Growth in military contracting blurs lines of accountability

The thriving use of private military contractors in place of citizen-soldiers allows nations to externalize the costs of war and outsource accountability during wartime, according to sociologist Katherine McCoy, writing in the winter 2009 issue of Contexts magazine.

A trend that has increased steadily since the Gulf , private military contracting is now a $100 billion global industry that is projected to be worth up to $200 billion by 2010. More private contractors work in the Iraq War than American soldiers.

"The privatization of the military workforce removes war one step away from the country that orders it, and internationalization removes it yet another," said McCoy, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "When the workers of war become more remote and more invisible, the entry barriers to war are lowered."

In the Iraq War, the vast majority of for the come from other countries. Approximately 65 percent of these contractors are Iraqi, about a quarter are other foreigners and only about 10 percent are American. Non-American workers are routinely paid about one-tenth of what their American counterparts earn.

"The extensive use of military contractors changes the entire spectrum of military labor, shifting our conception of a military labor force from public to private, and from domestic to international," McCoy said.

Unlike the shared experience created by a public, national force in which citizens see the consequences of war illustrated by departing troops in uniform and flag-draped coffins, McCoy asserts that the use of private, mostly foreign troops externalizes the costs of war because contractors don't leave the same impression on the . For this reason, McCoy says, companies sometimes enlist foreign contractors for high-risk or high-visibility combat roles.

"While casualties of American contract workers make headlines and political waves in the United States, the same is not true of captured or killed foreign contractors," McCoy said. "In Iraq, non-American contractors are the hidden casualties of war."

The shift to military outsourcing also undermines old lines of accountability, according to McCoy, creating problems both for protecting contractors' welfare and for holding them accountable for crimes.

The growing use of has led many governments to consider legislation in an attempt to address the accountability question. In the United States, human rights organizations and other groups are advocating for contractors to be brought under the military chain of command, an issue likely to come before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.

At the international level, McCoy says, the United Nation's Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries has encouraged contractor recruitment countries to enact stricter domestic legislation to control the flow of their citizens to contracting positions abroad.

"Governments currently have neither the authority nor the responsibility over private employees that they have for their own citizen-soldiers operating abroad," McCoy said. "Until legislation is passed, private contracted military forces will continue to be perceived simply as international labor migrants by their own governments and fellow citizens."

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Source: American Sociological Association

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Mar 10, 2009
Not to undermine the theme of the article, but a couple of points are worth mentioning.

Although it is a lovely round number, there is no way the industry is worth $100b %u2013 not if you are discussing services in the field as Ms. McCoy is. The even more remarkable $200b number is sheer fantasy; good for sexing up an article or dissertation but with no foundation in reality. In her defense, many of the pundits used as sources have made a good living off wild-eyed exaggerations, but sooner or later someone has to sit down and take a real look at contracts and values.

As the head of the leading industry trade association, IPOA, I wish the numbers were so large, especially in terms of international post-conflict reconstruction and peacekeeping support. The reality is closer to about $20b - still big but perhaps not as spicy as $100b. Only about 5% of the size and value are security contractors - who are predominantly local nationals. And no, they are not %u2018foreign troops%u2019, they are civilian security contractors hired to protect people, places and things vital to reconstruction efforts.

Local nationals paid market wages make up the bulk of industry employees doing everything from logistics to base support to landmine removal. They%u2019re the folks who should be doing the reconstruction and security of their own countries, and of course they have the advantage of speaking the local language and supporting their own families with their income. Nor should we ignore the reality of post-conflict societies - that if you pay salaries significantly higher than the ordinary you end up with doctors and teachers doing cooking and cleaning for Westerners, which is a remarkably poor use of local talent and undermines the long term viability of the society you are trying to reconstruct.

Accountability is critical, but it is deceptive to claim that %u201Chuman rights organizations and other groups are advocating for contractors to be brought under the military chain of command,%u201D %u2013 overwhelmingly human rights organizations have advocated for effective civilian laws for civilian contractors and have specifically opposed the use of military law on civilians. Good legal accountability benefits everyone and IPOA has been consistent in support for improved accountability by endorsing and advocating for improved laws and better government oversight.

Civilian support for military operations dates back centuries %u2013 the United States had some 700,000 contractors in WWII and 80,000 in Vietnam. The level of support the military has in Afghanistan and Iraq is unprecedented and essential for any hope of a positive outcome. Beyond those missions it is essential for all future international peace operations that we are able to effectively and accountably tap into the resources of the private sector. Even today international operations in Darfur, the eastern Congo and Haiti all rely heavily on private sector support services%u2013 international peace efforts simply wouldn%u2019t exist without contractors.

Perhaps in our rush to demonize the private sector we should not quickly overlook the critical value they bring to international peace operations.

Doug Brooks

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