• Opinion

Is America’s Second Contractors’ War Drawing Near?

6 minute read

Last year, on the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq invasion, there was the predictable commentary about why we went to war and what the consequences were. And there was some attention given to the fact that this had been the most privatized military engagement in U.S. history, with private contractors actually outnumbering traditional troops — the “First Contractors’ War,” as Middlebury College scholar Allison Stanger called it in 2009. No one, however, talked about the possibility of a second contractors’ war, a topic that may surface sooner than we anticipated and one that yields a multitude of questions. This time, for example, will we be told about the extent of the role of military and security contractors? Will we know which companies are making millions, even billions, from providing armed and unarmed services in the name of American defense? Will we know how many layers of subcontractors there are, from what countries they were hired, and who trained them? When the U.S. government announces casualty totals, will the stats include the contractors who were wounded and killed? And what about the soldiers missing in action? In Iraq by the spring of 2011 there were eight MIAs, seven of which were private contractors.

The First Contractors’ War was “a remarkably unprecedented experiment” in the privatization of America’s defense forces, as California’s U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) told Congress in 2007– one that clearly succeeded. And out of such success arose a bold new industry of private military and security companies, some of which had already existed and grew substantially during the bonanza of contracts that defined the Iraq war, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new ones worldwide. Their broad range of services may include police training, intelligence analysis, logistics support, air transport, border patrol, weapons procurement, and drone operations. They assist U.S. forces in contingency operations and remain long after the military withdraws from combat zones; they guard our diplomats; and they play key roles in U.S. counterterrorism strategies. They work for the United Nations, for AFRICOM ( the U.S. unified command in Africa) and for multinational corporations working in hostile environments; they provide armed security to the shipping industry. Their markets exist wherever instability threatens development; wherever military commitments exceed the capabilities of nations; wherever governments are viewed as incapable of supplying defense and security fast enough.

They are the latest incarnation of the solutions that President Eisenhower referred to in the often-overlooked part of his famed 1961 “military-industrial complex” address: “Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” Now, wherever our geopolitical missions take us, these companies will be part of the plan. As former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, who served as co-chair for Congress’s Commission on Wartime Contracting, said recently, “The one thing that’s a given now: We can’t go to war without contractors and we can’t go to peace without contractors.”

But what does it matter? Why should we care who defends and secures us, how and where they are trained, and whether or not they are employees of private military and security companies? Why should we worry at all about the Second Contractors’ War? If dismal and dangerous jobs are outsourced and we can tend to our own concerns, what’s the problem? The simple fact that we have to ask such a question exposes the reality that we know too little about who these contractors are and that we care too little about what it means for our nation to be dependent on them. The simplest answer to why it matters thus becomes one word: democracy.

Private military and security firms promote themselves as on-call businesses, which effectively provide a fast solution that averts the often slow democratic process. To be sure, democracy demands restraint to allow for discourse, which in turn requires transparency. “Reliance on contractors allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny,” the New York Times noted in 2010. But what about the citizens’ right to know and need to know for the sake of their own security? The more the citizens of a nation are removed from the job of its defense and do not see the full impact of war, including all casualties, the easier it is for policy makers to engage the nation in conflicts and for citizens to lose a personal connection, a passionate allegiance, to nation — the passion that throughout history has motivated insurgents (including the American rebels in our revolution) to win wars. In other words, such indifference is a threat to our security. If a nation is not aware of the impact of war, then it will not fear going to war; if not affected then its citizens will not discuss and debate.

In August of 2011, the final report of the three- year study by Congress’s Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed some unnerving details about our dependence on private contractors and fervently urged reforms to prevent any repeat performances. It warned: “Delay and denial are not good options. There will be a next contingency, whether the crisis takes the form of overseas hostilities or domestic response to a national emergency like a mass-casualty terror attack or natural disaster.”

Three years later, we as citizens of a democracy must ask ourselves: are we ready for the Second Contractors’ War?

Ann Hagedorn is the award-winning author of the new book The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She’s written four previous books: Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace, and has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. She has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Xavier University, and Miami University. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Denison University. She divides her time between New York City and a small Ohio River town, which she discovered during her research for Beyond the River.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com