Over the past several years, the U.S. government has sharply increased its use of private military contractors. There are now about the same number of contractors as soldiers in Iraq, something to keep in mind when you hear presidential candidates describing their plans for troop reductions. Contractors do a vast range of tasks, from laundry and cooking to skilled security work, and they come from all over the world. Are they mercenaries? Are they like soldiers? Are they something else? Should we be concerned about the government’s increasing reliance on and creation of this quickly growing sector?
Considering that conscription in the U.S. ended during the Nixon administration, we might say that contractors are providing essential services for which the Armed Forces no longer have the manpower. Other supporters of the contractors emphasize—on more ideological or philosophical grounds—that downsizing government, privatization and outsourcing are in and of themselves probably good things. We’ve seen the same processes in so many other sectors of the U.S. economy and government—why not in the military?
There are many reasons to be alarmed about the contractor sector. Basic issues of oversight and legal accountability are significant concerns, as was starkly demonstrated by the killing of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater contractors in Baghdad last year. These issues might be amenable to a technical fix.
I wish to draw your attention to another problem: the contractor’s relation to the traditional understanding of sacrifice, which has undergirded Americans’ imaginings about those who kill and are killed on behalf of the nation. There is an important tradition in the U.S. that says those who die and suffer for the country are honored in a certain way. Soldiers are eligible for medals and other honors; they can be buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery; their deaths are included in the body counts released by the Pentagon. We expect the president to acknowledge those deaths and to explain why they were meaningful. Although the reality often falls far short of these ideals, as we saw with the scandal surrounding soldiers’ inadequate treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the fact that this was seen as a scandal presupposes the tradition I am describing.
This tradition should prompt us to ask about the place of sacrifice in a democracy. For generations, military service and citizenship were thought to be intimately linked. How should the burden of defending the country, or advancing its interests globally, be distributed?
Using paid contractors, especially those who are armed and are U.S. citizens, complicates the tradition of honoring military sacrifice. At the moment, contractors are officially excluded from the forms of recognition extended to soldiers. If we think of them as mercenaries, this seems legitimate. Yet before we dismiss the contractor as a mercenary, we need to keep in mind the way in which calling a death a sacrifice can function as a form of accountability between officials and the public. If the government can deploy private military contractors to supplement its conventional forces, might that make it easier to get involved in a war?
This raises the question of whether the government should recognize the deaths of military contractors as sacrifices. In fact, this is already taking place with respect to the highly skilled U.S. citizen contractors, although the recognition is after the fact and ad hoc. In 2004, when four armed Blackwater contractors were ambushed and were then grotesquely killed, dismembered and immolated in Fallujah, they were seen by many as dying for the nation and their deaths were analogized to the killing of U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia over a decade ago. The U.S. responded with a bloody siege of Fallujah.
The legal debate about the contractors is essential. But the social meanings also matter. Should the contractors be honored? It might make officials more accountable to the public, or it might backfire terribly, alienating soldiers and giving greater power to the contractor industry. However we decide the question, we should all be worried about having an ever-growing group of people who kill and are killed on our behalf but who remain estranged from the tradition of sacrifice.
Mateo Taussig-Rubbo explores the themes discussed in this essay at greater length in his article, “Outsourcing sacrifice: the labor of private military contractors,” to be published shortly by the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. He holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a JD from Yale Law School.