Contractors, the Privatization of War, and Accountability

Contractors, the Privatization of War, and Accountability

The intense political and media scrutiny directed towards Blackwater Inc. this week evokes the old Irish saying that "calm waters run deep, but the Devil lurks in the depths." During congressional hearings, the rock was lifted to reveal one of the most profound developments in the American way of war since perhaps the use of conscription during the Civil War: civilianization of the battlefield. Ironically, the media exposure of the stark statistic that there are today more civilian contractors serving in Iraq than members of the armed forces occurred during the same week when many Americans tuned in to the PBS documentary "The War" and were reminded of how the burden to wage that "Great Crusade" touched almost every family in America.

While the ratio of civilian to military personnel in Iraq is unquestionably unprecedented, the reality is that civilians have always "accompanied" the armed forces in support of wartime missions. What seems to be changing, however, is the nature of the functions being assigned to these civilians. In previous conflicts, the functions performed by civilians were limited to support activities, such as providing logistical or morale support to the troops. The civilian/military ratio was also naturally limited by the ability of the armed forces to call upon uniformed personnel to perform a wide variety of functions ranging from direct combat to every type of service and support activity imaginable.

But as the Cold War ended and the military underwent "downsizing," an unprecedented emphasis on "civilianization" of many of these functions began to alter this paradigm. As the numbers of uniformed personnel declined, leaders at the highest levels of the Pentagon began to see contract support as the answer to the problem of enhancing the "tooth to tail" ratio -- maximizing the number of "uniforms" for combat functions by minimizing the number of "uniforms" for support functions. And, as the Department of Defense began to create tremendous profit-making opportunities for the private sector to supplant downsized military forces, the market responded by offering just as wide an array of services as had previously been performed by uniformed personnel.

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