THE BLOG
01/15/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

So Tell Us What You Really Think

For all the commentary, opinions, fulminations, debate and demagoguery that has been lavished on private military and security contractors (PMSC) by journalists, academics, policymakers, industry trade groups and citizenry, one group, has been mostly hidden from view. That is the contractors themselves. How they think of themselves and the industry they work in is a critical input to the control and shaping of this industry. But they have largely not been heard from.

But, thanks to a forthcoming report which I previously mentioned was due out, and now have a draft copy of, we have the benefit of some of their insights and policymakers would do well to consider them.

Dr. Paul Higate, a faculty member of Bristol University in the United Kingdom and a member of its Global Insecurities Center has written the report "Critical Impact Report: The Politics of Profile and the Private Military and Security Contractor." Higate has spent years interviewing scores of contractors in operational and training environments in Kabul, Arkansas, Slovakia and the UK, who have worked on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their thoughts are definitely worth keeping in mind.

However, before getting into that allow me a small digression. Generally, news coverage of the PMSC industry is lacking. But that is not, as it advocates claim, because it is unfair. Instead it is just that it is often superficial. For a host of reasons, reporters writing on the subject generally, although there have been a few exceptions, don't spend a lot of time with contractors working close protection (CP) or protective security details (PSD). Instead they settle for interviews with heads of companies, academics, think tank analysts or perhaps sound bites from trade associations. While those are useful they are far from the whole picture.

For example, experienced military reporters know that if they want the truth of what happens on a battlefield they are far better off talking with the enlisted troops than the officer assigned to be their public affairs liaison.

As an analogy, consider the debate over the nomination of former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. I have no doubt that many of his neocon chickenhawk critics who benefit from the militarized status quo are scared witless that a former combat enlisted man, who understand better than most the costs and benefits of using force, might be in a position to set policy for the Pentagon.

Similarly, the people setting policy for the PMSC industry are mostly not those who have ridden shotgun in the Sunni Triangle or provided security for convoys bring in supplies from Pakistan. But the continuing debate on the industry would undoubtedly benefit if we heard more from them. Or, as Higate writes, his research:

Shines a light on the largely hidden social world of the private security contractor that continues to feed enduring, yet misplaced assumptions about the kinds of individuals that work within the industry, along with scant knowledge of what it is they actually do. While the qualitative material detailed below should not be generalised to a diverse workforce that has a global presence, is engaged in a range of evolving roles and comprises individuals from the global North, the global South and beyond, nonetheless these findings are intended as a rigorous empirical resource of potential interest to those who seek a dispassionate window onto the social universe of the private security contractor.

As an example of the bottom and top disconnect of the PMSC food chain consider this quote:

Another voice here (albeit one that might be categorised in its problem solving guise), is that of contractors themselves in regard to what they perceive as particular injustices of the industry.

Contractors, of course, are neither trigger-happy mercenaries or cowboys, or candidates for sainthood. They are primarily men doing difficult jobs in dangerous areas. Whether they do their jobs in a competent, professional manner sometimes has to do with the quality of the person but more often with the culture of the company that employs them. And there is nothing hard and fast about those qualities, as this comment from a British contractors indicates:

If policymakers were to spend time listening to contractors on the ground they would learn that some of the operating procedures that onlookers assume are standard are, in fact, the source of great debate and controversy. What contractors regard as the appropriate security profile, whether high (driving vehicles at high-speed with guns pointed out the window) or low profile (remaining inconspicuous guns carried at the side) is a hotly debated subject.

As U.S Colonel Schumacher (retired) astutely notes 'there is much controversy over how security contractors should dress, appear, and conduct themselves in a war zone.' Should contractors conceal weapons, or alternatively might they drive around 'in black Suburbans, Yukons and Avalanches with the windows ... down and guns ... pointed out in every direction'? Should vehicles have a 'gunner on the ready [wearing] black body armor and a ... pistol strapped to their thigh'? How far should these men be prepared 'to shoot to kill in the blink of an eye'? Is this the look of the 'quintessential "arrogant American" [who aims to] give insurgents pause through an imposing and confident appearance', or is this a 'politically incorrect' exemplar likely to alienate those 'in international circles' and we might add, others whose country is being occupied by this armed presence? Do 'contractors swear by' this approach and does it 'get the job done?' or does this stance 'directly undercut a central theme of counterinsurgency doctrine'?

Industry needs to decide if it wants the public impression of security contractors to be RoboCop.

Perhaps you're thinking this just academic nitpicking. Well, consider on the standard talking points of the PMSC industry, namely that its contractors are quiet professionals by virtue of most of them being hired are former military. Yet the American military is not known for a low-profile approach to security.

In accounting for this high profile approach, a U.S contractor with military experience said that the combat arms of the U.S military like to be as high-profile as possible. They believe that being the biggest, most well armed and armoured scary thing on the street provides you with the highest level of security

Yet, as the academics Bjork and Jones note

the heavily armed security accompanying development efforts can also up the stakes in the eyes of the rebels, criminals, suicide bombers and kidnappers, and means that they will use more force against a well equipped 'enemy.' With clear influence on the ways that many U.S PMSC's employing former U.S military personnel approach the question of security stance, a U.S contractor said that 'I do disagree with this [aggressive approach] but it was an attitude that I encountered during my time in the military.'

In his conclusion Higate acknowledges that his report's findings provide "something of a fleeting glimpse into the identity of private military and security contractors working mainly in the armed CP role from around mid 2003 in Iraq and to a degree, Afghanistan." Thus some of the material is dated. Yet "it is likely that numerous of the findings outlined above remain current. Here, sometimes intense rivalry around questions of professionalism are almost certain to persist in today's industry as are those questions raised of the dynamic interplay between security profile and the wider security climate."

One hopes that those setting policy for the industry will spend more time in the future listening to those at the bottom of the PMSC food chain.

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