As the ragtag killers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) advanced on Freetown in the spring of 1995, the government of Sierra Leone took a desperate measure. The rebels had cut a violent swath across the country, enlisting child soldiers and leaving thousands with amputated limbs or dead in their wake. Sierra Leone’s government was too hobbled by its own corruption to effectively resist; its military was largely ceremonial; and the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States had all refused to intervene. Catastrophe seemed inevitable, until the government approached a South African security firm called Executive Outcomes. For a hefty fee, Executive Outcomes agreed to rout the RUF and reestablish government control in the country’s fertile diamond regions, a task which it proceeded to accomplish, using its own private army and helicopter gunships, in a little under two weeks.
This unusual operation is a striking example of a recent and powerful entity, the private military firm (PMF), in action. Executive Outcomes went out of business in 1998, but in the decade since it was hired by Sierra Leone, military firms have flourished in America and abroad, becoming a $100 billion industry. While many of these firms initially found work in the disintegrating states of Africa, it is in Iraq that the private military industry has truly come into its own. The raid on the home of Ahmed Chalabi was overseen by armed civilians who work for DynCorp; two Americans suspected of committing abuses in Abu Ghraib prison were civilian contractors employed to assist interrogations; the four armed Americans murdered in Falluja in March worked for Blackwater USA. Paul Bremer, the chief American administrator in Iraq, was guarded during his tenure not by military personnel but by a team of heavily armed commandos in civilian clothes, who also happened to work for Blackwater. Headline by headline, a picture has begun to take shape over the last year: our military is being swiftly privatized before our eyes.
Today well over 20,000 civilian contractors support Coalition forces in Iraq, and according to a May 4 letter to the House Armed Services Committee from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that number was expected to increase after the June 28 handover of power to the Iraqis. The contractors are as various in their duties as members of the military itself: they perform tasks as banal as preparing meals and operating supply trucks, as dangerous as conducting armed raids and driving the first car in a convoy through hostile territory, and as sensitive as interrogating prisoners.
While most Americans believe that the second-biggest military contributor to the war in Iraq is Great Britain, that distinction is in fact held by the private military industry. In a seismic geopolitical development whose implications have thus far gone largely unexplored, the state appears to have relinquished its monopoly on the lethal use of force. Civilian contractors in Iraq have become a shadow army—one which is largely unregulated and unpoliced, and operates beyond …