‘War PLC’, by Stephen Armstrong. Faber and Faber £14.99.
In a world of privatisation and globalisation, it is perhaps only to be expected that combat and security activities should also be outsourced. Private military companies are being increasingly used to guard both people and places.
Oil companies, for instance, are starting to set up their own private armies. Aramco is establishing a security force to protect oil and gas fields and pipelines in Saudi Arabia, while the Russian parliament has given permission for gas and oil companies to raise corporate armies of their own. But for the most part it is a matter of private companies that hire their employees out to corporations and governments, companies like Sandline and Blackwater. The latter has its own vast training camp in North Carolina and possesses helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq has fuelled the growth in private military companies. In 2006 there were 100,000 private contractors (as they’re called) in Iraq, and Donald Rumsfeld regarded them as an official part of the US war machine. They have increasingly taken on combat roles, and in September last year a Blackwater convoy killed seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
Contracting out security tasks supposedly frees up government soldiers to do more actual fighting, though the private forces are, as just seen, getting more involved in combat operations. It is also claimed that they perform a useful service because new states may not at first have properly organised armed forces of their own. They also mean big profits for their owners, partly brought about by hiring cheap labour from Latin America, including former thugs from Pinochet’s Chile. And like other companies, they are concerned about their image: one boss interviewed here says, ‘Even though it was making us lots of money at the time, we took a view of Iraq and the margins and felt it was dragging our brand down.’
If any contractor is killed or injured, the company employing them will fight tooth and nail to avoid paying compensation. The soldier’s family will find their struggle made far more difficult by the complex web of ownership: a person from country X, fighting in Y for a company based in Z but officially registered elsewhere.
Making a profit from war is perhaps the ultimate expression of the profit motive. Armstrong’s book gives a good account of these developments, though notes and/or references would have made it more useful. And the publishers have a nerve charging this much for a 250-page paperback that doesn’t even have an index.