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Swampwater USA

Editorial in the Bennington Banner, Sept. 25, 2007

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that private contractors in Iraq outnumber U.S. military personnel. More than 180,000 private individuals work under a wide range of federal contracts to provide security, gather intelligence, build roads, provide transport and handle many other tasks. By contrast, there are about 170,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.

That it took four and a half years for anyone to compute and publish the number of taxpayer-subsidized private contractors in Iraq is a testament to a dismal lack of oversight of the conduct of this war by Congress and by the media.

The issue of private contractors in Iraq has burst back into prominence because of a Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad in which contractors from Blackwater USA, a private security company based in North Carolina, allegedly killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians, including a woman and child, while escorting a State Department convoy.

Under current laws in both the U.S. and Iraq, some 30,000 security contractors — from at least 25 companies — are accountable neither to U.S. military justice nor to Iraqi law.

How did we get to the point where mercenaries guard our diplomatic personnel, a task traditionally performed by the Marine Corps?

At the end of the Cold War both the Pentagon and Congress decided in what seemed then a less-threatening world to scale back the standing army and instead contract out many jobs formerly performed by those in uniform. The Bush administration greatly expanded outsourcing after the invasion of Iraq.

As Jeremy Scahill, author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," said recently, "The Bush administration failed to build a coalition of willing nations, and so instead it built a coalition of billing corporations."

While it might make some sense to outsource cooking and construction, a mercenary fighting force — with some gun-toting contractors making 10 times the salary of an Army private — is a bad idea that needs to end.

Defending the United States is the job of the U.S. military and only the U.S. military. Paying to defend our country is the obligation of U.S. taxpayers. We are now in a situation where tax cuts defer the costs of war to future generations and vital military tasks are outsourced to companies and individuals motivated by economic interest and accountable to no one.

If we do not have the national will to meet the direct economic and human requirements of the Iraq War through taxes and recruitment, why do we continue to fight it?

There is another policy concern in the large-scale use of private contractors to perform tasks previously performed by the military: Without the Iraq War, U.S. security contractors would be out of business. Does anyone think Blackwater USA — a firm with strong and public ties to the Republican Party — wants the Iraq War to end anytime soon?

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