Corporate Combatants: Abuses of American Private Military Firms

By Anabel Cassady

Essay Cassady
Anabel Cassady also opted to write about an issue related to the war in Iraq — private military firms. Her essay stemmed from a class on written communications. She chose to focus on the private military firm Blackwater in particular because she had never heard of the corporation before her professor mentioned it in class.

“I couldn’t believe and still have trouble doing so that our very own government not only supports, but is connected to this exploitive corporation, (Blackwater)” Cassady said. “All I can hope for is that after reading my essay, students will be aware of the existence and abuses of PMFs. I hope that by gaining a true understanding of the harm caused by these private security corporations, students will begin to spread the word among their family and friends.”

IT WAS NOT UNTIL the infamous incident in Fallujah that most of our world heard of private military contractors stationed in Iraq. On March 31, 2004, a group of Iraqi resistance fighters ambushed and killed four Blackwater military contractors. The bodies were then burned, dragged through the streets, and two of them were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. This was a turning point in the Iraq War. Just a few days after, the Bush administration ordered a siege on Fallujah, “killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands, inflaming the fierce Iraqi resistance that haunts occupation forces to this day” (Scahill “American Mercenaries” par. 13). While Blackwater USA is not the only private military firm (PMF) to operate in Iraq, it is surely the most powerful. According to Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist and author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army:“Blackwater has more than $500 million in government contracts…in strictly military terms, Blackwater could overthrow many of the world’s governments” (xix). As many of us know, power without responsibility is a corruption of the democratic principles. And as many of us are aware, too often corporate power equals corporate abuse.

The use of Blackwater, and other PMFs in Iraq, is an extremely controversial issue. While military corporations argue they are necessary, if not essential for national security, human rights activists and many Democratic politicians will argue otherwise. According to Representative Dennis Kucinich, “These private contractors can get away with murder…[contractors] do not appear to be subject to any laws at all and so therefore they have more of a license to be able to take the law into their own hands” (qtd. in Scahill Blackwater: The Rise xx). Private military contractors in Iraq do not abide by the same rules and regulations that U.S. troops must follow. Therefore many contractors have been accused of violating various human rights abuses, such as those committed at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Unfortunately these corporations have “become indispensable to the United States’ ability to wage war” (Peters 383). Although the use of private military contractors began long before the start of the Iraq war, the number of contractors has never been so remarkably high.  It is believed that an estimated 180,000 private contractors are deployed in Iraq, resulting in a nearly one-to-one ratio to U.S. soldiers (Vlahos 6). These corporations operate nearly under no sort of international law. The deaths of these private military contractors go unreported, just as their misdeeds go unpunished. The United States government’s involvement with and support of these private military corporations has allowed them not only to exceedingly thrive in the war on terror, to ignore military protocol and the Geneva Conventions, but to ultimately get away with ruthless murder, all of which undermine our American principles of democracy.

Inside a Private Military Contractor
Due to the strong relationship between the United States government and private military corporations, the acts and abuses of PMFs have been sheltered or outright concealed by our government officials. The United States hires private military contractors to perform professional services directly associated with warfare. Until the notorious incident in Fallujah, many Americans had never heard of PMFs. According to author Peter Singer, National Security Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, “PMFs are corporate bodies that offer a wide range of services, from tactical combat operations and strategic planning to logistical support and technical assistance” (“Outsourcing War” par. 3).

While some continue to call these contractors “mercenaries,” it is agreed that this term is extremely degrading, if not fallacious. However, it is also important to note why so many people continue to use this term. According to Robert Young Pelton, investigative journalist and filmmaker, who traveled alongside a group of Blackwater contractors to write his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, “Mercenaries fight, while security contractors protect, firing back only if they or what they’re guarding comes under attack, and only until they can make a safe retreat” (5). While this is the difference between the two, longstanding human rights abuses and shootings initiated by PMFs in Iraq have made the dividing line even thinner. 
A Shift at the Pentagon 
On September 10, 2001, former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld called for an extensive shift in the operation of the Pentagon, replacing the previous bureaucracy with a new system. Rumsfeld’s new Department of Defense (DOD) would now chiefly rely on private contractors (Scahill “American Mercenaries” par. 3). This change became known as the Rumsfeld Doctrine, which Bush later recognized as “the most sweeping transformation of America’s global force posture since the end of World War II.” An important tenet of Rumsfeld’s change led to the prevalent practice of PMFs in every phase of war, combat included. Under this change, Rumsfeld proclaimed private contractors as a part of the “Department’s Total Force,” legitimizing the role of contractors in war (par. 7). This announcement paved the way for future excuses and beliefs that contractors stood above the law.

Singer, along with many other critics, sees this transition as a way for the government to execute “public ends through private means” (“Outsourcing War” par. 19). Private military corporations are able to carry out procedures that would otherwise be considered illegal or inhumane. As investigative journalist Scahill sees it, “Controlling an angry, abused population with a police force bound to obey the Constitution can be difficult--private forces can solve this problem” (Blackwater: The Rise xxiv). Because these contractors are considered neither civilians, nor soldiers, their ambiguous legal status allows them to commit abuses otherwise considered war crimes.

The privatization of the military has aroused concerns regarding human rights violations as well as private economic incentives. Private contractors are often hired by the U.S. government to protect U.S. diplomats in dangerous war zones. These contractors are paid tens of thousands of dollars to ensure the safety and security of the officials. They have a high economic incentive to protect American officials, with zero incentive to protect the lives of Iraqi civilians (Cowen par. 8). Even Rumsfeld's successor as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has admitted that the use of contractors to protect government officials is at “cross purposes to our larger mission in Iraq…there have been instances where, to put it mildly, the Iraqis have been offended and not treated properly” (qtd. in Vlahos 7).  The privatization of the military has indeed served as a precursor for the violation and denial of human rights in the War on Terror.

More Money, More Power
A major concern for many people is the significant amount of money that is going to these corporations. An estimated four billion dollars has been derived from government funds. According to Scahill, the government has invested almost one billion dollars into Blackwater, making the corporation one of the top beneficiaries of the Iraq war (“American Mercenaries” par. 11). The use of private military corporations is not only costing U.S. citizens billions of dollars, but according to Dr. Nils Rosemann, Attorney of Law and Human Rights & Development Consultant, “$2.26 billion of Iraqi money went to almost 2,000 different corporations. At least 85 percent---$1.9 billion—went to U.S. corporations” (278). Considering how many PMFs have been accused of committing human rights abuses against Iraqi civilians, it is rather sickening to think of the amount of financial aid Iraqis have given to their offenders.

Along with the immense amount of money invested in PMFs, lies an even greater amount of power, power that is ultimately used to relieve contractors of their responsibilities. For example, in 2005 Blackwater allegedly shot and killed an innocent passerby and father of six in al-Hillah. After the State Department advised Blackwater to “put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly,” the corporation paid off the victim’s family with $5,000. Only a year later, an intoxicated Blackwater guard, off-duty at the time, allegedly killed the bodyguard of Iraq’s Vice President. Prevented from any questioning by Iraqi police, the contractor was quickly removed from the country and fired from his job, yet he was never even tried for his offense. Again, the victim’s family was compensated a sum of $15,000 (Vlahos 7).

While many critics feel the amount of money given to private military corporations is excessive and absurd, others see some logic behind the numbers. According to Colonel Gerald Schumacher, a former militant of thirty-two years and author of A Bloody Business: America’s War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq, it is actually more cost-efficient to hire contractors for a short amount of time, paying them an incredible sum of money, than to preserve a large standing army (14). Schumacher claims, “With the public’s unwillingness to support a national draft, the military will increasingly look to the private sector for the foreseeable future” (49). Although Schumacher has a legitimate point, I feel that the excessive amount of money invested in PMFs blatantly allows and paves the way for inequality, injustice, and the misuse of power.

An Ambiguous Legal Status 
In respect to Rumsfeld’s announcement, the legal status of private military contractors is uncertain. These contractors are not considered soldiers; however, they are most definitely not considered civilians. As a result of this ambiguity, private military contractors fall into a sort of legal gray zone, relieving and excluding them from any and all international law (Rosemann 281). While this fact may seem to benefit only private contractors, their own legal rights are also at risk. Author Singer writes, “This lack of clarity means that when contractors are captured, their adversaries get to define their status.” Singer writes of three private contractors who have been held captive since their plane crashed in Colombia in 2003. The contractors have been “afforded none of the protections of the Geneva Conventions…[and] their corporate bosses and U.S. government clients seem to have washed their hands of the matter” (“Outsourcing War” par. 22). The legal status of PMFs has not only fostered the contractors’ abuse of detainees as well as innocent civilians, but also prevented contractors from receiving any protection for themselves.

Absolute Power Corrupts 
The most common criticism of private military corporations is their abuse of power. Simply put, the use of "Private military and security corporations in Iraq is not just a business, it is also a playground for the misuse of power and influence” (Rosemann 278). Private military corporations have been known to violate various human rights. In compliance with the uncertain legal status of military contractors, “a human rights violation, such as torture, can only be committed by public officials. The same violations of the dignity of the victim committed by a private contractor is, however, a ‘normal crime,’ not torture” (280). Anyone who witnessed or heard of the degrading and repulsive treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners committed by private military contractors would without-a-doubt agree that it was torture. But because our government has legitimized private corporations and allowed them to regulate and control their own acts, contractors do not abide by international laws, such as the International Convention Against Torture, which prohibits US citizens from committing acts of torture in foreign countries (280).

On September 16, 2007, twenty innocent Iraqi civilians were killed in the infamous Blackwater Baghdad shootings. While Blackwater contractors defended their actions, claiming they had initially been shot at and simply “responded within the rules of engagement, fighting their way out of the square after one of their vehicles was disabled,” eye witnesses argue there were absolutely no initial shootings or any sign of threat that would have provoked the contractors to begin firing (Singer “Can’t Win” 1). The Iraqi Interior Ministry responded to the event by demanding the removal of Blackwater contractors in Iraq and the prosecution of the Blackwater contractors involved in the incident. Due to Blackwater’s ambiguous legal status, however, its contractors were exempt from Iraqi law. And sadly, only five days after the merciless Baghdad shootings, the operations of Blackwater in Iraq continued (1 and 18).

At Abu Ghraib, CACI International Inc., was hired by the U.S. government to interrogate prisoners and perform any tasks considered illegal by government forces. The government has a history of hiring these corporations to fulfill such duties. According to Dr. Rosemann, “Transferring certain conduct and duties to private contactors enables the United States to wage wars by proxy and without the kind of Congressional and media oversight to which conventional deployments are subject” (279). By employing contractors to execute actions otherwise seen as violating military protocol, modern warfare can now be conducted outside of governmental responsibility. As a result of this corporate power and lack of government control, the principles of democracy are generally ignored. Arthur S. Miller, professor emeritus of law at George Washington University, claims, “Democratic government is responsible government—which means accountable government--- and the essential problem in contracting out is that responsibility and accountability are greatly diminished” (qtd. in Singer “Outsourcing War” par. 20). Private military contractors cannot only be seen as a catalyst for human rights abuses, but also for undermining the principles of democracy. It is certainly unjust and iniquitous to punish some and not all for the same crime. This perception, indeed, undermines our nation’s principles of democracy.

After being accused for committing crimes against humanity, CACI was supposedly scrutinized for its actions. But was the investigation of CACI accurate and fair?  According to many investigative journalists and attorneys, the examination of CACI was performed by CACI itself: “CACI investigated caci [sic] and, surprisingly, found that caci had done no wrong” (Singer “Outsourcing War” par. 25). It is hard to assume that CACI had carried out orders in a humanitarian way, considering “approximately 35 percent of the contract interrogators [hired by the firm CACI] lacked formal military training as interrogators” (par. 17). In other words, because the recruiting, screening, and hiring of contractors are left solely in the hands of the corporations themselves, power is abused and human rights are ignored.

CACI has not been the only PMF accused of discounting human rights. Other PMFs have been accused of hiring contractors with sadistic and violent backgrounds. Author Singer discloses the employment of a “former British Army soldier who had been jailed for working with Irish terrorists and a former South African soldier who had admitted to firebombing the houses of more than 60 political activists” (“Outsourcing War” par. 17). Singer goes on to say that many of the corporations are “also often at the center of dangerous covert or semicovert operations that many clients, including the U.S. government, would rather not have discussed” (Singer Corporate Warriors ix). It should come as no surprise then, that such human rights abuses are committed by these private military corporations.

While Singer focuses on the skewed employment process of private military contractors, Colonel Schumacher focuses on the unique and superior skills these contractors bring to the corporations. He perceives these contractors to be remarkably credible. According to Schumacher, “Private contractors have skill sets uniquely suited to provide military support services in an unconventional environment…they are able to provide a wide range of basic and sophisticated services that support both U.S. military and political objectives” (14). While Peter Singer would not necessarily disagree with this statement, he takes into account the contractors that are not exclusively qualified for such positions. I do not doubt that many, if not a majority, of private military contractors are adequately trained. However, I believe it is important to consider the percentage that lacks formal training and their impact on this issue.

Along with Rumsfeld’s proclamation of independent contractors as essential to United States' national security, numerous laws have been passed which foster the authority and impunity of PMFs. To name a few, on June 27, 2003, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order 17 was passed, granting military contractors exemption from Iraqi laws and regulations (Rosemann 279). On May 22, 2003, President Bush passed Executive Order 13303, granting military contractors, working on behalf of the Iraqi oil enterprise, “impunity for crimes under U.S. jurisdiction” (281). But consider the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which forbids any members of the military from committing human rights abuses, and the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which enforces criminal punishment for crimes committed outside of the United States. These laws are rendered useless due to the ambiguous legal status of private military contractors (279). Considering the numerous laws that are completely disregarded and ignored by PMFs, as well as the laws that have been established to specifically grant legal immunity to PMFs, how can our nation continue to take pride in equality, integrity, humanity, democracy?

Under the perception of these laws, it is extremely difficult to uphold justice in a country or region dominated by contractors. According to Singer, “Not one private military contractor has been prosecuted or punished for a crime in Iraq (unlike the dozens of U.S. soldiers who have)” (“Outsourcing War” par. 24). Human Rights Watch, however, reported that as of 2007, two years after Singer’s report, only one contractor, David Passaro, has been found guilty of abusing an Iraqi or Afghan prisoner. Considering the allegations of contractors torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners, not one person has been tried under the War Crimes Act (“Q&A: Private” par. 12 and 15).

Harmful to Troops 
While some may argue PMFs execute and perform tasks considered too dangerous for U.S. soldiers, I believe that the presence of PMFs in the War on Terror brings more harm than good to U.S. troops. Many Iraqi civilians are unable to differentiate between U.S. soldiers and private military contractors. Because so many private contractors are committing human rights abuses, yet not being held accountable for their crimes, Iraqi civilians are blaming U.S. troops for the misconduct of PMFs.  An Army lieutenant positioned in Afghanistan asserts, “Many of the contractors here have no respect for the locals and are doing a great harm to our reputation.” Another witness, former Marine Sergeant Nick Benas agrees: “We’ve all witnessed them shooting up cars, and then they just drive off in their SUVs…If we shot up a car, we wouldn’t leave the scene for two days” (qtd. in Vlahos 8).  These accounts represent many of the negative sentiments U.S. soldiers have towards private contractors and their government-supported impunity. While PMFs are committing a great deal of human rights abuses, U.S. troops are the ones being held responsible.

In his other essay, “Can’t Win with ‘Em, Can’t Go to War without ‘Em” Singer argues, “The use of private military contractors has appeared to have harmed, rather than have helped the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. mission in Iraq” (2). After so many examples and testimonies confirming the abuses of private military contractors, when will our country, founded on the principles of democracy, begin to take action against these injustices? 
Solutions Now 
As more information leaks out from under the Bush Administration's closed doors, a number of proposals and legislations are finally being considered. In February of 2007, Senator Barack Obama introduced the Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act. This legislation proposed a set of rules of engagement required by private military contractors to follow, extended MEJA to preside over PMFs actions, and mandates the Department of Defense to “arrest and detain” any private contractors suspected of misconduct and to hand them over to local authorities for prosecution. The United States Senate approved Senator Obama’s legislation in September 2007. That same month, Democratic Representative and House Intelligence Committee member Jan Schakowsky introduced the Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act. This act, which coincides with Senator Obama’s legislation, requires the government to find out and publicize the exact number of contractors deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, any international or U.S. laws violated by contractors, all actions taken to penalize contractors, and the specific number of contractors both dead and injured (Scahill “American Mercenaries” par. 26). Schakowsky’s Act has not yet been approved.

The link between private military corporations and the U.S. government is dangerously too strong. However, the likelihood of a change is unfortunately too small. According to Dina Raser, former director of Project on Military Procurement, a non-profit organization that examines and exposes defense procurement fraud, the likelihood of the U.S. government reducing its use and reliance on PMFs is small. She explains that there are too many “lobbyists on Capitol Hill pushing the magic pill of privatization, and big firms always have influential ex-military and CIA on the payroll” (Vlahos 8). She goes on to say that Cofer Black, Blackwater’s Vice Chairman, served as Republican Mitt Romney’s adviser during his presidential campaign. 
With One Simple Step 
There is clearly a close relationship between the Bush administration and PMFs. While I believe that a reduction in the close ties of the U.S. government to American PMFs would be a step towards equality and justice, this is not likely to happen. I believe that the single, most plausible solution to the issue of PMFs and their corporate abuse is to change the legal status of private military contractors.  While both Senator Obama and Representative Schakowsky have presented plausible solutions, neither act truly elucidates the legal status of private military contractors. Currently contractors are capable of ignoring laws set out to protect innocent civilians of war. But these laws are there to protect the contractors themselves. By working in this legal gray zone, contractors do not follow and are certainly not protected under any international law.

In regards to time, cost, effort, and risk involved, I believe that clarifying the legal status of private military contractors is the most apparent solution. If the U.S. government is going to continue to use and hire PMFs, then private contractors should be held accountable. In 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld legitimized PMFs as a part of the war machine, he pointedly neglected to clarify their legal status. United States private contractors must be legally treated as U.S. soldiers, and held accountable for their actions. Alexandre Faite, legal advisor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, claims, “The fact that they carry weapons and may be de facto placed in situations where they can exercise some form [of] authority are additional reasons to insist on their obligations under humanitarian law” (14). For all intents and purposes, they are soldiers, and should be treated as soldiers. The U.S. government must clarify the legal status of PMFs, making them adhere to the Geneva Conventions and the same protocols as the U.S. military. Private contractors should no longer be given impunity for their crimes. 

As of right now, too little is publicly known about the PMFs in Iraq and elsewhere. The amount of money spent, the number of contractors deployed, crimes committed, and people killed, are all estimates. The U.S. government has continued to turn away from any legal matters regarding PMFs. But I believe that by legally classifying contractors as soldiers, our government will no longer have the choice to overlook their crimes. Furthermore, the lives of innocent civilians as well as the contractors themselves will have greater protection.

No longer will the deaths of innocent victims, such as the father of six shot in al-Hillah, the Iraqi body guard shot and killed by a drunken contractor, and the twenty innocent Iraqis shot and killed in Baghdad, be overlooked and untried. No longer will the lives of contractors, fallen at the hands of brutal adversaries, continue to be unprotected by laws or conveniently forgotten about by the U.S. government. No longer will laws, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice, MEJA, CPA Order 17 and Executive Order 13303, be ignored by or give impunity to PMFs. And most importantly, no longer will the legal status of PMFs continue to risk the lives of innocent human beings as well as the reputation of the United States in the Middle East and throughout the entire world.

As reiterated time and again, the use of Blackwater and other PMFs is an extremely controversial issue. Blackwater, which is known to be the most powerful PMF, operates with over one billion dollars in government no-bid contracts. The support of the U.S. government has most certainly allowed this corporation, along with many other PMFs, to profit excessively from the War on Terror, bypass military protocol and the Geneva Conventions, and get away with ruthless acts of war crime. The government’s uncontrolled use of PMFs has indeed undermined our nation’s principles of democracy.

According to William C. Peters, Assistant Professor of Law at the United States Military Academy, “Soldiers and civilians accused of like misconduct in a like wartime setting should not answer to different courts, different procedures, and different law” (412). I propose that U.S. private military contractors should adhere to the same international law as U.S. soldiers. Until the legal status of private military contractors becomes clearly defined, the lives of contractors will continue to go unprotected, their crimes unpunished, and the United States reputation for upholding principles of democracy will, most certainly, continue to disintegrate.


Works Cited

  • Cowen, Tyler. “To Know Contractors, Know Government.” The New York Times. 28 Oct. 2007. New York Times Company. 12 April 2008. <
  • Faite, Alexandre. “Involvement of Private Contractors in Armed Conflict: Implications under International Humanitarian Law.” Defense Studies. 4.2 (2004): 166.
    Pelton, Robert Young. Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror. New York: Crown Publishers. 2006.
  • Peter, Wm C. “On Laws, Wars, and Mercenaries: The Case for Courts-Martial Jurisdiction over Civilian Contractor Misconduct in Iraq.” Brigham Young University Law Review. 2. 2006. 367-414.
  • “Q&A: Private Military Contractors and the Law.” Human Rights Watch. 2 Oct. 2007. Human Rights Watch. 19 April 2008. <>.
  • Rosemann, Nils. “Privatized War and Corporate Impunity.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice. Ed. Robert Elias. 17.2-3 (2005): 273-287.
  • Scahill, Jeremy. “American Mercenaries.” Random Lengths. San Pedro, California. 27.8 (Apr/ May 2007): 4.
  • ---Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. New York: Nation Books. 2007.
  • Schumacher, Colonel Gerald. A Bloody Business: American’s War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press. 2006.
  • Singer, Peter W. “Can’t Win with ‘Em, Can’t Go To War without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency.” Foreign Policy at Brookings. 4 (2007): 1-18. 4 May 2008. <
  • ---Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca: Cornell University. 2003.
  • ---“Outsourcing War.” Foreign Affairs. 85.2 (Mar/ Apr 2005): 119.
  • Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar. “Hired Guns: While the Volunteer Army Struggles, the Business of War Booms.” American Conservative. 19 Nov. 2007.
    « Back