Global Policy Forum

America's Unsung War Dead


By David Isenberg*

Asia Times
November 30, 2005

When America marked the death last month of the 2,000th US service member in Iraq, many commented that this was a meaningless milestone made up by the media and no more important than any other death figures. They were in fact right, but not for the reason they thought. America actually reached the milestone of 2,000 long before. The reason, however, nobody commented about it was that these fatalities came from America's other army; that of the private sector. As of November 14, at least 280 coalition contractors have been killed.

Although contractors for private military and security companies (PMC and PSC respectively; the main difference being that a security contractor actually engages in combat when necessary) have been working for and with the American military, various coalition allies, the old Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi government, the dimension of their role and activities are still poorly understood.

Although a few of them have received the glare of publicity due to the gruesome deaths of some of their employees (Blackwater had four of its contractors killed, their bodies burned and mutilated, and two of them strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates in Fallujah in March 2004) or scandal (Custer Battles, which was accused of overcharging occupation authorities by millions of dollars), most are still unknown to the general public. That is hardly surprising. Similar to the lack of planning for post major combat operations, private contractors were hastily called on to fill a security vacuum and throughout 2003 and 2004 were largely left on their own to do the job.

PSCs provide such services as: personal security details for senior civilian officials, non-military site security (buildings and infrastructure), and non-military convoy security. Rather than working directly for the US government or the CPA, most PSCs are sub-contracted to provide protection for prime contractor employees or are hired by other entities such as Iraqi companies or private foreign companies seeking business opportunities in Iraq.

The lack of security in post-war Iraq has created an enormous demand for PMC services. In 2004, according to the inspector general for the CPA, at least 10 to 15 cents of every dollar spent on reconstruction was for security. For some contractors the security costs are substantially higher, approaching or even exceeding 30% of a project's cost. While firms are reluctant to reveal how much they are spending on security and insurance it is estimated that for every $100 in salary paid by the employer, at least $20 is spent on the life insurance premium.

For most of the time since the US invasion in 2003 nobody knew for certain how many PMCs operated in Iraq. Last year in response to a request from Congress, a CPA-compiled report listed 60 PMCs with an aggregate total of 20,000 personnel (including US citizens, third-country nationals and Iraqis). But that list was incomplete. Missing, for example, are companies implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal such as Titan CAC and SOS Interpreting Ltd. News reports peg the number of interrogators from private contractors there between 30 and 40. Most of the armed personnel were the more than 14,000 Iraqi guards who worked the oil field security contract for the British firm Erinys. The Iraqi government has since resumed that task.

The total number of (non-Iraqi) PMC gun-toting personnel is certainly fewer then 20,000; perhaps as few as 6,000 security contractors. And despite claims to the contrary, PMCs do not constitute the second- or third-largest army in Iraq; they are not coordinated into one cohesive whole, nor do they engage in offensive operations. Their anonymity, however, has not prevented them from taking causalities. On November 14, two South Africans working for DynCorp were killed by a roadside bomb in central Baghdad. The Pentagon does not distinguish between contractors working for firms such as Halliburton or its Kellogg, Brown and Root subsidiary and security contractors.

According to a report last month by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) there was a workforce of about 38,000 employees (including foreign nationals and subcontractor personnel) working on the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) in Iraq from March 2003 to November 2004. But at least 524 US military contract workers, many of them Iraqis, have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, according to an October 27 Bloomberg news report.

At least 25 Blackwater workers have been killed in Iraq. San Diego, California-based Titan Corp, which provides military translators, has lost 148, the most among the 43 companies that have filed death-benefit claims with the Labor Department. At least another 3,963 were injured, according to Department of Labor insurance-claims statistics obtained by Knight Ridder news service. If one assumes the base is the CBO number, that works out to 10% of the total. Those statistics, which experts said were the most comprehensive listing available on the toll of the war, are far from complete. Two of the biggest contractors in Iraq, Halliburton and its Kellogg Brown and Root subsidiary, said their casualties were higher than the figures the Labor Department had for them.

The government's listing shows the contractors' casualty rate is increasing. In the first 21 months of the war, 11 contractors were killed and 74 injured each month on average. This year, the monthly average death toll is nearly 20 and the average monthly number of injured is 243.

While casualties are widespread, profits are concentrated. Last year 12 contractors had contracts totaling an estimated $951,614,615 (including the $293 million contract awarded to Aegis Defense Services for coordinating security operations). As not all of them are big contracts, it seems clear that a majority of the overall PMC contracts are concentrated in a small number of firms.

However, the financial rewards can be overplayed, especially since the downsides for PMC contractors can be considerable. For instance, companies enforce regular periods of unpaid mandatory leave out of country on their employees every few months for rest and recharge; although it is for some tax-free, under US law citizens are still liable to US tax if they reside within the US for more than one month in the year.

The use of private military and security contractors to date is mixed. Generally they have done reasonably well in fulfilling their contracts in Iraq. They have performed difficult missions under trying circumstances. In several, little-noted cases, they performed above and beyond the call of duty. While some of them have been implicated in human-rights abuses such as occurred in Abu Ghraib prison, they have on the whole been far more professional than the regular military forces.

But, with the advantage of hindsight it seems clear that a lack of strategic planning has affected private sector operations in Iraq in the same way it has affected the regular US military. Coordination of PMCs was deficient, and they failed to be given sufficient early warning before the war about how much their services would be needed. Things should improve in the future as last month the Pentagon finally released a long-awaited directive on the roles and functions of the contractor on the battlefield. But issuing and implementing directives are widely different things, so progress will be slow.

About the Author: David Isenberg is a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC). He has a wide background in arms control and national security issues.

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