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The outsourced war

With U.S. forces stretched thin, civilian contractors fill the breach as never before.

September 21, 2007|Timothy K. Hsia | Timothy K. Hsia is an Army infantry captain on his second deployment to Iraq.

From the time a soldier wakes up until he goes to sleep, he interacts with civilian contractors. Most of the focus has been on personal security detachments, or PSDs -- the bodyguards, like Blackwater. But by some estimates there are as many of 180,000 contractors, and PSDs make up only a small fraction of them. The majority of the jobs are service support for the troops and are filled by non-Americans. The effect of these civilians in the Iraq war has yet to be fully examined, and the legacy of their role will affect how our nation fights its future wars.

The trash being sifted and sorted out of a soldier's garbage bin is conducted by civilians working for Toifor Co. When he walks to the morale, welfare and recreation facilities, he is greeted by more civilians who run the gym. As he leaves the gym, he can see civilians stacking up the bottled water. When the soldier turns in his laundry, it is to an East Asian civilian who prides himself on his English and customer service. The soldier has the luxury of a hot shower because Indonesian civilians ensure that there is a ready supply of water. When he enters the dining facility, he is greeted by Ugandan security guards who work for EOD Technology. These Ugandans make roughly $1,000 a month, meager by U.S. standards but considered a small fortune in their country. They also provide security at the forward operating bases -- the largest camps -- because there is not enough U.S. military manpower to do so.

While preparing for a mission, the soldier can expect technicians from General Dynamics or other major defense contracting companies aiding Army soldiers in the upkeep and maintenance of essential equipment. He can expect his Iraqi interpreter to work for a contractor, probably Titan Corp. In addition, many Filipino drivers are responsible for ensuring that most of the heavy equipment -- such as Humvees and Strykers -- reach their destinations after they're unloaded in Kuwait.

On returning from his mission, the soldier will interact with many civilians hired by KBR, which runs the general support services for the base. Many of these workers are Serbs and Croats who have been employed by the company since the Clinton administration, when the U.S. held a significant role in the peacekeeping operation in Serbia.

The majority of all this civilian activity usually goes unnoticed on the bases by soldiers and even more so by U.S. taxpayers, who generally think their taxes only support the military forces. After the Vietnam War, most of the combat-support duties were transferred from full-time soldiers to National Guard and Reserve units. But today that structure has been undercut as civilians have taken over those jobs. And these civilian contractors in the non-security roles are only a degree away from what we have historically called mercenaries. They may not be carrying weapons, but they nonetheless assist, equip, sustain and maintain the military force in Iraq.

This war has demonstrated that there are not enough soldiers to equip and sustain a deployed force continuously for multiple years and deployments. Although the Defense Department has not released any official census on the total number of contractors, some reports have indicated that contractors already outnumber soldiers.

The revolution in military affairs envisaged by Donald H. Rumsfeld early in his tenure as secretary of Defense has occurred. The military can deploy with fewer soldiers and still achieve the administration's goals. Implicit in this revolution, though, is the reality that civilian contractors have come to take a significant, vital and cloaked role in the country's prosecution of a war in which Americans are fooled by the actual numbers required to carry out a war.

The Romans found mercenaries to be a quick-fix solution. However, a temporary fix became a more permanent force that the Romans used when they found their own legions had become too expensive -- economically and politically. Let us hope that the United States does not follow the fate of the Roman Empire in this regard.

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