The armed security contractor in Iraq makes an appearance on the collective American radar only when events get so ugly they won’t go away: the charred bodies of four Blackwater guards swinging from a Fallujah bridge in 2004, the 17 civilians reportedly killed by Blackwater men in a Baghdad square in September.

Mostly their presence—anywhere from 20,000- to 70,000-strong depending on who’s counting—moves on a battlefield that, in the words of the 1980s television series “Tales of the Darkside,” is “just as real, but not as brightly lit” as the news we see every night. They kill, bleed on the side of the road, and recover with stumps and prostheses, just not at Walter Reed Medical Center.

Richard Zbryski put the shadowy existence of the private parallel army in cold, hard perspective when he described how the body of his brother, Walter Zbryski, a 56-year-old retired New York City firefighter, was shipped home from his job as a contracted truck driver in Iraq. “What really upset me was that he was laying there floating in 6 inches of his own body fluids,” still wearing his bloodied clothes, with half of his head blown away, Zbryski told the Chicago Tribune.

His brother was one of the more than 1,000 civilian contractors killed since the war began. More than 180,000 remain in Iraq today. Most are unarmed, doing everything from feeding and providing basic services to the U.S. military to constructing bases, transporting equipment, and rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure.

But it’s the hired guns and spooks—the tens of thousands of guards protecting diplomats and VIPs, government buildings, reconstruction projects and convoys, plus prison interrogators—who bring into focus the fate of the mission and the implications of privatizing the military. They have people wondering what new breed of mercenary super-soldier American money is buying.

“There are many questions as to how a myriad of heavily armed private armies can serve the purpose of the US military and foreign policy,” writes Robert Young Pelton, in Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.

Pelton has traveled with both military and private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the conflict. He describes the new terrain shaped by outsourcing and reports that it bears little resemblance to the noble enterprise sold to the military years ago. Five years into operations, it is a darkly obscured landscape of violence, profiteering, and negligence. He senses that this parallel army is undermining the entire mission, leading to “blowback of extraordinary proportions.”

“It strikes at the core of the entire American principle, the idea of the citizen soldier,” he tells TAC. “We’ve been fighting this war longer than World War II, and the military is absolutely dependent on the private sector.”

Never in modern history has war privatization reached this level. The course was set as early as the 1980s, when post-Cold War military restructuring led to the first LOGCAP—the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program—which furnished an open-ended, cost-plus contingency contract for private vendors to provide rapid support services to the Army in deployment operations. Military brass initially resisted the idea, write Dina Rasor and Robert Bauman in Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War: “Military commanders, at the time, expressed considerable mistrust of a contractor’s ability to supply troops on the battlefield because they would be too slow, unreliable, and uncontrollable.”

But Dick Cheney, then defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush, was still able to secure a $3.9 billion LOGCAP contract for Brown & Root before leaving office and becoming the CEO of its parent company, Halliburton, in 1995. Privatization expanded throughout the Clinton administration, with the new Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and Dyncorp International receiving lucrative service contracts to work in Somalia, Rwanda, Southeast Asia, Kuwait, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia.

Some say Cheney was the midwife of the military-private sector alliance. With Donald Rumsfeld, a kindred spirit who has also enjoyed a lucrative public-private revolving-door career, he was able to nurture that alliance into its current mutation in the global war on terror.

“[Privatization] became a mantra, that the contractors could do so much better,” said Rasor, whose book is an exhaustive account of “what happens when you introduce a for-profit motive into the battlefield.” Rumsfeld, who famously said “you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you want,” was “thinking like a businessman,” said Rasor. “It’s not working out.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, civilians—ex-soldiers and spies mostly—were unleashed on Afghanistan under the CIA to look for Osama bin Laden, according to Pelton, while Blackwater got its first gig guarding military facilities and, later, new Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who still enjoys the best security detail American money can buy.

As the war grew more dangerous, so did the need for armed contractors. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority until it turned over the keys to the Iraqis in 2004, introduced the first private security detail into Iraq, hiring Blackwater to the tune of $21.3 million. In an astonishing display of firepower, Bremer was routinely surrounded by 36 civilian guards and “a fleet of SUVs, two bomb-sniffing canine teams with handlers, four pilots, four aerial gunners, a ground crew and three Boeing MD-530 ‘Little Bird’ helicopters,” Pelton reports. Later on, they would add three Mamba trucks with machine gun mounts and a Saracen armored carrier for transport.

Early news coverage of private contractors centered around the bravery of the truck drivers, servers, and technicians helping to rebuild Iraqi society and provide comforts never before experienced by American soldiers in the field. To many, even today, that remains true.

But the good news was soon tempered by reports that KBR, the biggest contractor in Iraq, was overcharging the military for things like fuel and food, engaging in fraud, and using the largely no-bid LOGCAP contract like a teenager with a credit card. Soldiers began to complain back home about work stoppages, wasted and lost equipment, and jobs that didn’t get done.

Worse than that emerging fiscal and logistical nightmare was the bad press generated by the guys with guns.

Outside of the tens of thousands of unarmed contractors on the ground, it is estimated that close to 200 security companies operate in Iraq today, ranging from the elite—Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and Dyncorp—to the low-paying and less impressively equipped “mom and pop” outfits. A minority are Americans and other Westerners. The rest are Iraqi and ex-military types from far-flung places like South Africa and Chile.

Billions of dollars in government and private money floating around have been a boon for the hired-gun business. But this might be one case in which the free market is not self-regulating. Unlike Main Street, the roiling pressures of danger and political instability in Baghdad won’t wait for this particular market to self-correct.

“Guys with guns and no laws governing them—it was inevitable in a way,” says Robert Greenwald, director of the documentary film “Iraq for Sale,” a gritty take on the business of war. He thinks the latest Blackwater scandal might be the “tipping point” for American patience with hiring war out to private guns who play by wildly different rules than U.S soldiers.

“They have had an extraordinary track record of keeping people alive,” said (Ret.) Col. Gerald Schumacher, author of A Bloody Business: Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq. “They do it through intimidation. Bulldozing cars off the road. Varying degrees of aggressiveness.” Plus, “the contractor has surmised, and I think rightly so, that they are immune to prosecution.”

Iraqi anger at Blackwater is palpable. Local officials allege that contracted guards killed 17 civilians in the Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad, including a child whose charred body was found fused to his mother’s in the backseat of a burning car. Iraqis want the company tried in their courts and banned from their country, and it is not clear at this writing that Blackwater will survive the life of its $571-million contract with the State Department.

In 2006, a drunken off-duty Blackwater guard was accused of murdering the bodyguard of Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi on Christmas Eve in the Green Zone. He was shuttled out of the country before he could be questioned by Iraqi police and was fired but never prosecuted. The family of the bodyguard was given $15,000 in compensation.

In 2005, an innocent bystander and father of six was fatally shot by Blackwater guards careening down a street in al-Hillah. Blackwater gave his family $5,000 after the State Department urged the company to “put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly,” according to an e-mail supplied to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised reforms, and on Oct. 25, Deputy Secretary for Diplomatic Security Richard Griffin tendered his resignation. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the contractors’ job to protect their clients is at “cross purposes to our larger mission in Iraq,” adding, “there have been instances where, to put it mildly, the Iraqis have been offended and not treated properly.” DoD employs about 7,300 security contractors in Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan; around 2,500 work for the State Department.

Blackwater insists that on Sept. 16 its guards were ambushed and were shooting in self-defense. Founder and CEO Erik Prince—the politically connected son of Edgar Prince, the late billionaire who helped build the Family Research Council—went on a media charm offensive in October, giving television interviews and inviting reporters to Blackwater’s 7,000-acre training facility in North Carolina.

“We don’t get any advantages for the lack of accountability—we just end up getting hammered on the issue,” said Doug Brooks, spokesman for the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group representing 40 companies in the private security industry. He and others say the assault on contractors is politically motivated and the stories of their abuses and excesses are greatly exaggerated.

But there is plenty of grist. Civilian interrogators were involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, and YouTube provides visuals of swaggering guards with heavy ammo, taking shots at unsuspecting Iraqis.

U.S soldiers are the first to acknowledge that the “fog of war” sometimes invokes extraordinary measures, but the contractors’ cocksure pose and seeming lack of conscience reflects on them all. “I feel that many of the contractors here have no respect for the locals and are doing a great deal of harm to our reputation,” an Army lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan e-mailed.

“They don’t have to explain themselves. We’ve all witnessed them shooting up cars, and then they just drive off in their SUVs, wearing their ballcaps, sunglasses, and full beards. If we shot up a car, we couldn’t leave the scene for two days,” said (Ret.) Marine Sgt. Nick Benas, who served in Iraq from July 2004 to March 2005. Afterward, he turned down an $186,000 offer to train Iraqi police as a civilian contractor.

Advocates for contractors, like Jane Crowder, who started www.AmericanContractorsinIraq.com as a support network for the community of civilian workers, say most contractors don’t earn that much and are in many cases victims, too, fighting for medical benefits and lacking the institutional support military veterans take for granted. “Most of them get injured or killed before they make $50,000, then they get sent home with no medical coverage or follow-up care,” she told the Knoxville Voice in June. “Once you leave Iraq, you’re alone.”

Danger, burnout, injury and death have led to significant turnover. The elite former Navy Seals and Army Special Forces who formed the backbone of the security enterprise in its early days are a vanishing breed, replaced by less qualified profit-seekers, Third World commandos, and “ham and eggers” looking to reinvent themselves into something worthy of bravado back home.

Pelton suspects that some with the new “skill set” honed in Iraq may never want to go home and will continue looking for action and money elsewhere. “It’s going to have a significant impact” on the global security landscape, he said. “I already see guys doing bounty hunting or getting involved in questionable training programs overseas.” If the military ever wanted to go all the way and start hiring mercenaries to do their fighting, there’s probably a division ready to go.

The temptation is understandable, for it avoids the politically difficult decision to put more boots on the ground, calling up more National Guard and reserves, or appealing to the United Nations and NATO for help. “It is a predicament of [the U.S government’s] own making. It has over-outsourced to the point that it is unable to imagine carrying out its most basic operations without them,” war privatization expert Peter W. Singer suggests in Can’t Win with ’Em, Can’t Go to War without ’Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency.

He goes on: “The use of private military contractors appears to have harmed, rather than helped the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S mission in Iraq,” which require winning over the local population. He hopes the military will take a long look at whether it can continue. “Will our leaders have the will to just say no?”

Dina Rasor considers that unlikely simply because there are so many lobbyists on Capitol Hill pushing the magic pill of privatization, and big firms always have influential ex-military and CIA on the payroll. Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer Black led CIA operations in Afghanistan and is now serving as an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

After the 2004 incident in which four Blackwater guards were shot and hung from the bridge in Fallujah—a case in which the company is facing lawsuits from the victims’ families for allegedly sending them out on a mission unprepared—Prince hired now-defunct Republican lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group, tied to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. According to Rasor, “Blackwater’s investment in Alexander paid off quickly. By mid-November 2004, Blackwater reported a 600 percent growth in additional contract dollars.” And the windfall isn’t limited to Mideast operations: after Hurricane Katrina, Blackwater guards patrolled the streets of New Orleans under a new domestic contract.

Blackwater has received $1 billion from the U.S government since the start of the war. Erik Prince won’t disclose Blackwater’s profit margin, but he recently told Congress he made around $1 million last year.

“This new [war service] industry depends on hot wars, occupations and natural disasters (which can’t always be counted on), to keep it going,” Rasor writes. But Prince won’t surrender to the cynicism, at least in public, calling most contractors “open, honest Americans trying to do a good job,” in an October Washington Post interview. Then, according to the Post, came the rub: “If they don’t like what we’re doing,” he declared, snapping his fingers, “then cut off the revenue stream right now.”
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Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.