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Camp Followers, Contractors, and Carpetbaggers in Iraq

by Richard F. MillerHistory News Network
January 9th, 2006

Boarding the C-130 for Baghdad at a U.S. base in Kuwait I was surprised to discover that despite the military flight, the majority of my fellow passengers were not soldiers but private contractors. I was thus reminded of one constant in military history that seems to transcend time and place—where armies go private enterprise will surely follow. Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War is replete with privately outfitted vessels, grain merchants supplying distant armies, and friendly city-states welcoming hungry combatants into their agorae. However, the relationship between private enterprise and armies has always been controversial, and it is useful to make some elementary classifications. On a recent embed to Iraq I had an opportunity to see how several of these categories were manifest as well as to make some connections between what some have called a “Contractors’ War” and several larger aspects of the Bush administration’s reconstruction strategy for Iraq.

Camp Followers

There have always been civilians who have quite literally followed armies. Establishing camps just outside the military perimeter, when the army moved, they moved, thus earning the name “camp followers.” While this term usually conjures images of prostitutes and unscrupulous merchants plying contraband to soldiers, the vast majority were likely soldiers’ wives and children, washer women, servants, slaves, photographers, religious ministries, journalists, military equipment contractors and sutlers purveying legitimate merchandise. By the time of the American Civil War, camp followers were sufficiently important to merit special mention in Dr. Francis Lieber’s famed General Orders 100 (1863), an early attempt to codify wartime conduct for Federal troops. It declared that, “[C] itizens who accompany an army for whatever purpose, such as sutlers, editors, or reporters of journals, or contractors, if captured, may be made prisoners of war….”

Today, most of the legal merchandizing functions once served by this semi-regulated swarm of camp followers have been replaced by the PX or post-exchange. A visit to the usually crowded PX at Camp Fallujah stills any doubts about the importance of providing these items. The Fallujah PX fills approximately 4,000 square feet of retail space and somehow manages to blend Wal-Mart-type merchandise with a convenience store’s snappy atmosphere. Located within the camp perimeter, it is strictly regulated as to personnel, hours and goods. Yet the PX does share one important feature with its sutler-predecessors, one that seems laced through the overall U.S. management of the Iraq War—it shifts the cost of many items from the government to private parties, in this case, the soldiery. And not just the cost of junk food—some of the most popular clothing items at the Fallujah PX include cold weather gear, socks, gloves, Under Armor shirts and long johns—items with important field applications. Still, the Iraq War has something like traditional camp followers. One of the unreported stories of the conflict are the large numbers of young people from places like India and Sri Lanka who have come to Iraq specifically to sell food (e.g., Subway franchises), merchandise, and establish custom tailoring shops for the benefit of Coalition forces. As with camp followers from every time and place, they take increased personal risks in exchange for likely profits.

Defense Contractors

Today few Americans raise objections over retail sales to soldiers. However, for a second type of business—the defense contractor—public attitudes have always been ambivalent. Referring to substandard goods produced by some war contractors, the term “shoddy” was already trite by Appomattox. In the aftermath of World War I, accusations of profiteering, especially against arms’ merchants, had become a trope. During World War II, Sen. Harry S. Truman partly earned his 1944 nomination as Roosevelt’s vice-president because he led important hearings that exposed serious wrongdoing by some defense contractors. More recently, the $100 toilet seat has become shorthand for waste, fraud and abuse in military contracting. Curiously, in the Iraq War (and perhaps for the first time in recent American history) few complaints are heard about defense contractors per se. Instead, the focus seems to have shifted to the civilian management of the war effort, especially in procurement—for example, questioning whether U.S. forces are properly armored both on their persons (quantity and quality of Kevlar vests) or in their vehicles (numbers of up-armored Humvees and transports). The questions raised by today’s critics have less to do with providing poorly made or overpriced supplies rather than insufficient quantities of the right supplies, with the fault laid at the Defense Department’s doorstep.

Carpetbaggers and Reconstructions

However, next to the Iraq invasion itself, one of the most controversial aspects of the war concerns another category of private contractor—the reconstruction entrepreneur, or, as some would call them, “carpetbaggers.” The word carpetbagger is deeply rooted in the American experience. While the inexpensive carpetbag—two pieces of carpet sewn together and joined with a handle—was invented in the 1830s, the term “carpetbagger” acquired its connotation after the Civil War. In 1868 a Northerner reported on the “great deal of bitterness” that some Southerners displayed “in regard to the presence, and great prominence of members, of what Louisiana people call ‘carpet-baggers’—men, that is, who are new comers in the country.” A Southerner put the matter more succinctly: “I would sooner trust the Negro than the white scalawag or carpet-bagger.” In Lost Cause historiography, which in the decades following Appomattox, dominated Southern, and eventually Northern memories of the war and reconstruction, carpetbaggers were seen as opportunistic Yankees, as portrayed in the film Gone With The Wind by the character of Northerner Jonas Wilkerson, the former overseer who after the war sought to buy Tara for unpaid taxes. In many respects, carpetbagger rhetoric was an extension of antebellum secessionist ideology, which caricatured Northern society as excessively mercenary, lacking the “higher” ideals.

While this rhetoric probably fit some entrepreneurs, the term was actually applied with the same (or greater) vehemence to Northerners serving the Freedmen’s Bureau such as the likely thousands of Yankee “schoolmarms” educating the newly freed slaves. Moreover, even profit-driven business interests brought with them one commodity that the war-ravaged South desperately needed—capital. But many white natives hated the racial, social and economic changes these “new comers” represented. Reaction was swift, ranging from non-violent ostracism to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In its original usage then, “carpetbagger” was a reactionary’s word, a term of opprobrium most useful to those on the losing side of the Civil War.

It is not surprising then, given the partisan divide over the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, that the word carpetbagger has again resurfaced—invariably used by those who opposed the war, or who see an economic motive in the Bush administration’s management of Iraqi reconstruction. Speaking for these dissenting Americans, one website devoted to exposing what it says are abuses by corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton flatly declares, “ These companies are modern versions of carpetbaggers,” and includes on its homepage a famous 19th century cartoon depicting the species. (Nor is the term applied exclusively to reported profiteers. A Muslim website created a stir by denouncing Christian evangelist Franklin Graham as a “spiritual carpetbagger” after he declared his interest in proselytizing Iraqis.)

Whatever truths eventually surface from these partisan arguments, during my time in Iraq I could not help but notice the ubiquity of one kind of reconstruction entrepreneur—the PSD or Personal Security Detail. President Bush’s broad, international “coalition of the willing” does exist but in the form of mercenaries carrying Irish, French, British, South African, Russian, German, Ukrainian, American and Nepalese (Gurkhas) passports. These (mostly) men were guarding corporate and governmental facilities, training Iraqi police, firefighters and soldiers, as well providing personal protection for Western and Iraqi civilians. It is useful to reflect on the presence of the PSDs because of the light they shed on the Bush administration’s closely entwined military, political and reconstruction policies.

Licensed to carry arms by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the PSDs’ large-scale presence certainly illustrates the previously noted pattern of cost shifting prevalent in military installations. Any corporation whose CPA contracts require an onsite presence had better provide for its own private security. But cost shifting is a consequence of other factors, and in this respect, U.S. Iraq reconstruction policy is different from any other in American history.

Two points emphasized by the presence of PSDs need to be considered sequentially. The first, now obvious to most observers, is that the U.S. lacks sufficient troops to provide meaningful ground security in all but a few key places—and not always there. Less often discussed is a second reason that lurks behind the first. If the goal were to “defeat” the insurgency, the level of ground troops should have been doubled (or more) to provide a safer environment for reconstruction, especially in the Sunni Triangle. But the goal is not (and never was) to militarily defeat the insurgency. Rather, if one ignores political rhetoric and focuses on where boots are actually on what ground—call it a garrison and patrol strategy—a strong inference arises that the overall military and political goals of reconstruction is merely to contain the insurgency until a combination of the ISF and local constabulary can assume the security function.

This is important, because it weakens one of the administration’s rationales used to sustain public support for the war—we fight the terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here. Indeed, as already acknowledged by the Bush administration, a majority of the Iraqi insurgents are a combination of former Ba’athists and assorted nationalists—not those likely to wage a jihad inside the United States. What this also suggests is that even given the most optimistic scenarios for reorganizing the ISF, the insurgency could continue for decades. This is not an insurmountable problem—many countries manage to function even with active, domestic terrorists (e.g., Russia, Israel, Spain, Algeria.)

But a garrison-and-patrol strategy cannot produce safety comparable to the security standards of occupied Germany, Japan or Italy. Whatever the public was led to expect, it is my opinion that even after confronting a larger-than-expected insurgency, U.S. forces in Iraq were never intended to produce post-WWII levels of security; rather, security is maintained at levels sufficient to keep the oil fields and MSRs [Main Routes of Supply] open and commerce flowing. (Perhaps it is an unintended consequence, but in one perverse sense, weaker security also provides the Iraqis with incentives to accelerate domestic security formation, i.e., the U.S. will not “do” it for them.) Nevertheless, because so much reconstruction—of power grids, water and sewer systems, and telecommunications, to name a few—takes place away from the protective wing of U.S./Iraqi forces, private entities are sometimes left to fend for themselves. Thus, in parts of Iraq, private contractors are kidnapped, sometimes for ransom, sometimes for murder; and sometimes, private security services battle insurgents and criminals directly.

Making connections between U.S. corporate and political interests involved Iraqi reconstruction, monitoring for price gouging, rigged and no-bid contracts, and scrutinizing the DoD’s procurement policies is as American as apple pie. But in today’s Iraq, carpetbags are more likely to be filled with Glock 9mm pistols or HK MP5 submachine guns rather than cheap cigars or crooked contracts. Until the security situation improves, reconstruction will continue to be erratic. In fact, given Iraq’s vast oil wealth and its 30% (or higher) unemployment, reconstruction has barely begun.

Mr. Miller is author of Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as well as A Carrier at War: Shock and Awe Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (Potomac Books, 2005). He was an embedded journalist in the Gulf during OIF I and more recently, in Baghdad and Fallujah.