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From “Contract Killers,” which appeared in the June 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete article—along with the magazine’s entire 173-year archive—is available online at

A small group of businessmen now controls the American war machine. The bombers cannot take off, the missiles cannot fly, the warships cannot get under way, the robots cannot do their deadly duty until these men assent. They are the CEOs of a small cluster of private corporations, and they share the power once vested exclusively in the president and Congress—the power to make war or peace. They head companies with names unfamiliar to most of us: Vinnell Corporation; ArmorGroup; DynCorp; Logicon, Inc., a branch of Northrop Grumman. There are better-known names as well: Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, and the now famous Halliburton, with its many subsidiaries, including Kellogg Brown & Root.

Such profit-making organizations are now involved at every level of national defense, from intelligence gathering and analysis to the making of operational combat plans. Corporations do the U.S. military’s laundry, cook its food, swab its latrines. The fact that such tasks are performed by employees not of the government but of concerns listed on stock exchanges has begun to penetrate the public consciousness, but most Americans still do not understand that their celebrated high-tech, postindustrial military establishment cannot so much as fire a rocket without assistance from private military firms. The extent to which war-making has been turned over to these organizations is not well-known, and this is because those in charge do not want it to be.

The traditional rationale for privatizing American war-making is that corporate warriors can do the job for less. But no proof exists that hiring private firms is cheaper. In theory, private contracting creates competitive pressure to reduce costs, but in practice the bidding process can be so opaque and distorted by favoritism that it becomes an empty formality. Many of the large rebuilding contracts in Iraq were made under no-bid or “emergency” conditions, and in the grand tradition pioneered by Boss Tweed, contractor waste abounds.

While the Pentagon is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, its contractors are not. They can act entirely in private, abetted by a Defense Department that blocks inquiries by invoking its obligation to protect the firms’ “proprietary information.” Not even the salaries paid by these companies are public. The Navy’s capital ships and the Stealth Bomber are maintained by companies for hire. Services as diverse as weapons testing and aerial refueling are performed by businesses under contract. Even Global Hawk and Predator, the pilotless airplanes so often shown strutting their stuff on television, are operated by a private concern.

These war corporations could not be made to go away even in the unlikely event that an administration desired it. For the United States, the era of large armies—which began with the levée en masse of the French Revolution and gave rise to forces the size of which had not been seen since Cambyses II—ended in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Not only had it become politically impossible to send draftees to fight colonial wars, but, like everything else, war shifted from being labor-intensive to being capital-intensive. Always specialized and technical, it became more so. This made war suited, in theory, to a businesslike model of decentralization and outsourcing, which would confer the benefits of speed, flexibility, and low cost.

The financial savings have turned out to be highly debatable. The costs and attendant risks are not. The government’s monopoly of the means of violence—its role as the guarantor of civil peace and the rule of law—has been diluted by these new arrangements. For the moment our defense contractors are dominated by retired officers who have internalized the norms of civilian control, but that may change. After all, the praetorian guard protected the Roman emperors for a long time before it started killing them. Brighter lights and stronger controls need to be placed over these corporations. Either we supervise them, or eventually they will supervise us.


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