The Mercenaries Who Fight for American Empire

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Yves here. It is remarkable the degree to which the US has been able to hide its reliance on mercenaries and other contractors. Vanity Fair published a telling piece about Alan Grayson, who then before his Congressional runs, was a litigator specializing in Federal government contracting fraud. He’d filed qui tam suits documenting massive multi-level abuses by Halliburton’s subsidiary KBR in the war in Iraq….only to find, in a complete reversal of norms, that the Department of Justice, instead of joining his suit, was quietly trying to sandbag it.

That example, as does the much more visible one of the Wagner Group, that private armies and other hired hands don’t always play nicely and sometimes bite the hands that feed them.

By Andrea Mazzarino. Originally published at TomDispatch

The way mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army have been waging a significant part of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has been well covered in the American media, not least of all because his firm, the Wagner Group, draws most of its men from Russia’s prison system. Wagner offers “freedom” from Putin’s labor camps only to send those released convicts to the front lines of the conflict, often on brutal suicide missions.

At least the Russian president and his state-run media make no secret of his regime’s alliance with Wagner. The American government, on the other hand, seldom acknowledges its own version of the privatization of war — the tens of thousands of private security contractors it’s used in its misguided war on terror, involving military and intelligence operations in a staggering 85 countries.

At least as far back as the Civil War through World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the first Gulf War, “contractors,” as we like to call them, have long been with us. Only recently, however, have they begun playing such a large role in our wars, with an estimated 10% to 20% of them directly involved in combat and intelligence operations.

Contractors have both committed horrific abuses and acted bravely under fire (because they have all too often been under fire). From torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to interrogations at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, from employees of the private security firm Blackwater indiscriminately firing on unarmed Iraqi civilians to contractors defending a U.S. base under attack in Afghanistan, they have been an essential part of the war on terror. And yes, they both killed Afghans and helped some who had worked as support contractors escape from Taliban rule.

The involvement of private companies has allowed Washington to continue to conduct its operations around the globe, even if many Americans think that our war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has ended. I tried looking for any kind of a survey of how many of us realize that it continues in Iraq and elsewhere, but all I could find was pollster Nate Silver’s analysis of “lessons learned” from that global conflict, as if it were part of our history. And unless respondents were caring for a combat-wounded veteran, they tended not to look unfavorably on sending our troops into battle in distant lands — so scratch that as a lesson learned from our forever wars. 

None of this surprises me. American troops are no longer getting killed in significant numbers, nor are as many crowding the waitlists at backlogged Veterans Affairs hospitals as would be the case if those troops had been the only ones doing the fighting.

At points during this century’s war on terror, in fact, the U.S. used more civilian contractors in its ongoing wars than uniformed military personnel. In fact, as of 2019, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I co-founded, there were 50% more contractors than troops in the U.S. Central Command region that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and 18 other countries in the Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia. As recently as December 2022, the Pentagon had about 22,000 contractors deployed throughout that region, with nearly 8,000 concentrated in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, most of those workers were unarmed and providing food service, communications aid, and the like. Even more tellingly, roughly two thirds of them were citizens of other countries, particularly lower-income ones.

In 2020, retired Army Officer Danny Sjursen offered an interesting explanation for how the war on terror was then becoming ever more privatized: the Covid-19 pandemic had changed the Pentagon’s war-making strategy as the public began to question how much money and how many lives were being expended on war abroad rather than healthcare at home. As a result, Sjursen argued, the U.S. had begun deploying ever more contractors, remote drones, CIA paramilitaries, and (often abusive) local forces in that war on terror while U.S. troops were redeployed to Europe and the Pacific to contain a resurgent Russia and China. In other words, during the pandemic, Washington placed ever more dirty work in corporate and foreign hands.

(Not) Counting Contractors

It’s been a challenge to write about private security contractors because our government does anything but a good job of counting them. Though the Defense Department keeps quarterly records of how many civilian contractors it employs and where, they exclude employees contracted with the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department.

When Costs of War first tried to count contractor deaths by searching official government sources, we came up short. The spouse of a gravely wounded armed contractor directed me to her blog, where she had started to compile a list of just such deaths based on daily Google searches, even as she worked hard caring for her spouse and managing his disability paperwork. She and I eventually lost touch and it appears that she stopped compiling such numbers long ago. Still, we at the project took a page from her book, while adding reported war deaths among foreign nationals working for the Pentagon to our formula. Costs of War researchers then estimated that 8,000 contractors had been killed in our wars in the Middle East as of 2019, or about 1,000 more than the U.S. troops who died during the same period.

Social scientists Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie have tried to extrapolate from reported contractor deaths in order to paint a picture of who they were while still alive. They believe that most of them were white veterans in their forties; many were former Special Forces operatives and a number of former officers with college degrees).

Limited Choices for Veterans

How do people of relative racial, economic, and gendered privilege end up in positions that, while well-paid, are even more precarious than being in the armed forces? As a therapist serving military families and as a military spouse, I would say that the path to security contracting reflects a deep cultural divide in our society between military and civilian life. Although veteran unemployment rates are marginally lower than those in the civilian population, many of them tend to seek out what they know best and that means military training, staffing, weapons production — and, for some, combat.

I recently spoke with one Marine infantry veteran who had completed four combat tours. He told me that, after leaving the service, he lacked a community that understood what he had been through. He sought to avoid social isolation by getting a government job. However, after applying for several in law enforcement agencies, he “failed” lie detector tests (owing to the common stress reactions of war-traumatized veterans). Having accidentally stumbled on a veteran-support nonprofit group, he ultimately found connections that led him to decide to return to school and retrain in a new profession. But, as he pointed out, “many of my other friends from the Marines numbed their pain with drugs or by going back to war as security contractors.”

Not everyone views contracting as a strategy of last resort. Still, I find it revealing of the limited sense of possibility such veterans experience that the top five companies employing them are large corporations servicing the Department of Defense through activities like information technology support, weapons production, or offers of personnel, both armed and not.

The Corporate Wounded

And keep in mind that such jobs are anything but easy. Many veterans find themselves facing yet more of the same — quick, successive combat deployments as contractors.

Anyone in this era of insurance mega-corporations who has ever had to battle for coverage is aware that doing so isn’t easy. Private insurers can maximize their profits by holding onto premium payments as long as possible while denying covered services.

A federal law called the Defense Base Act (1941) (DBA) requires that corporations fund workers’ compensation claims for their employees laboring under U.S. contracts, regardless of their nationalities, with the taxpayer footing the bill. The program grew exponentially after the start of the war on terror, but insurance companies have not consistently met their obligations under the law. In 2008, a joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica found that insurers like Chicago-based CAN Financial Corps were earning up to 50% profits on some of their war-zone policies, while many employees of contractors lacked adequate care and compensation for their injuries.

Even after Congress called on the Pentagon and the Department of Labor to better enforce the DBA in 2011, some companies continued to operate with impunity visàvis their own workers, sometimes even failing to purchase insurance for them or refusing to help them file claims as required by law.  While insurance companies made tens of millions of dollars in profits during the second decade of the war on terror, between 2009 and 2021, the Department of Labor fined insurers of those contracting corporations a total of only $3,250 for failing to report DBA claims. 

Privatizing Foreign Policy

At its core, the war on terror sought to create an image of the U.S. abroad as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law. Yet there is probably no better evidence of how poorly this worked in practice at home and abroad than the little noted (mis)use of security contractors. Without their ever truly being seen, they prolonged that global set of conflicts, inflicting damage on other societies and being damaged themselves in America’s name. Last month, the Costs of War Project reported that the U.S. is now using subcontractors Bancroft Global Development and Pacific Architects and Engineers to train the Somali National Army in its counterterrorism efforts. Meanwhile, the U.S. intervention there has only helped precipitate a further rise in terrorist attacks in the region.

The global presence created by such contractors also manifests itself in how we respond to threats to their lives. In March 2023, a self-destructing drone exploded at a U.S. maintenance facility on a coalition base in northeastern Syria, killing a contractor employed by the Pentagon and injuring another, while wounding five American soldiers. After that drone was found to be of Iranian origin, President Biden ordered an air strike on facilities in Syria used by Iranian-allied forces. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated, “No group will strike our troops with impunity.” While he later expressed condolences to the family of the contractor who was the only one killed in that attack, his statement could have more explicitly acknowledged that contractors are even more numerous than troops among the dead from our forever wars.

In late December 2019, a contractor working as an interpreter on a U.S. military base in Iraq was killed by rockets fired by an Iranian-backed militia. Shortly afterward, then-President Trump ordered an air strike that killed the commander of an elite Iranian military unit, sparking concern about a dangerous escalation with that country. Trump later tweeted, “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will.”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Trump’s tweet was more honest than Austin’s official statement: such contractors are now an essential part of America’s increasingly privatized wars and will continue to be so, in seemingly ever greater numbers. Even though retaliating for attacks on their lives has little to do with effective counterterrorism (as the Costs of War Project has long made clear), bearing witness to war casualties in all their grim diversity is the least the rest of us can do as American citizens. Because how can we know whether — and for whom — our shadowy, shape-shifting wars “work” if we continue to let our leaders wage an increasingly privatized version of them in ways meant to obscure our view of the carnage they’ve caused?

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  1. The Rev Kev

    I really don’t know how you can keep track of the number of contractors that have been killed and wounded over the years. I suppose for the government they are “disposable assets” that they do not have to account for in the official records. And certainly the merc companies would not want to advertise their losses so it would be a case of word of mouth here trying to find the numbers. It seems one workaround to keeping these people off the books is to use military people who have just been retired. So a few weeks ago the Russians took out an underground Ukrainian/NATO headquarters killing scores of westerners. I have heard that they were mostly recently retired so they would not show up on military death records. Hell, they might go to a colonel, have him “retire”, send them to Ukraine and when their service there is finished, re-commission them back in with a promotion or something. Just like they did with the old WW2 “Flying Tigers” group – only when they got back to the US the military did not initially want to know them.

  2. JonnyJames

    To sum up in a short, crude quote: “War is a racket”. (Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler).

    The corruption and theft in the Dept. of War (DoD) is notorious. Trillions are unaccounted for.

    The privatization of the military was one of the downfalls of the western Roman Empire.

    The logic of military action is not so much conquest, but a way to steal trillions from the public purse and transfer it into private hands – it’s a type of kleptocracy. As they say “follow the money”

    It is not easy to watch the slow collapse of the US Empire, as many of us will suffer.

    1. GF

      Along the lines of “War is a Racket”, how much do the “contractors” receive in pay versus their equivalent military counterparts? And what about the perks comparisons (sign up bonuses, medical care/insurance, life insurance benefits etc)?

      1. JCC

        I worked as an IT contractor in Iraq during the first couple of years. The pay and bonus (payable only if you completed the contract) was much higher than an equivalent Army counterpart. Health insurance was offered but was only worth buying if you had a family back in the States. It didn’t cover injuries due to war. We got the same as soldiers got. I don’t recall exactly what the life insurance benefit was, but I do remember it was no better than what the military offered the soldiers.

        Bottom line, the pay was excellent, the bonus on completion of contract was good, and in the case of the company I worked for, we also received 30 days paid vacation as well as a “vacation bonus” that covered the cost of flying between the US and Iraq which was pretty expensive at that that time.

        The same pretty much applied to truck drivers, electricians, carpenters, engine maintenance and other techinical tradespeople (and “security”, military trainers, etc) that were also American civilians, depending on the company they worked for. On the other hand there were also a lot of Phillipino civilians (and other civilian nationalities including Iraqis) that made far, far less than military counterparts.

        (The reason I took the job was because I had been unemployed for quite awhile when I got the offer and I was getting desparate. It was a financial lifesaver for me.)

        I also saw Haliburton in action. I watched them get paid for stuff they were required to do on a daily basis, but never did. I was pretty amazed at what they got away with… finally learned through direct experience what war profiteering actually meant.

    2. Jabura Basaidai

      a slow motion train wreck of monumental proportions will occur since capital will not go down without a tooth and nail fight – mercenaries was the tell that the Roman empire was stretched too far – Maj Gen Smedley Butler, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob’s song about the Master’s of War have been warning us – Butler was attempted to be recruited for coup, but that’s a whole other story – there seems to be something about human psyche unable to grasp the danger, kinda like the proverbial frog in the pot of water on the stove – good propaganda is only part of the story imho – meanwhile nobody wants to join the armed forces when they hear/read about service members on food stamps and welfare……but the gov has enough to pay mercs? or the difficulty traversing care in the VA hospitals – a very close friend was/is damaged by agent orange during the Vietnam conflict and it was only because his wife is an attorney that he is now receiving care – a slow motion train wreck for sure –

  3. tevhatch

    Andrea Mazzarino is paid staff for CIA cutout Human Rights Watch, so I was trying to figure the angle on her report, it’s function.

    I do know she’s got wrong the story on where Wagner recruits most of it’s men, it is not from the Penitentiary / Penal System. The penal recruits are on 6 month contracts, hardly enough time to train them up for 90% of the jobs a military force would need, much less put them into combat. Also, according to Alexander Mercouris (Duran) most recent two posts, Putin has rescinded the privilege for such recruitment. I think the video I recently tried to post but failed because it was on odysee so probably the server farm AI blocked it. It was a documentary on the assault battalions of Wagner in Ukraine, which may have shocked the Russian populace upon seeing the relative youth of the penal recruits.

    Otherwise it’s an interest post raising some important questions, but again with the journalist’s/activist’s background I wonder why she wrote it the way she did, to what function. Maybe I’m just too cynical.

    1. tevhatch

      I never get enough sleep these days. Had a chance to dig around on the editor, Catherine Lutz, and boy is she deep into the CAI/NED operations via Watson Institute, etc. I believe there is some subtle knifework here with an agenda that is beyond my poor skills to feel.

      1. digi_owl

        Would be satisfying to smash the CIA roach motel once and for all, but i suspect the roaches would just scurry into a million hidey holes and set up new motels there.

        1. Jabura Basaidai

          JFK threatened exactly that to smash the CIA – the rats didn’t scurry –

      2. Col 'Sandy' Volestrangler (ret)

        Thanks for pointing me in useful direction. Certain twists of phrasing had me suspicious. But in these times, any article discussion war anywhere has to insert a line about “Putin’s Brutal Regime”.

  4. bob

    “How do people of relative racial, economic, and gendered privilege end up in positions that, while well-paid, are even more precarious than being in the armed forces?” Ok, last time I come here.

  5. Aurelien

    So she’s a therapist working with military families. Shame that she didn’t ask them to explain a few basic facts. It might have avoided the use of the silly headline.

    Ever since armies became too large to live off the land, and military campaigns were no longer limited to one season, armies on deployment have to be supported in the field. This involves the provision of food and other essentials, and the routine delivery of all non-lethal equipment from computers to uniforms to medical supplies. Traditionally, this is done by local enterprises under contract: hence contractors. In the days of very large conscript armies, some of these mundane tasks could be carried out by people in uniform, but in the days of expensive all-professional armies, that’s no longer possible. Indeed, if you want to negotiate a contract with someone to bring soldiers’ mail in from the airport to the military base, it may actually help to have someone who can speak the local language, since it’s been discovered that not all little brown men speak English. It is also, of course, massively cheaper: just imagine the furore and accusations of waste if westerners were employed in such jobs. So if you visit any overseas military base in the world, not to mention UN Peacekeeping operations or even just Embassies, a lot of the staff doing mundane things will be local employed under contract. Indeed, the UN exerts enormous pressure on its missions to employ local contractors, to put money into the local economy. In some cases, though, directly employing locals isn’t easy. Afghanistan was one such case, where the Taliban were enthusiastically trying to infiltrate military camps, so they could blow themselves up. As a result, the people who served meals in the canteens and cleaned the mess were contracted (that word again) from nearby countries: Bangladesh was one, as I recall.

    Second, deployed armies have a lot of low-level duties to do which are a waste of time for highly-trained professionals. This includes things like VIP protection, static guarding or protected movement. So to save money and avoid misemploying soldiers, contracts (that word) are placed with companies to supply former soldiers on contract to carry out such duties. In general, they are retired military of the country doing the hiring. This is what most Private Military Contractors and so-called “mercenaries” actually do today. (I covered this in a recent essay, so I won’t go into it in detail here.)

    Finally, the US (alone as far as I know) also uses contractors for some intelligence-related work, again for financial reasons and in some cases deploys them in-country. But they are simply replacing full-time professionals who would be doing the same job. There are, of course, many civilians employed as part of military deployments: diplomats, aid workers, medical staff and so forth. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan were basically civilian, and were often protected by “mercenaries” as were the humanitarian NGOs. I hope for her patients sake she’s better informed abut her own speciality.

  6. El Slobbo

    “Wagner Group, draws most of its men from Russia’s prison system. Wagner offers “freedom” from Putin’s labor camps”.

    When the article starts with this kind of silliness, one doesn’t expect much from the rest of it. Wagner Group announced in February that it was no longer recruiting prisoners.
    And I wonder what kind of reaction would be had if Naked Capitalism printed an article that had a sentence with the phrase ‘…offers “freedom” from Biden’s labor camps.’

    1. JonnyJames

      Yeah, the US has far more prisoners per capita than Russia. So, we have Obama/Trump/Biden regime’s prison gulags. The UN has condemned conditions in US prisons as tantamount to torture. The BS and gross hypocrisy is to be expected. Ignorant and self-deluding US denizens don’t want to think about the CIA torture programs, war crimes, and bombing entire countries into the Stone Age. History will be clear that the US, (and British Empire) were some of the most murderous and brutal in history.

  7. skippy

    Alright I’ll have a go …. smiling merc thingy … as decamped Richard Smith once noted …

    Without getting to lost in historical comparisons, say just post WWII, more so post Vietnam. The latter was really big change in how governments, especially the West, starting with security agencies looked at getting things done with deniability and dark monies. This then set up a foundation for every thing else we see today via money flows and removing political blow back from chain of responsibility.

    Some might not be aware that back in the 80s/90s there was SOF mag, solider of fortune, owned and operated out of Colorado. Which ran stories on international conflicts and the deeds of mercs, actual decent reporting, and best of all in the back pages the want ads. This was all out in the open. Running joke was bad tourist shirts and/or fronting customs with bodge credentials as a sales rep for Coke or some other similar mob – wink wink …

    The real change came with Bush Jr and the complete abandonment of any so called social/moral government ethos – it was full on Free Market dynamics as EMH said so. Heaps of articles during that time in MSM about favored political donors and social dynamics leading to contracts when gov just gave money away too a few because[tm] it was invariably more efficient[tm]. This is what spawned guys like Prince who is now a billionaire and will lawfare anyone that makes a stink that would hurt his profit.

    The other rub is unless you have had experience there is no way you can wrap your head around why some do it. Such a diverse background of people involved and as many reasons for doing it. Heck just around me over just this last decade alone, I have come to know more than a few old boys in the 60+ age that come from various South American and South African nations and were elite sorts back in the day. Progression of the conversations, until, everyone is comfortable and then its a completely different reality e.g. a shared reality that most of the population has no concept of.

    Hence the author of this post is like some HS student trying to write a paper on something whilst being so removed from it, no interviews, no anything save some internet or book[????] gleaning its a bad case of the proposition leading the question stuff.

    In the end many do it just like an alcoholic needs another drink because you will never have too deal with the hang over, civilians going on about consumerist woes, white picket fence, land of a thousand screams, makes getting shot at a better alternative.

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