It would be nice to celebrate the recent withdrawal of the remaining British troops from Iraq as the end of the UK's direct involvement in the military occupation there. But such festivities would unfortunately be premature.
The killing last Sunday in Baghdad's Green Zone of two armed contractors working for the London-based mercenary firm ArmorGroup by another British contractor from the company, serves as a grim reminder that Brits are still deeply involved in the prosecution of the war.
In fact, with no countries officially left in the so-called "coalition of the willing", contractors are now playing a more important role than ever, as the Obama administration begins to slowly scale back the war in Iraq.
In June, a Pentagon report revealed that there are still 132,610 contractors in Iraq -- effectively doubling the size of the occupation -- and that the use of armed "private security contractors" in the country actually increased by 23% during the second quarter of 2009.
The US Defense Department doesn't break down its data by nationality, but the report does specify that there are 60,244 "third country nationals", or contractors that are neither American nor Iraqi, on the payroll in Iraq. Therefore, the number of British citizens that are part of this shadow army is likely in the thousands.
Sunday's shooting should also dispel the myth, if anyone still believes it, that incidents like this are somehow avoidable. Unlike its competitors Dyncorp, Triple Canopy and Blackwater, whose outrageous scandals continue to mount, ArmorGroup has with few exceptions managed to steer clear of negative press.
Moreover, the company has been an outspoken advocate for more rigorous vetting of armed contractors and for greater outside regulation of the industry as a whole. Back in 2005, for example, an ArmorGroup spokesman said: "We are demanding regulation. It is extraordinary that ... any Joe Public can get a Kalashnikov and work with a security company abroad. This is an issue of accountability."
But when ArmorGroup hired Daniel Fitzsimons, who shot his two co-workers during a scuffle after a late night of drinking, the obvious warning signs were not heeded.
In 2007, Fitzsimons was fired and fined $3,000 for "extreme negligence" by Aegis, another British mercenary firm in Iraq, headed by the notorious Tim Spicer, after only a few months on the job. Colleagues said that he had a history of violent conduct and had "been a loose cannon for years".
Not surprisingly, Fitzsimons was also apparently traumatized by his experiences in war. On his Facebook and MySpace profiles he wrote about the challenges of the "war inside your head" and his constant use of alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.
"When I come home from each rotation I give my liver, kidneys and brain cells a good hiding to teach them a lesson, and to help me achieve this I get as wasted as possible at every opportunity," he wrote. "Remember reality is a condition caused by lack of drugs."
ArmorGroup apparently did not pick up on these red flags, however, perhaps because such personal problems are likely par for the course when you enter the world of mercenaries. "Violent conduct" isn't a worrisome trait, but in the end what these security contractors are trained to do.
Hence, just as the "laws of war" have not stopped soldiers from torturing and committing war crimes, no amount of internal vetting or government regulation of the mercenary industry -- even with the best of intentions -- will be able to stop such tragedies from happening again.
This article was originally published by The Guardian.