The Uncounted Contractor Casualties
Of all the things said and written about private military and security contractors working for the U.S. government in various war zones one of the least discussed is the sacrifices they make. And like regular military forces they also pay the ultimate sacrifice, as in dying. Unlike regular military personnel their deaths rarely get any notice, aside from a company press release and a few paragraphs in the hometown newspaper. (click HERE for Fallen Contractors Memorial at American Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan)
Their sacrifices are so unrecognized that if Washington, D.C. were to build yet another war memorial on the mall The Tomb of the Unknown Contractor would have to be considered a viable candidate for selection. To paraphrase the old saw about regular military forces, one might say in regard to recognition of contractors wounded and killed, “nothing is too good for our contractors so that’s what we’ll give them. Nothing.”
Admittedly there is slightly better recognition of the wounded and dead contractors than when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq but that is not saying a whole lot. There simply has not been much detailed analysis of this subject. That is why a recent paper strongly deserved attention. It is Dead Contractors: The Un-Examined Effect of Surrogates on the Public’s Casualty Sensitivity by Prof. Steven L. Schooner and student Collin D. Swan, both of the George Washington University Law School, was recently published in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy.
In the paper they examine the “casualty sensitivity” effect. Economists define this as an inverse relationship exists between the number of military deaths and public support. Currently, most studies suggest that “majorities of the public have historically considered the potential and actual casualties in U.S. wars and military operations to be an important factor in their support.”
But Schooner and Swan believe this effect is being undermined by the use of contractors and merits reexamination. Sadly, the unrecognized fact is that
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.
Just how much risk are contractors exposed to? The authors note that on today’s battlefield, the ratio of U.S. troops to contractors has never been lower. While the number of contractors employed by the military varied from conflict to conflict, historically, the ratio of contractors to troops averaged around one-to-six. Other than Bosnia, the last decade witnessed the U.S. government’s first sustained operations where contractors consistently outnumbered troops in the battle space. The Congressional Research Service recently reported that private security contractors are four times more likely to be killed in Afghanistan than uniformed personnel.
As a consequence contractors are inevitably bearing a larger portion of the casualty rate. The paper notes that cumulatively, contractor deaths account for over twenty-five percent of total losses since the U.S. entered Iraq and Afghanistan. But even that dramatic figure understates the extent to which—in the last two-to-three years—contractors have increasingly absorbed the most significant cost of our military actions.
And despite the fact that U.S. troops have been withdrawing from Iraq and will do the same in Afghanistan starting this year contractor casualties are unlikely to decrease. A number of actions work against that. These include:
- Secretary of Defense Gates plans to reduce the number of Army and Marine ground forces by as many as 27,000 troops within the next three years.
- On February 1, 2011, Army Secretary John M. McHugh suspended the Army’s current effort to in-source work from contractors and subjected all future insourcing proposals to rigorous review.
- As the State Department prepares to take over the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq, James F. Jeffery, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified in early 2011 that he expects his staff to more than double in size within the coming year, from 8,000 to 17,000 people; most of that personnel growth will be contractors.