OLEAN -- There are plenty of aspects about the Bush administration's occupation of Iraq that approach sitting-duck status for criticism. The fighting in Iraq is, as the military likes to define promising battlefields, a "target-rich environment" for journalists, academics, politicians, peaceniks, talking heads and sidewalk opponents of the war alike.
But one important facet of the controversial war -- until recently -- has drawn little attention from the critics.
The Pentagon, using your money and mine, has gone into a costly competition with itself for able bodies to take on dangerous security assignments that include almost routine combat.
If a dunderhead college student submitted this loser business plan in Industrial Management 101, he'd flunk.
We've all heard and read the stories about troubles the Army and Marines are having meeting recruiting goals as the unpopular war rages. In the early part of 2005, for the first time in years, both branches missed recruiting goals by a wide margin for several months in a row. The Pentagon -- which hasn't had the draft to rely upon for new personnel since 1973 -- reacted.
More recruiters were thrown into the breach. Signing bonuses were increased from $6,000 to $10,000 to -- in some cases -- $20,000. College scholarships ballooned from $50,000 to $70,000. Standards were relaxed. The percentage of allowable volunteers without a high school degree was raised dramatically. TV and print commercials were changed to target reluctant parents instead of the sons and daughters. Some recruits were told they'd only have to serve 15 months instead of the normal two years.
Despite the 1,800 dead and 14,000 wounded in Iraq, the new strategies seemed to work. The numbers are up for July -- with the Army and Marines back above monthly goals -- but the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard are all expected to fall below annual recruitment targets by Sept. 30, when the federal fiscal year ends.
But the shortened training times now in force and the hurry-up aspect of shipping new grunts directly to Iraq soon after boot camp have made retention of trained, hardened and skilled veteran personnel -- particularly Special Operations, Delta Force, Navy Seal and Ranger types -- especially important.
This is where the people running this war have painted themselves into a costly corner.
Special Forces personnel -- key to any eventual success in Iraq -- are now being offered re-enlistment bonuses of up to $150,000 each. And these huge amounts are being spurned.
That's because retention of key combat personnel is being eroded by far better money offers from federally hired "private security companies" -- as their executives insist they be called. Once on board and back in the private sector of dangerous military operations in Iraq, these highly trained fighters and specialists can make up to a quarter of a million dollars or more (most of it tax-free) in a year's worth of salary -- certainly better than Army pay.
These men, of course, are mercenaries -- professional soldiers hired for pay in an outfit other than their country's armed forces. The "private security companies" recoil from that designation, but that is what they are, nonetheless. They are private, well-paid gunmen.
In one of its best articles of the year, The New York Times Magazine of Aug. 14 detailed the quiet expansion of these new hybrid forces in Iraq. Author Daniel Bergner writes there are about 80 private firms, maybe 100, with approximately 25,000 armed men -- about 15 percent of the weapons-carrying allied personnel in Iraq -- guarding big American corporations that are reconstructing Iraq. They, side by side with American troops, shield American compounds from attack, keep safe workers who are rebuilding power stations and sewage plants, guard generals, protect military bases, and hold off insurgents so supplies can be delivered.
Some of the private gunmen -- not all Americans -- are drop-outs from law enforcement and soldiers of fortune who participated in other global conflicts in past decades. Many come from Chile, Ukraine, Fiji, Great Britain, Romania, South Africa, even Iraq itself.
No one seems to be keeping track of how many there really are, or of the totals being paid these firms, or who authorized them, approved them, or signed the contracts. The Pentagon, after promising these details to The New York Times, stiff-armed the newspaper and "detoured fully around the questions," according to Bergner.
The Defense Department would only state that "private security companies" are not being used "to perform inherently military functions." (That word "inherently" carries a lot of freight. The private armed firms, all by themselves, have already held off unexpected full-scale insurgent attacks upon regional Coalition Provisional Authority compounds in the Iraqi towns of Kut and Najaf.)
But one can do the math. One of the biggest private firms -- Triple Canopy (headquartered in the United States), with about 1,000 men in Iraq -- receives about $250 million a year from the Defense Department, and is so highly regarded in Washington that the State Department has designated it one of three such companies that will divide $1 billion a year in new protection work in powder-keg nations around the planet -- formerly a job the Marines usually performed. That's just one firm.
The North Carolina private security firm Blackwater USA (the firm whose four employees in Fallujah last year were killed, and their charred body parts hung from a bridge) is thought to receive at least as much.
The above number of private personnel on the ground in Iraq doesn't even include the 70,000 more unarmed civilians -- some of them Iraqis -- working for American firms and agencies that provide former military duties in Iraq, the most notable of which is Halliburton and subsidiaries, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company.
Halliburton, which received incredibly mammoth no-bid federal contracts at the start of the war for things like providing food, laundry, soft drinks, equipment washers and gasoline deliveries to the troops in Iraq, has recently been accused by Senate Democrats, whistle-blowers, Army auditors and the Pentagon's own Defense Contract Audit Agency of billing taxpayers more than $1.4 billion in questionable unsupported charges. (One food manager for Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root told Pentagon investigators that KBR officials threatened to dispatch any workers who talked to federal auditors to more dangerous zones of Iraq.) These daily duties now outsourced to private firms used to be handled by members of the Armed Forces themselves. At least a general or other high officer could crack down on waste and corruption in those saner days without fighting bureaucrats and needing a congressional investigation to get started.
The high pay for our armed mercenaries in Iraq is probably necessary to attract such danger-loving security workers.
Triple Canopy employees -- in just half a year in 2004 -- were attacked by insurgents at least 240 times and got in about 40 firefights. The company stopped keeping track, but estimates the frequency of assaults is about the same this year.
The Pentagon's difficulty in trying to retain Special Ops experts with non-competitive bonuses was evident in the article when the Times garnered a quote from a Delta Force veteran of 15 years who ignored the fervent pleas of his commanding officer and joined Triple Canopy instead of re-upping: "There was no way. Here (in the private security company) I get to be with the best and make so much more money."
Using mercenaries to fight your wars was basically outlawed by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and pretty much ended after centuries of use in the 1700s, when sovereign nations came to the fore and better weapons required less professional skill. Nations found it easier to train any simple clod to fight and become cannon fodder rather than pay big sums to hire professionals. (We all were taught in grade school how dastardly and conniving King George III was in hiring 30,000 Hessians to spare British lives in fighting our brave boys in the American Revolution.)
But after 9/11 and even before we invaded Iraq, the Bush administration hired about 40 private gunmen from the U.S. company DynCorp to guard new president Hamid Karzai once we took over Afghanistan. Once we invaded Iraq in 2003, the commanding general, now retired, Jay Garner, immediately hired Nepalese Gurkhas and South Africans from a British security company to protect himself and his staff. It was off to the races.
No one has raised much of a fuss. Almost a year ago, Congress asked the Pentagon to provide a detailed plan for listing, managing, accounting for, and overseeing private contractors, but despite repeated promises, the Defense Department has yet to provide it.
One obvious reason the Pentagon and Bush administration warriors like the idea of mercenaries who don't draw much attention is that it allows them to pretend we have far fewer war fighters on the ground in Iraq than we really do. If any mode of operation makes it easy to fudge the figures or cloud the costs, the Bush White House and Pentagon like it.
Army chief of staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said in a Kansas City speech over the weekend there are now 138,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq, and that plans to keep such a force there until 2009, if need be, are already drawn up. That number swells when you consider all the private armed gunmen.
There are a couple of dire conclusions here.
One -- It's going to be quite difficult in the near future to appeal to a sense of duty and patriotism in young Americans, as we have for two centuries when it came to fighting wars, when on the other hand we are using pure monetary gain as the main cudgel in keeping our people on the battlefield and showing up at boot camp.
Two -- This dangerous conundrum is merely a symptom of a larger and more deadly cultural problem: corporate greed. For the Iraq war, when you think about it, is being conducted by the Bush administration on the same crippling and wrongheaded strategy that has become so popular with the big business greedheads who are ruining our economy and the nation for their own personal gain: drastically downsize the workforce to free up billions of untrackable dollars, then outsource the vital production services to like-minded privateers, whether they be American or foreign.
Oh, and while you're at it, close down scores of military bases, shipyards and airfields in the name of economy, promise false savings, and ruin local economies across the nation.
Do American citizens and taxpayers get screwed in the end? Of course.
Do our leaders of government care? Of course not.
John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years.
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