Soldiers of Misfortune

How American private security contractors in Iraq became victimizers and victims.

They were on every flight from Amman to Baghdad: hard-faced men dressed in civilian khakis and boots, their bodies solid and tough, their hair usually shorn to a crew cut. They didnt talk much, and exuded an air of confident menace. Everyone on the plane knew who they were: private security contractors. Most were former military men who had come to Iraq for the money, earning far more than they could back home, in exchange for the real risk of getting shot or having their heads cut off by kidnappers.

In the first months after the invasion, their presence was mostly a tacit detail. Any occupation requires a few extra hired guns. Only later did we begin to hear stories about thuggish foreigners in civilian dress spraying machine-gun fire from the backs of sport-utility vehicles. Our translators lived in fear of them. American soldiers often cursed them, saying the contractors operated outside of any rules and made their own job harder. But our resentment was mixed with ambivalence, because they protected us, too. All the major foreign media outlets with offices in Baghdad paid private security firms. Between 2004 and 2006, during my time covering the Iraq War, I rarely took a trip out of our compound without talking to our British security chiefwhose salary dwarfed mineabout what route was safest, whether to take the armored car or not, and how many armed guards would be traveling with me.

Steve Fainaru, a reporter for the Washington Post, spent more than a year reporting and writing about private security contractors in Iraq, and won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize last year for his work. The broad outlines of the story are an amazing parable of governmental failure: the Bush administration sent too few soldiers to police Iraqs chaos, and as the violence grew worse, a parallel army formed on the wars margins, drawing from “a vast pool of veterans and ex-cops, adrenaline junkies, escapees from the rat race, the patriotic, the bankrupt, the greedy, the terminally and perpetually bored,” as Fainaru puts it. As with so many aspects of the American occupation, no one had thought seriously about the consequences of bringing so many well-armed civiliansmany of them trigger happyinto such a dangerous environment. Were they adjuncts to the military? Should Iraqi law apply to them, or American? No one knew, and no one seemed to care. The money kept flowing, and Iraqi life was cheap. Only in late 2007, when a group of contractors with Blackwater Worldwide killed seventeen Iraqis in Baghdads Nisour Square, did Iraqi rage over the issue force a reckoning. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded answers, and Blackwater had to suspend operations. The Justice Department eventually charged five Blackwater contractors with murder in December 2008, and now Iraqs government has demanded that all contractors be subject to Iraqi law in the future. (In early 2009, Blackwater, banned in Iraq and struggling to retool its image, changed its name to Xe.)

Fainaru sketches out the broad arc of this story, but his book, Big Boy Rules: Americas Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq, is centered on a single terrifying incident. In November 2006, five security contractors were kidnapped in southern Iraq by a group of well-armed insurgents that included Iraqi former employees of the company for whom the contractors worked, Crescent Security. Fainaru had just been traveling with the kidnapped men the week before, and had gotten to know them well. His narrative of their lives and backgrounds and of the attack in which they were captured, published at length in the Post, was spectacular journalism.

But Big Boy Rules offers little that is new, and what it does provide is disappointing. Like many books by reporters, this one appears to have been written too fast, rehashing the newspaper stories on which it is based without building them into an organic narrative. Fainaru does flesh out the lives of the five kidnapped men, who were found dead many months later. He was clearly moved by his encounters with their families, yet the poignancy of these meetings fails to come alive. These men and their families went through something awful, but so have many others in this war, and the grief captured in Big Boy Rules tells us little about Fainarus subject.

The book is also marred by Fainarus decision to weave in the story of his fathers death, which coincided with his reporting on the kidnapping. He clearly wanted to break down the distance between himself and his subject, to show that every foreigner who went to Iraq was in some sense a mercenary, journalists included. But the material feels irrelevant here. Too many publishers urge young authors of nonfiction books to “make it personal” by bringing in their own lives, and here, as so often, its the wrong call.

Far more vivid is the story of Crescent Security, which Fainaru calls the “K-mart of private security.” It hired “former cage fighters, tow-truck operators, qualified AARP members, then handed them weapons and sent them out into Iraq.” The training was nonexistent. The company handed out fake IDs to get its contractors onto U.S. military bases. Some of the contractors Fainaru spent time withas the subtitle of the book shows, he prefers to call them “mercenaries”were former soldiers who knew what they were doing; others were convicted felons, prohibited by law from carrying firearms in the United States. The company treated them all as expendable. On the day of the Crescent kidnapping, seven men were guarding a convoy that stretched over one and a half miles in what may have been the most dangerous place on earth. Even by the Wild West standards of private contracting in Iraq, that was unheard of.

Iraqis hired by the U.S. security companies were treated worst of all. They made less than one-tenth the salary of the expats, and they had the most dangerous jobs. Fainaru writes, “The Iraqis rolled down the highway for hours, fully exposed, their faces covered with balaclavas to mask their identities and fend off the pelting sand while the expats sat in the air-conditioned cabs, listening to their MP3 players.” It was bound to end badly. On the day the five men were kidnapped, only one of the Iraqi employees showed up for work (a man they called Belushi, because of his resemblance to the late American actor), and it was he who set them up. Dozens of armed men hijacked the convoy, among them a past Iraqi Crescent employee who had threatened to kill his former boss before being fired.

The book includes a number of other anecdotes that illustrate the violent, lawless attitude that permeated the private security companies. Triple Canopy, one of the biggest firms, had a bar in its Green Zone headquarters where employees would drink hard and boast about killing Iraqis, Fainaru writes. One of them, a former Marine named Jake Washbourne, told his colleagues one morning, “I want to kill somebody today.” When they asked him why, he said, “Because Im going on vacation tomorrow.” Hours later, as his car was passing an old man driving a taxi, Washbourne riddled the car with bullets, first with a pistol, then with an M4 rifle, laughing as he did it. After his colleagues reported the incident, Triple Canopy fired Washbourne, along with two of the men who were in the car (and who had turned Washbourne in). He returned to his home in Oklahoma.

The lawlessness of the private contracting world had another side, of course. No one knows how many contractors have been killed in Iraq, though the number is certainly large. As reports of the Blackwater incident and others like it trickled out into the American public consciousness, people began to think of contractors as brutal thugs, and their deaths were not accorded the respect given to fallen soldiers. Fainaru, whose book is mostly devoted to the dark side of the business, clearly also wanted to recognize the humanity of the people involved in this profoundly dangerous trade, which may be why he devotes so much space to the bereaved families of the five kidnapped Crescent Security men.

For all its vivid moments, Fainarus book feels rushed, and leaves the reader wishing for a more focused treatment. How did the Bush administration come to rely so heavily on contractors? How did big firms like Blackwater exercise influence in Washington? How has the use of private contractors evolved over time, and how are they used outside of Iraq? A few books have probed these questions, including T. Christian Millers Blood Money, Robert Young Peltons Licensed to Kill, and Jeremy Scahills Blackwater. But there is still plenty of room for someone to help us understand how the U.S. government contracted out so much responsibility to hired guns and then supervised them so poorly.

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