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A Military Conundrum


Licensed To Kill – Hired Guns In The War On Terror, by Robert Young Pelton


Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been glued to the news ever since the U.S. decided to go after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and doubly so since the “coalition’s” run-up to the invasion and conquest of Iraq. I thought I’d followed all the dirt, the oil machinations, Sadam’s con job on the U.S. and - ironically, on the rest of Arab world - regarding his supposed WMDs.


But I was wrong. Which is why my pal and movie sound guy Dave Roberts pushed this book on me. It’s as stellar a piece of investigative journalism as I can imagine on the U.S.’s use of civilian contractors to manage a huge chunk of the U.S.'s war responsibilities in the Middle East.

This book is a complex piece of writing. Pelton, judging by his credentials and reportage, is as gonzo a journalist as the civilian “contractors” are in their profession. His pluck clearly opened doors into the somewhat closed guns-for-hire world. He was able to interview persons we’ve never heard about, persons with deep CIA and Special Forces credentials, and even managed to go on operations with these guys.


Perhaps the best way to depict the book – and Pelton’s seeming journalistic integrity – would be to bullet-point some of his most revealing perspectives and bits of information:


•            These folks, according to Pelton, draw a distinction between the terms “mercenary” and “civilian contractor.” The distinction divides on a couple of fronts. First, these civilian firms insist that they aren’t –at least to date – set up for militarily offensive activities. Their contracts so far for the U.S. have them in defensive roles – guarding Hamid Karzai, U.S. diplomats, and high military potentates. But in the chaotic military world of the Middle East, these men (as far as I know, there are no women on these front lines) are often put in positions in isolated outposts that demand aggressive military action in keeping insurgent forces at bay. Mercenaries are seen as those free-wheeling types that fight for pay in whatever way money dictates. On the other hand, contractors, while not burdened with the strict rules of engagement imposed on military types, must at least abide by corporate decisions and contracts. Mercenaries aren’t seen to be limited in this way.


•            These contractors are drawn from the most elite of elite military forces. Companies such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy prefer their hires roughly in this order: Black Ops players from Force Recon, the Navy’s SeALS forces, Marines; then the best and most adaptable of U.S. police forces.


•            How are they able to hire such qualified combatants? Money is part of the answer. The average contractor makes some $500-600 per day, more than four-star generals. Most of these men are from poor backgrounds in the nation’s poorer regions, where there’s little to go home to in the way of livelihood. So they sign on with these private firms, hoping to last long enough and make enough money to support their families for the rest of their lives.


•            Why does the U.S. military go the route of civilian contractors? First, the draft during the Vietnam era caused more problems than the military could handle. Too, through G.W. Bush’s eight years, the military obligations were more than a volunteer military could possibly manage. And with these contractors at work, the military isn’t saddled with wounded soldiers, with retirement pay and ancillary benefits to both combatants and their families. The amount a contractor gets paid is the end of it. It’s up to the for-hire companies to provide transport of the wounded and dead back to their homes and families.


•            Because the reins on contractors are looser than on U.S. military types, some of the more loony for-hire types do manage to flout rules – even to the point of entering combat arenas under other guises and fighting their own wars by their own rules. Pelton depicts a couple of intriguing examples of these.


•            Largely because the U.S.’s civilian contractors were so visible during the reign of Paul Bremer as the U.S’s first civilian warlord, the insurgents offered bounties of up to $30,000 for the heads of any contractors killed. As a result, the contractors have been touchy – to the point of taking steroids to ramp up their fighting capacities, and being more than a little trigger-happy.


•            Some military contracting firms see their future as, not bodyguards or the like, but as armies for hire in efforts to keep the peace in volatile world arenas such as Africa, Asia, and South America. Since money matters to the nth degree, future efforts by these firms will likely be seen militarily as either the world’s worst nightmare or its salvation.


Clearly, Pelton has no agenda here, other than an accurate  - the good with the bad, the wise with the foolish  - portrait of these gun-for-hire types, a military uptick that would hardly matter were the U.S. not trying to extend its empire as never before, and on the cheap, at that.

To this reader – one who also tries his damndest to keep an open mind – the sudden proliferation of for-hire military companies is indicative of the degree to which money currently matters in military scenarios. There’s much more to military operations than a financial bottom line. Money has, however, always mattered in fighting wars and keeping the peace. Still, to ignore the citizen/soldier ethos, and to reduce the welfare of nations, the lives of both warfighters and civilians, not to mention the lives of those now working as civilian contractors, to some bean-counter’s ledger sheet says a lot about the kind of world we may be drifting towards.


My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars