THE BLOG

Loose Cannons in a War Zone

01/09/2013 08:49 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

Calvin is a member of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

The withdrawal of all American soldiers from Iraq at the end of 2011 was hailed as a political milestone. As the United States continues to remove troops from Afghanistan, it seems as though the American presence there is finished. However, in light of the apparent troop withdrawal, the Department of Defense and the State Departmentcontinue to hire an increasing number of private military contractors as a substitute for American personnel.

These private military companies, or PMCs, are a relatively new phenomenon. As the United States military cut down on manpower in the late 1990s, many of these PMCs sprang up as a substitute for roles formerly taken by the military. As a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has faced chronic shortages of manpower. Because of this problem, the worldwide market for PMCs is booming, worth roughly $200 billion annually , and that number is rapidly growing every year. A large portion of that money comes from lucrative government contracts in the United States and other countries.

Companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater USA) and DynCorp International receive multi-million dollar contracts to serve the role of US troops on the ground, all the while maintaining a politically invisible presence. The personnel hired by these companies do not count as American troops, and as such, are not included in official troop and casualty counts. Therefore, the Pentagon has a great incentive to use these companies to maintain a more politically acceptable troop count. However, the use of these personnel has been called into serious question by members of Congress and independent watch groups.

Private military personnel in many cases can be dangerously irresponsible. For example, in 2007, mercenaries hired by Blackwater USA shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians while an American official was being evacuated. Although Blackwater claims that insurgents shot at the convoy first, a later US investigation, as well as numerous eyewitnesses, challenged that story. Unfortunately, the Nisour Square shooting was not an isolated incident. In 2006, a drunken Blackwater operator shot and killed the bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president, Abd-al-Mahdi.

Usually contractors are prohibited from firing unless fired upon, but according to a Congressional report, "the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are pre-emptive." Events like these strain already precarious relations with the locals. As a result of these incidents, US forces must deal with angry locals who sometimes resort to violence. The employment of such contractors jeopardizes the safety of American troops abroad.

The reliability of these private military personnel on the battlefield is highly questionable at best. These highly skilled contractors are paid up to $600 a day on average, more than what the average soldier makes in a week. By comparison, an unmarried sergeant in the Army earns roughly $83 to $85 a day .The lure of higher pay has resulted in a brain drain of Special Forces personnel from the US Military, forcing the armed forces to give out reenlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. In addition to that, contractors are not included in the military chain of command, which can lead to dire consequences. For example, prior to the 2004 murders of four Blackwater personnel in Fallujah, the contractors did not inform the local US Marines about their mission, as noted by Rasor, Dina, and Robert Bauman in their essay "Corporate Cowboys in a War Zone." At that point in time, Fallujah was a tinderbox waiting to be set on fire, with anti-American sentiment reaching a climax. The operatives were providing security for a convoy of supplies, and they were ambushed and burned to death by an angry mob when they drove straight through Fallujah. The US Marines stationed in the area were then dragged into a long battle to "pacify" the city. The First Battle of Fallujah resulted in the needless deaths of 27 American soldiers. The United States should not employ those who would needlessly jeopardize the safety of America's troops.

Proponents of PMCs argue that contractors save money and help to alleviate the burden on the military. However, the logic of saving money by paying a contractor seven times more than an average soldier does not withstand scrutiny. The harm PMCs cause outweighs the potential positives, if any, that they might have. In order to reduce the choking reliance on private military firms, we must rebuild our own military strength. There are other solutions to the manpower issue. An increase in pay can bring a greater incentive to reenlist. Increasing manpower is also another method. However, the most prudent answer does not involve the use of private contractors. The mission of strengthening our armed forces must not fall prey to political convenience. By using private military companies, we have opened the door to a complicated question of oversight and accountability, one that we are ill-suited to answer in this political climate. This is a door that we would do well to steer clear of.