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The Uncounted Contractor Casualties

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David IsenbergThe PMSC Observer & Huffington Post

Author, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq (Praeger Security International)

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.
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  1. Comment by Bob:

    1st thing to note is that I am an Iraq War vet. What I have to say may seem harsh and will probably be very unpopular with the masses. The US civilian contractors working in Iraq are a truly different breed of volunteer; a high paid one (is that really a volunteer). As such there is a lot of hatred and discontent (maybe just irritation) towards them from soldiers. Not that we do not care when a contractor dies, but we’re not going to cry to hard about losing one. There is a well understood cost of knowingly going into a war zone and they chose to bear that cross for the exuberant pay and benefits associated with it. Soldiers, Marines, and Airmen are also volunteers. However, they lose the right to quit as soon as they sign the dotted line. That said we cannot lawfully choose to not go to war, even if we think it unjust. For these urchins (civilian contractors) to come overseas and make three times the salary of our men in uniform, get better living conditions (ie running water, private bathrooms, CHU’s, the list goes on and on) and be able to quit if they so desire, then complain about work conditions, or the danger they faced, is ridiculous. THEY KNOWLINGLY WENT TO A WAR ZONE! What did they expect complete safety? That does not happen, and they weighed their opportunity costs and made the wrong choice. I’m sorry you do not pass go, do not collect $200, and do not get any sympathy from anybody, and surly do not get to sue for the danger or complain to congress.

    • Comment by Bill:

      Bob are you kidding? I just returned from my last deployment (Afghanistan) in July. Three times!!! I doubt the majority of them are making anywhere near that much… the ones I met certainly weren’t making 3 times more than I was! I was taking home $70K a year as an E-6.

      You can’t really say that when we volunteered that we knew we wouldn’t go to a war zone. I knew when I came back on active duty in 2001 it was a pretty good chance. We were in Afghanistan pretty quick. I certainly knew the last 2 times I re-enlisted. It goes with the program. I don’t see much difference other than the contractor can decide to quit.

      Do you feel the same way about say, Police Officers? Do you say when a cop is killed, “well he knew it could be dangerous”.

      Here’s a reality check for you. The military can’t get by without contractors. Essentially a pretty good portion of the military has been privatized. The contractors have to get paid a pretty good wage to get them to take the risk. It still ends up being more cost effective in most cases.

      A pretty good portion of those guys are vets. You have a problem with a veteran finding a job after they get out? Some people will have difficulty finding work. Not all job skills from the military translate so well to the civilan world. The economy sucks right now in case you didn’t know. I met some ARNG guys while I was in Afghanistan this last time, who had volunteered because they had been laid off, couldn’t find work (or at least work that paid a living wage. They didn’t really want to come back (a few had multiple combat tours) but had families to support. If they died, would you say the same about them?

      Contractors certainly know that they’re going to a war zone. Of course they wouldn’t expect that it would be completely safe. How could they not? For someone to feel next to nothing for a fellow American who is killed while supporting the military doesn’t say much.

      • Comment by Ms Sparky:

        (clapping hands) Finally…the voice of reason!

        • Comment by Bill:

          Thanks… another thing I could have mentioned is that it’s a mis-representation that contractors get better living conditions than the active duty. It might be true in some circumstances, but on the FOB I was on, there were only a handful who fell into that category (think Project Manager level).

          The vast majority of contractors lived in tents. They had built barracks and were continuing to expand. Those were pretty much reserved for active duty. NOBODY had private bathrooms including the guys in barracks. Living conditions are very much determined by which base you’re at.

          Bob is just perpetuating a myth that when examined closely has no relation to reality.

          • Comment by Ms Sparky:

            I spent two years in Baghdad as a civilian contractor and I never once felt like a mercenary. The living conditions in Iraq were much better than Afghanistan for everyone, civilians and military. People try to claim we were mercenaries but there was no way to get over there without being in the military, as a civilian contractor or working for some government agency like the State Department. There was no way to go over as a volunteer electrician and support the soldiers. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

      • Comment by Hunter:

        Bill, well said. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Xdust:

    Yea, I agree, the odds of an “Unknown Merc” memorial is absolute 0.

    Fact is, it will be some time before the general public sees the PMC as anything but “guns for hire”.

    Its not true. But most people dont really pay that much attention. And the press isn’t helping people get the facts either.

    • Comment by Bill:

      The sad thing is that people are labeling them as “Mercenaries” when they are nothing of the sort. What’s ignored is that the vast majority of contractors are working in support roles. The ones who are working security are working in a DEFENSIVE role. That’s a lot different than what a mercenary would be doing. Mercenary’s would be participating in offensive ops.

      Many of them volunteered not just because of money but because they wanted to support their country. Many are also veterans. I just don’t get the cold callous attitude towards a fellow American who is there to support us.

  3. Comment by Lois:

    I certainly hope that not all military feels this way about our contractors overseas. My son is currently working for Fluor and a veteran of the United States Air force. He has even met up with some of his old friends from his Air Force days in Afghanistan. I would certainly sleep better knowing that if he needed help, weather he was there as a contractor or a service member, he is a fellow American using his skills that he was trained to use in the Military to support his fellow Americans. Money had nothing to do with his decision to take a job at Fluor. He wanted to work and support the efforts and was no longer able to serve via the military, so found another way to do it.
    Everyone has a different story. It is too bad people judge before knowing what it is.
    God Bless all that is there, and pray that they come home safe. Soon!

  4. Comment by Kristen:

    I will say this to the Bob, who has such a strong opinion of contractors. I am a former overseas civilian, 17 of my family members were at one point overseas civilians. I find your comments grotesque. Civilians are hired in order to reduce the number of soldiers that need to be deployed. If you are too ignorant to realize that then I can’t help you. My cousin was killed in Iraq as a civilian contractor, not from enemy fire, he was murdered by a US Soldier. So you may continue to act like you are holier than thou because you “signed on the dotted line” to go over but realize that not all HEROES chose to serve there country in that manner. My cousin saved countless American lives by his actions. He will forever be a hero in the eyes of his family and everyone else that was on that base that day. I ask that you please keep your ignorant, uneducated comments to yourself. If you are jealous of the amount of money contractors make then you should have taken that route instead of joining the military, it’s not the contractors fault. They are there to serve YOU!

    • Comment by all ears:

      contractors have been around for over 500 years. England used them to fight pirates back in the day. it goes on and on. It is not something that is new. I am sorry for your cousin. What Bob does not understand is that back in Carter’s days the world started changing for the military. He started out sourcing “government jobs” like the painting of the F-5s at Holloman AFB in 1979. It has just been worse since then. Bob lives in a bubble in his own mind and not reality. I may be wrong about when it started but that is the first I remember was in 1979. I am sure some idiot will say it started beg to differ.with Reagan but I will

  5. Comment by all ears:

    I had internet issues. I last meant to say some idiot will say it started with Reagan but I beg to differ about contractors. One needs to read the book by Robert Young License to Kill.

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