No Comment — August 8, 2007, 7:29 am

Death of a (Contract) Soldier

infiniteloop

How is the war in Iraq unlike any prior war America has waged? The course of the war has been strange. It went from invasion, to declaration of “mission accomplished,” to a quickly concluded occupation at the end of June 2004. Today there are more American soldiers in Iraq than there have ever been, facing more dangerous conflict. Their actual mission is confusing and vague, and the Iraqi Government–which all of this was supposedly designed to stabilize and make self-sustaining–has essentially collapsed. All of this is unlike any of our prior military experiences, and all of it reflects a catastrophic failure of planning and design at the highest leadership levels—and not a failing by soldiers on the ground to accomplish the tasks set before them.

Still, arguably the biggest change in this war is the force configuration. The number of Americans serving in uniform in Iraq today is approaching 170,000. The number of persons serving in a contract capacity in Iraq is about 180,000. Historically, contractors have been 3-5% of the uniformed force. So this marks a radical transformation, carried out by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. There was no public discussion of this. No public buy-in. No Congressional consent. In a series of appearances before Congress, Pentagon spokesmen continuously misstated the number of contractors or claimed—incredibly—that they had no firm count. Even today, notwithstanding tremendous Congressional pressure to get a firm grip on the contractor count, there is uncertainty about the numbers.

The New York Times looks at this issue today and takes a very cautious approach to the numbers. It says, for instance, that the military puts the number of contractors at 125,000. That number is low. And the Times lost sight of the fact that a very large part of the total is contracted not to the Department of Defense, but to other agencies, including the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice. But the Times very appropriately focuses in on the new phenomenon of the contract soldier and it presents the phenomenon in a tragic setting: one of the more than 1000 American contractors killed in Iraq.

Brenton Thomas Gray was no longer a soldier when he died a soldier’s death last August on a northern Baghdad road. There were an armored car, a curbside bomb, a sizzling explosion. The sky went black with smoke and melting tar. Mr. Gray, 34, was a private security expert, a navigator for the Baghdad team of Cochise Consultancy, and one of the thousands of men who earn their paychecks in Iraq, living on their wits and carrying a gun.

Military officials estimate that 125,000 contractors are working in the country, nearly the number of American troops. The figures on those who carry guns vary widely, depending on the source, but seem to settle on about 20,000. As of June 30, government figures show, 1,001 contractors had died in Iraq since the start of the war. A eulogy is spoken by tradition at the burial, but the story of a life is just as likely to be spoken in a bar. Mr. Gray’s family took that path last week, marking their year of grief by visiting his grave, then visiting a pub.

Dying in a country far from home is a contractor’s lot, but so is being branded a mercenary, a cowboy, a soldier of fortune, said some of the men who attended the gathering on Saturday in this humid town of horse farms 40 miles northwest of Fayetteville. The pay is good, they said, though there are reasons beyond the monthly check to work, as they call it, downrange in danger’s way. “Yeah, you can make a buck,” said Wayne Colombo, a white-haired warrant officer who, well before he worked with Mr. Gray, served with a Special Forces A-team in Vietnam. “But you’re also back with guys you know, doing what you can — and doing what you know.”

From the birth of the nation through the arrival of George W. Bush, the United States has nurtured the ideal of the citizen soldier. But that concept has been demolished by Bush’s dynamic duo of military planning, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Perhaps it’s time to have some public discussion about the emergence of the new concept of private commercial military service.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2016

The Improbability Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trump’s People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Long Rescue

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Television

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump's supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man's search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Photograph (detail) © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Article
Trump’s People·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”
Photograph by Mark Abramson for Harper's Magazine (detail)
Article
The Long Rescue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

He made them groom and feed the half-dozen horses used to transport the raw bricks to the furnace. Like the horses, the children were beaten with whips.
Photograph (detail) © Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Newscom
Article
The Old Man·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Illustration (detail) by Jen Renninger
Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men.
Still from The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story © FX Networks

Amount an auditor estimated last year that Oregon could save each year by feeding prisoners less food:

$62,000

Kentucky is the saddest state.

An Italian economist was questioned on suspicion of terrorism after a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight witnessed him writing differential equations on a pad of paper.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today