeois state possibilities to use even inside the U.S., in the event of social mobilizations or large strike movements. In recent years, rather than the National Guard or even local police being used to break a bitter strike, private "security" companies have been put more in play again—taking us back to the period of the Pinkertons, who grew up as an extra-legal paramilitary force during big steel and railroad strikes. Moreover, in some circumstances, the flood of paramilitary forces set in motion by these companies could be used just as Henry Ford once used thugs organized in the Black Legion to prevent workers organizing in his plants.

Unhappy with What They Wrought

At the beginning of this process, the top military brass seemed in favor of the plans to privatize and outsource. The generals, with their ties to big business—and perhaps their anticipation of lucrative offers of work when they left the military—took center stage arguing for it. They talked about the need for cost cutting to free up more money for weapons systems, and they repeated the same line coming from the Pentagon that the military should focus on its "core competencies." Disagreements began to in the early 1990s, however, over just exactly what were the military’s "core competencies."

As the military top brass began to drag their feet on outsourcing work, the first Bush administration, then the Clinton administration and then the second Bush administration pushed Congress year after year to lower the authorized troop strength level, which resulted in still more outsourcing. For 15 years, once the Viet Nam war wound down, troop strength had been authorized at around 2.1 million people. But in 1990, authorization went below 2.1 million for the first time, and then below 2 million the next year. That initiated a downward spiral in troop numbers, not because recruitment was falling, but because lower limits were being put on how many the military was authorized to recruit. By 2001, the military’s authorized strength was less than 1.38 million. The army suffered even bigger cutbacks, going from nearly 800,000 during most of the post Viet Nam years down to 481,000 in 2001.

The military had had its toes pinched—hard. And many of the generals were unhappy. Starting about 1996, the professional military journals began to be filled with complaints about two things—the reduction in strength was said to be weakening the army; and the contractors’ reliability under fire was questioned. The following warning from Aerospace Power in 2000 is typical: "If this grand experiment undertaken by our national leadership fails in wartime, the results will be unthinkable." Publicly, the officers corps began to call for "moderating" the move to outsourcing and increasing troop strength authorization. Privately, and after awhile not so privately, they were calling for Clinton’s head. But when Rumsfeld came in, only to announce that he wanted to reduce troop strength another 200,000, there were public accusations that Rumsfeld was "breaking the army."

The military began to expose problems coming from the contractors. A company that had no prior medical experience, no medical facilities and that hired people with no medical experience as practical nurses, was given the contract to run medical services for the dependents of military personnel based in the U.S.—creating a virtual revolt on army bases throughout this country. DynCorp, which had the contract to service Army helicopters, was accused of hiring former waiters and security guards with no mechanical experience to repair them. While no one directly said it, the implication was that DynCorp was responsible for the rash of crashes which have plagued these helicopters.

When KB&R shut down its supply lines in Iraq when the going got rough in the first weeks of the fighting, it was really like waving the red flag in front of the bulls. KB&R shut down its supply lines, leaving troops in forward positions cut off from supplies. The American vice-president’s own company even threatened to pull its forces out of Iraq at a difficult point of the early fighting, which would have left the military high and dry if it had done it. And KB&R could have done it. Private contractors are not subject to military discipline, as the military had been warning, and as KB&R proved again in April, when it locked down all its personnel for almost a week, refusing to send them out with materiel, critical or otherwise.

The generals had discovered that privatization and outsourcing can cause problems—even for the military.

In the Face of Capitalism’s Drive for Profit, Nothing Is Sacrosanct

Well, let the generals complain. It’s their own bed, they made it, let them lie in it. They may have thought themselves untouchable, sacrosanct, even essential for the functioning of the system. And it’s certainly true that the miliary is essential, allowing U.S. capital to extend its tentacles around the world.

But capitalism is a totally irrational system—ready to gobble up for profit even what is most essential to its own functioning.

How much more hasn’t the population suffered during these past decades from this irrational drive for profit. Privatization has degraded the public services society needs to function well. And the weight on society of the very military itself has worsened the situation of the population—and not only because of the wars it has led and will lead. The half a trillion dollars a year that goes to the military, under no matter what form, is half a trillion dollars that could be spent on schools, medical care, decent public transportation, roads, bridges, clean water, etc. etc. etc.—all the things that today are starved for money.

For the population, it doesn’t matter whether that money goes to the generals themselves or to the private military companies—it’s still money that is stolen from the services the population needs. And it’s used against the interests of the population inside this country and around the world.

What the population needs is an end to this system that destroys the very infrastructure of society; this same system that requires a military used against all the peoples of the world.