One Analyst On Why The Boom In America's Privatized Military Is 'Here To Stay'

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Contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight in the Iraqi city of Najaf in April 2004. (Gervasio Sanchez/AP)
Contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight in the Iraqi city of Najaf in April 2004. (Gervasio Sanchez/AP)

Demand for military contractors surged with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but what impact has the boom in private defense contractors had on the U.S. military?

Continuing our weeklong look at privatization in America, Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Molly Dunigan (@MollyDunigan), associate director of the Defense and Political Sciences Department at RAND Corp., about the rise of military contracting and how it has changed the U.S. military.

Interview Highlights

On how long military privatization has existed

"So this is actually a phenomenon that has been around for thousands and thousands of years. The oldest recorded use of mercenaries in war was in 2094 B.C. It was more normed to see private forces for the majority of the time since that period than it was to see state-run forces. It really actually took up until the end of the French Revolution, so 1815, for there to actually be more of a development of state-run militaries that were the basic standard."

On the uptick in U.S. use of military contractors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

"Yes, so we saw a little bit in the Gulf War — in [Operation] Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. We saw a slight increase in the use of contractors, mainly for base operations support and maintenance, in the Balkans in the late-'90s, but then yes, in 2003 we saw a huge ballooning of the industry — primarily in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan. That has since declined somewhat with the drawdown of forces in both theaters, but majorly, really sort of changed the industry. I think for the most part, some of those things are here to stay now."

On the advantages military contractors offer

"There are several things, the first is flexibility. Contractors can be called upon fairly quickly and have forces ready to go that are trained and equipped, for the most part. And then the second is that they're force multipliers. They can easily add more boots on the ground. It depends on the theater and the Status of Forces Agreement that they have in that theater. But sometimes contractors can also get around force management levels. There are certain caps put on the number of military boots on the ground in-theater, but not necessarily on Department of Defense civilians or contractors, and so you can actually add more bodies to your force without actually reaching that limit."

"This is actually a phenomenon that has been around for thousands and thousands of years. The oldest recorded use of mercenaries in war was in 2094 B.C."

Molly Dunigan

On military contractors' role in the 2007 incident in Baghdad's Nisour Square

"It's still a little bit unclear what happened there. There's a lot of what we call the 'fog of war' surrounding that incident. Essentially, they were in a traffic circle in Baghdad. These were security contractors that were working on a diplomatic contract for the Department of State, and so they were protecting diplomats. They were in a convoy, so they were traveling through this traffic circle in Nisour Square. And it appears that an Iraqi civilian car had started to move, they weren't sure if it was an insurgent or not. It all of a sudden just escalated so that shots were fired amongst a number of civilian vehicles. And as you know, many were killed, and many more were injured.

"It did change the level of accountability somewhat in that, this was the first case that was successfully tried in the U.S. for contractors using the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. This is a U.S. domestic law that was passed in 2000 to try contractors working on overseas bases. But because these were U.S. citizen contractors, they were able to be tried under that act, and they were convicted. And so that does set somewhat of a precedent for utilizing U.S. domestic law to hold contractors accountable."

On whether there are jobs considered to be off-limits to contractors

"Contractors are technically not allowed to perform what are called 'inherently governmental activities.' That term is defined somewhat loosely, it's a little bit of a nebulous term. But they are not supposed to be performing functions that are, you know, something that really should be done by government personnel, something like developing budgets on the military side, actually performing offensive combat activities. That is something that contractors are not allowed to do — they are only supposed to operate in a defensive fashion. Of course you can quickly see how the lines become blurred in a case such as Nisour Square."

On the U.S. government's responsibilities when it comes to contractors' health

"We did a study on this at RAND several years ago as well and found that the rates of [post-traumatic stress disorder] among this population are surprisingly high. We found for the U.S. military, rates of PTSD ranged from approximately 8 to 20 percent, depending on how you're measuring it, and what tools you're using to measure it. We surveyed a sample of 660 contractors, multinational. A large proportion of them were U.S., but we had 25 countries representative in total. And we found that they were screening positive for PTSD at a rate of 25 percent. So it was much higher than what we see amongst the military. And more troubling was that we found that a lot of these folks were seeking help for PTSD, or reporting any symptoms of PTSD was highly stigmatized for them. A lot of these folks were screening positive for it and were afraid to seek help. They were afraid that there would be repercussions from the industry, that they would not get another contract, that they would lose their job, essentially, and their livelihood."

On whether military contractors have changed the way the U.S. fights wars

"There have definitely been arguments put forth that the ability to utilize contractors — somewhat quietly — can give a country and a government plausible deniability when going into a new theater of war. So putting boots on the ground somewhat covertly, they don't necessarily have to be identified as U.S. boots on the ground. They don't have to be authorized by Congress.

"Another way in which they've changed the face of warfare — and this is more in a tactical sense — we saw for instance in 2004 in Fallujah, there were four [Blackwater USA] contractors that were brutally murdered by insurgents who attacked their vehicles. This actually has been shown to have totally changed the U.S. military strategy with how to deal with Fallujah, and caused the Marines to go in and attack Fallujah much, much earlier than they had originally planned. It really revised their entire strategy. So yes, I mean the short answer is yes, that contractors definitely do impact how we fight wars and the decisions that are made about war making."

This article was originally published on May 10, 2017.

This segment aired on May 10, 2017.



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