01/17/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Say What? You Talking About Me?

Those who follow the private security contractor industry, even if only cursorily, are doubtlessly aware that it is the cause of much controversy. To put it politely, a lot of smack gets said about PSCs. If you believe that PSC are mostly just decent men doing necessary work in hazardous conditions the controversy is the result of either ignorance; ideology, as in liberal or leftist prejudice against people who carry guns; or, an old industry favorite, the supposed dreaded "media bias or "journos in pursuit of a spicy merc story" as people like Doug Brooks, who heads ISOA, an industry trade group, has often put it." In other words, PSCs are either victims (think of the four Blackwater contractors killed at Fallujah, Iraq in 2004) or are victimizers (Blackwater contractors at Nisoor Square, Baghdad in 2007).

But, what rarely gets said is that much of the smack comes from contractors themselves. When you think about it this should not be that surprising. After all, even with the tremendous growth in the industry over the past decade, there are still only so many dollars being chased by a very large number of companies. In terms of winners, as was memorably said in the Highlander movie at the end of the contracting decision there can only be one. So it stands to reason that sooner or later someone is going to throw a little mud at a competitor.

As a case in point consider the respective reputations of American and British PSC. Over the years the British have gained a reputation as being more low-key and professional than the supposedly "armed-to-the-teeth, bulked-up on steroids Americans, intimidating, injuring and even killing individuals."

This is not totally without truth. After all, in terms of the modern PSC industry the British have simply been doing it longer. It was Scotsman Col. David Stirling, founder of the British Special Air Service, who, after WWII, organized deals to sell British weapons and military personnel to other countries, like Saudi Arabia, for various privatized foreign policy operations and, along with other associates, formed Watchguard International Ltd, one of the earliest of the modern era of PSCs. He was also the founder of private military company KAS International.

Yet, according to a recent journal article some Brits have been quite outspoken in chronicling what they see as their superior professionalism, compared to their American counterparts.

The article, "'Cowboys and Professionals': The Politics of Identity Work in the Private and Military Security Company" by Dr. Paul Higate, University of Bristol, UK, is in the current issue of MILLENNIUM Journal of International Studies. It explores the self-identities of the security contracting workforce as these pertain to occupational performance.

His analysis of memoirs and findings from field research point to British contractor's unease at some U.S. contracting and military personnel's competence in providing security. In his words, "This derogatory framing is explained in part by the wider cultural and historical context which provides the particular conditions within which identity narrative are shaped. Central to these are national stereotype analyses which contribute to the research on the social-relational aspects of a multinational security presence as it plays out in the international context."

The books he examined were:

James Ashcroft, Making a Killing: The Explosive Story of a Hired Gun in Iraq (2006).

John Geddes, Highway to Hell: An Ex-SAS Soldier's Account of the Extraordinary Private Army Hired to Fight in Iraq (2006).

Simon Low, The Boys from Baghdad: From the Foreign Legion to the Killing Fields of Iraq (2007).

Peter Mercer, Dirty Deeds Done Cheap: The Incredible Story of my Life from the SBS to a Hired Gun in Iraq (2009).

Bob Shepherd, The Circuit: An Ex-SAS Soldier, a Secretive Industry, The War on Terror, A True Story (2008).

Higate's methodology is, as one might expect in an academic article, complex. But he found that "U.S. military personnel and contractors alike were taken to task by the authors for their perceived 'unprofessionalism'; simply put, they were constructed as militarily 'inferior' by the British authors."

Put in Tarzan movielike terms the equation goes like this: British PSCs are professionals; American PSCs are laughingstocks: To cite a passage from Geddes memoir:

Professionals [like himself] can spot them from a hundred paces by the way they carry themselves, their obvious lack of awareness and weapon carriage and the way they duck when a car backfires. They just stand out like the idiots they are and, once spotted, they are unceremoniously booted the fuck out of the country.

In Shepherd's book, Higates notes that he:

invites a different view -- that Iraqis are considerably less likely to over-react than American troops working checkpoints. In this way, Iraqi soldiers are mobilised as a secondary foil that reinforces dominant, somewhat demeaning presentations of U.S. troops, while also bolstering the professional identity residing in the authorial voice. The key to avoid being mistaken for the enemy was to communicate one's friendly identity in as bold a way as possible, given the perceived zeal U.S. troops had for resorting to firepower:
I raised the flag as high as I could and gave it another jiggle as the Humvees deployed in a zigzag... in South Armagh [in Northern Ireland] if you shoot two rounds from your rifle there's a board of enquiry. The Americans don't bother with that sort of thing in Iraq unless you raze a couple of towns. They had a shoot first policy, a shoot-first mindset.

But is this true? The truth, Higate notes, is more complex. "While these representations capture the activities of some contractors as constructed in British memoir narratives, the picture is considerably more complex than that of the jumpy, trigger happy 'cowboy' versus the cool professional. Those providing security to NGOs, national militaries, governments and the extraction industries are diverse, with the current article highlighting one particular binary framing presented by British contractors."

Looking at various memoirs written by British contractors working in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 he finds that much of their description of American contractors can be categorized as "Gung-Ho" or "Trigger Happy", leaving the only alternative as the "Superiority' of British contractors."

Is this fair? Higate writes:

A key finding of this research has been that while 'cowboy contractors' may originate from a range of national backgrounds, British contractors -- often with little or no prompting -- have commented spontaneously about U.S. contractors and military personnel in ways that follow the memoirs analysed here. By no means are these concerns malicious and when pushed a little, respondents have invoked the shortcomings of U.S. military training culture and doctrine, as well as wider cultural cues, including the influence of Hollywood, though as noted below, these pions are not to be taken at face value.

In fact, should anybody bother to take these memoirs seriously? Putting aside the fact that generalizing on the basis of a handful of books is risky -- basic statistics methodology would call foul just on the small sample size alone -- Higate notes:

Like any source, it is important to flag the limitations of the memoir genre.
First, their content is highly selective, since memoir's conditions of production are mediated by publishers, editors, ghost writers and stylistic convention; they can also be self-censored.
Second, they are at times self-aggrandising, and embellished in ways that diverge factually from the empirical conditions of their production.
As an autobiographical resource, memoirs may not set out to be 'objective', but rather might be seen more appropriately as one of a number of creative mediums by which authors produce subjectivity.
Third, memoirs should be seen as interventions in time -- the present as relating to
past moments that can only ever provide for partial and provisional accounts of incidents
amenable to a diversity of framings.

In his conclusion Higate notes that other considerations beyond mere professionalism, help explain the dissing of American PSCs:

Against the backdrop of largely derogatory framings of the U.S. contractor/military identity foil, it was argued that one way in which to account for British contractors' self-valorisation was to consider its historical and cultural groundings... Yet, this analysis may also have wider political implications to which attention now turns. As indicated above, first it is important to note that the empirical evidence documenting contractors' exacerbation of insecurity includes the misdemeanours of British personnel. A potential effect of memoirs (and field research) that emphasises professionalism while downplaying the more negative impact of these actors on host populations and fellow contractors alike, is to hide from view those (British) individuals that might otherwise be branded 'cowboys'. While this may not be intentional, memoir's construction of professionalism may in turn bolster the prestige of British companies and invites questions around the centrality of reputation to the profitability and, indeed, existence of these companies and their market share. Second, it may also be the case that the British emphasis on low profile approaches make it easier for these actors to go largely undetected, and as such be more effective in carrying out operations favourable to British interests.