Editorial: Mercenaries Amok in Iraq

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 04, 2004

The mythic history of the American Revolution which used to be taught in the elementary schools (and perhaps still is) reserved a special bad guy slot for the role of the Hessian soldiers who fought with the British against the American revolutionaries. They were “mercenaries,” hirelings who fought for money instead of for principle (like the Americans) or for king (like the Redcoats). Never mind that the major part of the payment for their services went to their German rulers, and that the Hessians themselves were poorly paid peasants. (Many of them were stranded in the United States with no way to get home when the war was over.) Americans, our teachers made clear, didn’t use mercenaries. World War II was fought by citizens, not mercenaries.  

The Vietnam war, which was fought some years after I left grade school, saw the beginning of American reliance on foreign mercenaries in particular circumstances. The Hmong people were used as mercenaries by the U.S. forces, so that after the war many of them were forced to flee to the United States for resettlement. But the current occupation of Iraq has given a major role to a new kind of mercenary: the international soldiers of fortune who are in it strictly for the money. Michael Moore, as usual, has nailed the euphemisms used to describe them: 

“Those are not ‘contractors’ in Iraq. They are not there to fix a roof or to pour concrete in a driveway. They are mercenaries …they are there for the money, and the money is very good if you live long enough to spend it.”  

Many rank-and-file employees of mercenary corporations, of course, are no more culpable than the Hessian peasants who were hired to fight for George III. Tommy Hamill, who has just escaped from captivity in Iran, has the same reason for becoming a mercenary that many of the Hessians had: he’s in debt. According to the Jackson Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, he’s “a former dairy farmer who took a truck-driving job in Iraq to save his family from bankruptcy.” As the two-tier economy continues to dominate the United States, more and more Americans who aren’t making it financially may be forced to become mercenary employees of war profiteers. And their employers, the Halliburtons and the CACIs, will continue to fatten off their labors, just as the Hessian princes profited from sending their poor farmers to fight in the American Revolution. 

Some of the mercenaries who are hired by the corporations in Iraq, however, are (mincing no words) evil embodied. They are trained to torture and to kill, and they’re paid handsomely for their skill. Seymour Hersh in the May 10 New Yorker quotes a February report on the allegations of torture in an Iraq prison:  

“‘I suspect,’ [General] Taguba concluded, that [army intelligence officers] Pappas, Jordan, [and CAIC International, Inc. employees] Stephanowicz and Israel ‘were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuse at Abu Ghraib.’ “ 

Contracting firms like CACI operate a revolving door employment agency for ex-military who want to make big bucks on the outside. CACI’s web page sports the slogan “ever vigilant” as a cutline in its logo. Job seekers who have a top-secret clearance can go to a special webpage to apply for work at CACI.  

The result is the creation of an amoral culture of violence-for-profit which is not even subject to the kinds of controls which still occasionally restrain the behavior of the U.S. armed forces. A former military man from Florida now working for a contracting company in Iraq, identified only as “Scott”, e-mailed his assessment of the situation to a friend who posted it on the Internet on April 8: 

“Instead of a professional military outfit here we have a bunch of cowboys and vigilantes running wild in the streets. The ugly American has never been so evident. Someone in charge needs to drop the hammer on this lack of discipline, especially that which is being shown by the Special Forces, security contractors, and ‘other government agencies.’ We won the war but that doesn't mean we can treat the people of this country with contempt and disregard with no thought to the consequences.” 

This week’s revelations about what went on at Abu Ghraib prison, and probably elsewhere in Iraq, have shown Scott to be a prophet. The consequences which he predicted will be felt for years to come. 

—Becky O’Malleye