The Iraqi insurgency's bloody spring uprising, which was kicked off by the infamous killings and mutilations of four private American security guards, inadvertently highlighted one of the seldom-mentioned truths about the prosecution of the Iraq war and occupation: its dependence on civilian mercenaries. Until the events of April, the universal public image of US ground combat forces was the familiar one dating back to Vietnam, Korea and the two world wars: the GI ("Government Issue") volunteer or draftee wearing the uniform of the Army or Marine Corps. That's still mostly true, but less so all the time.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, military functions, like many other government services in the conservative era, are being privatized. Private security forces, 15,000 strong, now comprise the second largest military in Iraq, exceeding in numbers the contingent of our leading coalition ally, Great Britain. They perform largely in non-combat roles, as weapons technicians, interrogators, transport workers and the like, but 6,000 are heavily-armed guards assigned to protect reconstruction firms or civilian agencies, such as the Coalition Provisional Authority. CPA head L. Paul Bremer, for instance, is watched over by gun-toting mercenaries, not US soldiers.
The security companies employing these private troops pay them well: six-figure annual salaries for the most part, with monthly pay rates of $15,000 to $20,000 not uncommon, compared to under $2,000 a month for low-ranking enlistees in the US Army. Clearly, being all you can be is a much better deal in the private sector, a fact that has persuaded many an ex-commando to sell his services to a security firm rather than re-upping with Uncle Sam.
The proliferation of private forces is directly related to the diminished state of the celebrated all-volunteer Army. From eight million at the end of World War II and one million at the height of the Korean and Vietnam wars, the total number of US Army active-duty personnel has shrunk to about 487,000, less than even during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when 711,000 Americans were in olive drab. Marine Corps ranks have likewise diminished in recent years -- from 194,000 during the Gulf War to 174,000 today. What US military there is, moreover, is spread thin and stressed out, charged with maintaining a presence in no fewer than 40 foreign countries.
Even as the regular armed forces struggle desperately to find warm bodies to send to Iraq, dipping deeply into National Guard and Reserve ranks and relying increasingly on America's private corporate army, defense spending has been mushrooming. The Center for Defense Information reports that overall US military outlays have shot up from $329 billion in 2000 to $475 billion in 2004, a 44% increase. The money is obviously not being spent on troops. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an after-day devotee of blitzkrieg (the "lightning war" of Nazi Germany's military machine), has bet the Pentagon's budget on high-technology warfare, purchasing all those expensive gee-whiz toys -- "smart" bombs and the rest -- Americans love to watch on TV.
It seemed a wise investment at first, as the new mobile, quick-hitting Army used its overwhelming firepower to roll up its overmatched Iraq opposition last year. Now that we're enmeshed in guerilla warfare and occupation, however, technological overkill, the American specialty, is relatively useless. Boots on the ground are needed, and Rumsfeld's high-tech military doesn't have them, an odd state of affairs considering the Bush administration's global ambitions.
Enter the private mercenary army. It's motivated by money and doesn't depend on patriotism or the coercion of a draft. And, like the reduced all-volunteer US Army, which has a conservative culture -- the officer corps votes 90% Republican and enlistees vote 60% Republican, according to most studies -- it will not object to the mission. The downside is that its discipline is suspect and its training and expertise are spotty. More to the point, the disparate elements of the private force are not bound by duty or military orders, and can withdraw from commitments on a moment's notice. On the other hand, their existence permits America's civilian leadership to divert defense money away from ground troops in favor of the latest in technological gadgetry, while creating an illusion of Pentagon savings in the form of reduced manpower rolls.
Nevertheless, the apparent savings are just that: an illusion, a budgetary flimflam that amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Bush administration is embarked on a massive, unpublicized effort to shrink the public sector. Contracting out military responsibilities of all kinds, preferably to corporate campaign contributors, is integral to its strategy. Much like the comparable crusades to privatize public education, Medicare and Social Security, the premise of military privatization is that the marketplace, operating for profit, can do the job cheaper and more efficiently than a government bureaucracy, such as the US Army. It's an unproven notion that's been around since the Reagan years, when 15,000 Army positions were outsourced. It continued under the Republican-lite Clinton administration, which turned over another 7,000 military jobs to the corporate sector.
The Bush White House, according to a Washington Post analysis in late 2002, is accelerating the process and carrying it to its logical conclusion, having earmarked 214,000 additional uniformed and civilian Army jobs -- or one in six -- for outside contracting. These include thousands of logistical and support positions not directly related to combat. In practice, this means that, for a price, companies like Halliburton will build the Army's camps and bases, set up its supply-delivery systems, prepare its food, do its laundry, clean its latrines and, if necessary, prepare its dead for burial. Service branches like the famed US Army Corps of Engineers will exist in the future only as contracting agencies, empty shells of their former selves.
This all fits the ideological preconceptions of the most pro-corporate, anti-government administration in recent American history; yet, it does no favor to either the military, which will have to rely on an uncertain support structure beyond its immediate control, or the taxpayer, who will ultimately pick up the tab for the generous wage scales and guaranteed profit margins built into those lavish private-sector contracts. If, as Napoleon said, an army travels on its stomach, Americans had better be prepared to pay through the nose.
Wayne O'Leary lives in Orono, Maine.