Contratistas Desaparecidos

You will never see the PBS NewsHour listing any contractor among the periodic listings of those killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of the utility of using PMSC such an attitude is just plain morally wrong.
10/10/2011 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

Someday historians will doubtlessly try to compile a top ten or dirty dozen list of the saddest and most contemptible aspects of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope that when they get around to it they will deal with the costs of those wars.

No, contrary, to what you are thinking, I am not talking about the economic costs of those conflicts, about which there has been a torrent of commentary since the release of the final report of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC).

The cost I am talking about is much more basic and far more unsettling, given what it says about the U.S. government. That is the cost in terms of the number of private military and security contractors (PMSC) killed in the course of fulfilling their contracts and whose deaths has been almost entirely ignored. To its credit the Commission did mention it but it was a rare exception.

I know what some people are saying, that contractors weren't part of regular military forces and thus don't merit acknowledgement or that they were only in it for the money. The first part of such reasoning ignores the fact that for all practical, de facto, if not de jure, purposes, PMSC are now so tightly integrated with regular military forces, that they are a fifth branch of the Department of Defense.

Even the Pentagon's own planning documents such as the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review acknowledge that "The services provided by contractors will continue to be valued as part of a balanced approach that properly considers both mission requirements and overall return."

The second part of the reasoning ignores the fact that most people in the military are not doing it for free. Like contractors they get also paid. If you think soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are indifferent to issues of compensation and benefits just pick up any issue of Stars and Stripes and see the articles regarding Tricare, pension, or GI Bill benefits.

With regard to governmental policy towards acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice by private contractors it sometimes appears that the U.S. government is channeling various dictatorships that have disappeared their own citizens.

True, the U.S. and other governments who employ PMSC in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't actually murdered any contractors, with the corpse disposed of in such a way as to prevent it ever being found, so that the person apparently vanishes. And yes, their bodies are returned to their loved ones and mourned, at least in their hometowns. The companies that employed them will note their deaths, and their dependents, at least if those killed were American, will get the benefits due them under the Defense Base Act.

But aside from that they are like the disappeared ones; vanished with almost no public acknowledgement of their contributions and treated like so much disposable trash. You will never see the PBS NewsHour listing any contractor among the periodic listings of those killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of the utility of using PMSC such an attitude is just plain morally wrong. It is akin to what a prosecutor would call "depraved indifference."

But from a coldblooded policymaking perspective this makes sense. To better understand what I mean consider the public forum the CWC held this past May 2. One of the witnesses was Steve Schooner, a professor of Government Contract Law at the George Washington University and co-director of the Government Procurement Law program. He is one of the few scholars who have studied this issue in detail. In the then forthcoming journal article, Dead Contractors: The Un-Examined Effect of Surrogates on the Public's Casualty Sensitivity he wrote:

In the modern era, most studies suggest that "majorities of considered the potential and actual casualties in U.S. wars and military operations to be an important factor in their support."6 Specifically, an inverse relationship exists between the number of military deaths and public support.7 Economists have dubbed this the "casualty sensitivity" effect.8

This article asserts that this stark and monolithic metric requires re-examination in light of a little-known phenomenon: on the modern battlefield, contractor personnel are dying at rates similar to--and at times in excess of--soldiers. The increased risk to contractors' health and well-being logically follows the expanded role of contractors in modern governance and defense. The post-millennial U.S. military--like the modern U.S. government--is more heterogeneous than ever before. The military is populated by a "blended workforce" that integrates soldiers with private-sector contractor employees--comprised of both U.S. citizens and, to a large extent, foreign nationals--in every conceivable aspect of the mission abroad. Not surprisingly, one result of this integration is that contractors are dying alongside--or in the place of--soldiers at unprecedented and (arguably) alarming rates. For the most part, this "substitution" has taken place outside of the cognizance of the public and, potentially, Congress.9

In other words, the unacknowledged contractor death means a lower casualty sensitivity effect and thus it is easier to go to and stay at war.

As Schooner said during his testimony:

What you said is, "These contractors' deaths and injuries should not be ignored, but should be part of the public debate on the cost of war." That is one of the most responsible and transparent statements that anyone in the United States federal government has made in the last decade on this topic.

More than anything else, the reason I want to encourage you to do more about this is the president of the United States, the United States Congress, individually and collectively, and almost all senior officials in our related agencies have refused to address this issue publicly, and I think it's tremendously important.


In the mid-1990s, I started submitting FOIA requests to attempt to get more information. And the only agency that had any information on this at all, interestingly enough, was the Department of Labor. Because of the Defense Base Act insurance program, the Department of Labor collects information on contractors who have been injured or killed supporting the government.

And they collect the data mostly so that they can report lost working hours, basically an FTE equivalent. So they keep track of how many days the employees miss and then how many days the contractors miss. But that's based on Defense Base Act insurance claims.

So I collected a bunch of information to the Freedom of Information Act, and lo and behold, the numbers were staggering. Since the early 2000s to then -- I believe the article came out in 2008 -- the numbers climbed to the point where, literally, contractors were representing one out of every four deaths.

So one out of every four people who came home from Iraq and Afghanistan in a bag or a box was a contractor, but nobody would talk about it. The newspapers wouldn't report on it. No newspaper larger than Houston Chronicle would publish anything on it.

The president wouldn't talk about it. The members of Congress wouldn't talk about it. And DOD wouldn't even acknowledge that they were responsible for keeping track of the contractors that were dying in their battle space.

The point to keep in mind is that just because a contractor isn't engaging in offensive combat doesn't mean they aren't doing military work. Schooner noted:

But the point here -- and the reason I used the term "surrogates" is, these contractors are performing tasks that a generation ago would've been performed by somebody in uniform. Most people agree that the most dangerous job in Iraq and Afghanistan is being behind the wheel of a truck, delivering anything.

It's being behind that windshield and catching the shrapnel when the IED goes off. But it wasn't so long ago that people in uniform were driving those trucks.

Or, to parse the data a different and more fundamental way:

What I want you to focus on is that since 2009, I can't make this any more simple -- more contractors have died in Iraq than members of the military.

2009, 2010, first quarter of 2011, more contractors have died in Iraq than members of the military. All right, the scary thing, if you jump over to figures 9 and 10, over on page 50, we're seeing the same trend line basically happening in Afghanistan as well.

We haven't actually tipped over as much, but what you see is, as these conflicts evolve, we're reducing members of the military and we're exposing contractors much more aggressively to the fatalities.

If you thought I was a little over the top when I wrote earlier that PMSC are treated like so much disposable trash consider this bit from Schooner's Q&A:

I'm not accusing the Defense Department of affirmatively putting contractors in harm's way as surrogates for the military, OK? But frankly, the data might suggest that that is in fact what's happening.

I'm not accusing anyone individually. But let's take this at different layers. The military has a pretty good idea of what the dangerous jobs are.

One interesting decision early on, for example -- we talked about this in the paper -- is when body armor was first becoming a huge issue in the Congress. Body armor was mandated for members of the military. But frankly, the military was a little slow to mandate the same body armor for the contractors.

While, for a variety of reasons, I have frequently been critical of PMS use as a policy I am absolutely disgusted by the way their ultimate sacrifice has been airbrushed out of the official record. At a minimum the number of contractors wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan should be included in all future tallies of the human costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as other U.S. military operations.