Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The dangerous dogs of war, in the wild, wild West

After the kerfuffle in parliament last year about a couple of mutts savaging children, it's surprising that another type of dangerous dog that's killed hundreds hasn't inspired a similar degree of moral panic. I'm talking mercenaries, and this weekend it was reported a kiwi company was trying to get New Zealand soldiers and policemen into the act.

The mutilation of the four in Fallujah was initially described as wanton murder of civilians. It's now clear they weren'd aid workers, with later qualifications of them as "private security contractors". This article from Time delves into the history of the four and finds if they weren't fighting for cash, they'd probably still have been fighting in Iraq - for the US military. And the image of "security contractors" as fat, underpaid, overworked, badge-wearing morons like those you see outside the Fats is a little misleading.

You can make good money, fighting for your payroll. Blackwater, their employers, charges between $1500 and $2000 USD per day per soldier. The "contractors" themselves probably only see about half of that - but considering public-service pay-packets on offer at national militaries and police forces, it isn't hard to see why so many would want to make the jump to the private sector.

(And it's also quite clear, according to this report, that the death of the four wasn't wanton bloodthirsty rioting either. A Blackwater executive said "we got led into this ambush. We were set up." Slight, sporadic, uncoordinated "uptick" of violence?)

In the first days of the uprising, the Washington Post reported an attack on the US government headquarters in Najaf was repulsed not by the US military, but instead by private commandos from Blackwater. Forget batons, these guys have their own helicopters, armoured vehicles and automatic grenade launchers.

During the defense of the authority headquarters, thousands of rounds were fired and hundreds of 40mm grenades shot. Sources who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of Blackwater's work in Iraq reported an unspecified number of casualties among Iraqis.
And with all the madness going on, and unwilling coalition members talking of pulling out, this trend is likely to accelerate. This, from a follow-up story in the Post.

The demand for a private security force in Iraq has increased since the war ended, said officials with the CPA, the U.S.-led authority that is running the occupation of Iraq. There are about 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq now, including Americans, Iraqis and other foreigners. That number is expected to grow to 30,000 in the near future when the U.S. troop presence is drawn down after the June 30 handover to Iraqi authorities.
The English have deployed 8,000 troops to Iraq. Private soldiers now easily make the second-biggest contribution to the ongoing war. Questions are raised: who are they accountable to? What are their rules of engagement? If even Saddam can't be tried in Iraq, what hope is there to prosecute foreigners who get too trigger happy? If they aren't covered by the Geneva Convention, what are they covered by? A Pentagon spokesperson says "they are not on the U.S. payroll. And so they are not our responsibility." It's looking like a wild, wild West.

Eminent historian Eric Hobsbawn calls private security contractors "the new camp followers". While the Labour government legalised the oldest profession last year, it's now moving to ban arguably the second oldest. The Mercenaries Bill going through the house might have some interesting consequences for anyone going along for a joyride with Red Key (600 applications and counting). As norightturn astutely notes simple security work for a legitimate government might cut it, but for some reason I don't see pitched battles with military weaponry causing dozens of deaths being given the thumbs up.

And finally, some light(er) entertainment. Following John Tamihere's interesting comments last week on the seabed and foreshore debate: "Underneath them are tens of thousands of little Maori people who want a fair result. They're not chequebook horis; they're not born-again horis." I've now started seeing some posters stuck up around town simply saying: Uncle Tomihere.

I love literary graffiti.

UPDATE: [From Cursor] As the Coalition Provisional Authority announces plans to tighten controls on the estimated 20,000 armed contractors on the ground in Iraq, Intel Dump's Phil Carter writes in Slate that "Short of convening a new Geneva Convention... there is no way to fix the ambiguous status of these hired guns."
AND: The death of mercenaries also doesn't create the same kind of anguished hand-wringing that comes with flag-covered coffins. This, from norightturn and courtesy of Robert Fisk; Deaths of scores of mercenaries not reported.