Public Comment

Commentary: Contracting Out the Troop Death Tolls

By Jane Stillwater
Tuesday April 24, 2007

On my plane flight back from Iraq, I was cogitating on what I had learned while I was there and, in between the in-flight movie and the rubber chicken, I started remembering what one female Parliamentarian I had interviewed kept saying to me. “The number of American troops that have died over here is much higher than reported because they do not count the contractors.” 

Counting contractors’ deaths? Was she talking about including the deaths of mercenary soldiers into the U.S. troop death count? I guess she was. But their deaths, although tragic, wouldn’t have made the troop death toll all that much higher. Or would it? 

Then, as my plane was cruising at 35,000 feet somewhere over Greenland, it finally hit me what she was talking about. “Contractors!” She wasn’t talking about the handful of mercenaries out doing battle on the front lines. She was talking about the 130,000 contractors (according to Defense News) doing battle on the chow lines, the truck lines, the supply lines and PX lines in Iraq.  

Everywhere you go in the Green Zone and on all the military bases in Iraq, you see “contractors” doing jobs that were formerly done by soldiers. In Vietnam, the soldiers themselves did all these jobs. The supply clerks were soldiers. The janitors were soldiers. The sentries were soldiers. There were soldiers on KP, in the motor pool, in the offices, on guard duty, manning checkpoints, on the road. Now all that work is being done by contractors. Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “When you cut them, do they not also bleed?” 

“The reason there are significantly lower numbers of troop deaths in Iraq now than there were in Vietnam is because of our more efficient body armor,” everyone tells me. Hell, no. The reason there is a significantly lower number of troop deaths in Iraq now is because nobody counts the contractors’ deaths. Six hundred contractors are dead and 4,000 are wounded? But now we can’t count them because of semantics? Whatever.  

One contractor I met in Iraq said to me recently, “A friend of mine in the supply office got killed by a mortar last week.” And then she cried. 

Whether we officially count them or not, the price that “contractors” pay for our country is the same. And the costs of this “war” are just as enormous to their families and friends. By using contractors instead of soldiers and not counting their deaths and fiddling with the numbers, the Department of Defense tries to make this “war” a little bit more palatable. But guess what? I find this peekaboo game that the Defense Department is playing with dead people to be in “grave” error. 


PS: Contractors do not like to get killed. But our troops don’t particularly like getting killed either!  


PPS: Every time I talked with a soldier and he or she found out that I was a journalist, they would always say the same thing. “When you go back home, please tell people that our tours of duty have just been extended to 15 months and we are not happy campers about that!” You know, serving in Iraq isn’t all that bad—because of the work ethic, the comradeship and the can-do attitude of our troops and, yes, of our contractors too. Plus it’s a steady job. But still and all. It’s hot over there in the summer and people shoot at you! And despite help from the “contractors,” our troops are really stretched thin (and that idiot in the White House is talking about starting a war with Iran? With what troops?) Thus yet another extended tour of duty far away from spouses and family does not sit well with the troops.  


PPPS: Bush and Cheney’s failure of leadership have gotten us bogged down in disaster after disaster, including the World Trade Center, Katrina, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Israel/Palestine tragedy and Iraq. Bad concepts, bad planning and bad execution are their stock in trade. Let’s ditch these bums before they can think up something else to foul up! 

Iraqi citizens in the neighborhoods are truly sick of all this violence and they appear to be organizing at the neighborhood level to protect their own from the warring factions that rage above them -- at their expense. Listen up, guys. This is hopeful.  

I just got an e-mail from reporter Stewart Nusbaumer. He said, “You would love to be where I am now. The colonel here is damn sensitive, and is doing the right way. Let the Iraqis sort it out, help them. Don’t impose. Let them have their neighborhood watches, make them professionals slowly.  

“I’m in town now, it looks like a nuke was dropped here. Hit, the town, was a major insurgents stronghold, they ran the town. Then the people, evidently, said enough. Now the big thing is for the United States to help them create a police from local people.  

“Now, that is simplified, and things are not black/white, and the commander is taking a chance here in trusting locals, helping them out a little at a time. But the colonel knows he is leaving, that it is up to them....”  

So. If Americans throw Bush and Cheney in jail, then average Iraqis who are struggling so hard to bring order to their poor shredded country will see by example that Americans don’t tolerate gangsta behavior either. Throwing Bush and Cheney in jail just might be the exact token gesture to start bringing peace to Iraq! 


PPPPS: I met the most wonderful surgical tech at the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. “I was trained by the Army for this job,” she told me. You shoulda seen her in action, stepping up to the plate and helping to save lives. The most important thing in the world one can possibly do is to save a human life. I envied her. I wanna save human lives too! And if you are just out of high school and jobless and are afraid to leave your sleazy boyfriend because he’s so needy and cute, here’s a recommendation from me: Join the Army and become a surgical tech. You will be helping out people far more needy than the cute boyfriend—plus the guys over here are all far more cute. 

And, like that wonderful surgical tech in Baghdad, let’s concentrate on helping to save lives in Iraq, not to destroy them. Iraq needs a Marshall Plan, not a “surge". Exxon doesn’t need all that extra oil money. But Iraq does. 3,000 Iraqi citizens meet violent deaths every month. Imagine the Virginia Tech tragedy times 100 every single month. That’s a hecka lot of post-traumatic stress.  


Berkeley resident Jane Stillwater, sponsored by the Lone Star Iconoclast of Crawford, Texas, blogged during her recent trip to Iraq. To read more of her posts, see