Private Mercenaries and the War on Terror in American Foreign Policy

Roundup
tags: war on terror



Jeremy Kuzmarov is Jay P. Walker Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of "Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century" and "The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs."

… Naomi Klein has commented that Iraq was more than a failed occupation, it was a “radical experiment in corporate rule.”5 Led by radical free-market ideologists, the Bush administration placed a primacy on deregulation, corporate tax cuts and privatizing state-run industry in Iraq, which was to be a shining model for the virtues of neoliberal capitalism. After Saddam’s government fell, Booz-Allen Hamilton, one of the Beltway’s biggest consulting firms, organized a conference which called for the rewriting of Iraq’s business, property and trade laws in ways conducive to foreign investment. The Bush administration ultimately tore down Iraq’s centralized, state-run economy without building anything to replace it while provoking civil war and putting in place a political system ensuring fierce regional and ethnic divisions.6

The war’s key architects believed with Erik Prince, founding CEO of Blackwater, that the privatization of war could ensure greater military efficiency while cutting out wasteful spending. Prince told a reporter that “we’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what fed-ex did for the postal service. They did many of the same services, better, faster and cheaper.”7 Upon his appointment as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld had set about reducing the wasteful Pentagon bureaucracy and revolutionizing the U.S. armed forces by moving towards a lighter, more flexible fighting machine and harnessing private sector power on multiple fronts. He wrote in Foreign Affairs that “we must promote a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists.”8 These remarks were in-line with the philosophy initially honed in Rumsfeld’s days outsourcing government functions as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity under Richard M. Nixon. They were welcomed by defense contractors and PMCs ready to cash in on the new opportunities made available by the Global War on Terror (GWOT).


The Bush administration prioritized a war economy in which defense contractors and other corporate interests finance elections to ensure the proliferation of permanent war mobilization.9 In spite of well-developed propaganda techniques in selling military interventions, antiwar attitudes crystallize, particularly when wars drag on and official claims prove hollow.10 The 1960s anti-war movements engendered a deep culture of skepticism towards militarism, known as the “Vietnam syndrome,” which made revival of the draft a risky political option even amidst the jingoistic climate that followed the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s support for mercenaries was one crucial weapon in an arsenal designed to distance the war from the public that included reliance on air power and eventually drones, Special Forces operations and the training of proxy units, and media censorship epitomized by the phenomenon of embedded reporters.11

After authorizing the attack on Afghanistan, George W. Bush told Americans to carry on business as usual and to “go shopping.” The insinuation was that the same public sacrifice would not be demanded as in previous wars.12 Michael Ignatieff in Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond wrote that, “the American public and its military came away from Vietnam unwilling to shed blood in wars unconnected with essential national interests. The debacle in Vietnam brought the draft to an end and the result widened the gulf between civilian and military culture. Masculinity has slowly emancipated itself from the warrior ideal…. In a society increasingly distant from the culture of war, the rhetoric politicians use to mobilize their populations in support of the military becomes unreal and insincere. The language of patriotism is losing its appeal.”13

Much like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush attempted to revive the triumphalist attitude towards war characteristic of the post-World War II era (what historian Tom Engelhardt has called the “victory culture”) but largely in vain. His efforts crashed and burned after he gave a speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him weeks before an insurgency developed against the U.S. occupation and Iraq descended into bloody sectarian war.14

A blueprint for American strategy in the War on Terror was the 1959-1975 secret war in Laos, where the CIA worked with hundreds of civilian contractors who flew spotter aircraft, ran ground bases and operated radar stations in civilian clothes while raising its own private army among the Hmong to fight the pro-communist Pathet Lao.15 Another prototype was Nixon’s Vietnamization program, which transferred the fighting burden to Vietnamese soldiers trained by Green Berets and third country nationals’ recruited from among tribal minorities and U.S. allies in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.16 Vinnell, an L.A.-based construction company brought over by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm with heavy investments in the defense sector, was contracted to run black operations against the “Vietcong,” as part of Operation Phoenix. A Pentagon official described Vinnell, which later won a $48 million contract to train the armed forces in Iraq, as “our own little mercenary army.”17

Civilian contractors generally played a crucial though unrecognized role in the Vietnam War, including in building and running military bases and national communication and transportation networks and training local military forces.18 After the 1968 Tet offensive, the United States could no longer rely on its own soldiers to fight. Colonel Robert Heinl reported in The Armed Forces Journal in 1971 that the military had disintegrated to a “state approaching collapse,” with “individual units drug ridden and dispirited when not near-mutinous,” avoiding or having refused combat and “murdering their officers and non-commissioned officer” through fragging, or detonating a grenade in their barracks. Following a fruitless offensive on the Dong Ap Bia Hill in the A Shau Valley, a group of veterans placed a $10,000 bounty on the head of Lieutenant Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, who had ordered the attack.19 This act testified to the breakdown in military morale which coinciding with the growth of large-scale antiwar protest forced the Nixon administration to wind down the war and necessitated the abolishing of the draft and a reliance on covert strategies that included the use of private contractors.20

After the Vietnam War ended, American strategic planners set out to keep a “light footprint” in overseas interventions, with private interests connected to the national security establishment making up for the manpower gap. When Jimmy Carter cut the CIA budget in half, ex-agency operatives formed what journalist Joseph Trento has called a “shadow CIA,” setting up private intelligence networks and procuring independent contracts with foreign governments to carry on espionage and covert operations in the service of U.S. hegemony worldwide.21 Hundreds of British and American mercenaries along with a few South Vietnamese recruited and trained by the CIA fought against liberationist forces in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and against the Cuban-backed MPLA in Angola where they were accused of torturing prisoners and massacring civilians.22 After leaving a booby trapped grenade at the site of a burned land rover with ten unidentified bodies in Mozambique, Bob Mackenzie, CIA Deputy Director Ray Cline’s son-in-law, quipped in his diary: “it’s easy to be a terrorist.”23

If the use of mercenaries reached a peak during the George W. Bush administration, they have long been part of American war making, employed particularly to carry out covert operations. Nineteenth century filibusters such as Confederate General Henry MacIver and William Walker established independent slave republics in Haiti and Nicaragua and laid the groundwork for the United States invasion of Cuba by fighting alongside Cuban rebels against Spain.24 In the Philippines, the U.S. built a native constabulary commanded by some soldiers of fortune, including Jesse Garwood, a Western gunfighter who placed bounties on the heads of nationalist insurgents.25 In 1911, the Department of State backed a coup led by Lee Christmas an African American mercenary hired by Samuel Zemurray, owner of the Cuyamel Fruit Company (later United Fruit), against Honduran president Miguel Dávila who had forced Zemurray to pay taxes and campaigned to limit the amount of land foreigners could own. Christmas was also head of the secret service of Guatemalan dictator Estrada Cabrera, a State Department favorite who “smiled benevolently on U.S. enterprise in the tropics,” and partook in efforts to overthrow Nicaraguan ruler José Santos Zelaya who worked for Central American federation and refused building of the Panama Canal.26 Mercenaries were crucial generally to the consolidation of an American informal empire in the Caribbean and the advancement of U.S. business interests there.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. relied on private corporations such as Civil Air Transport (CAT – later Air America) founded by General Clare Chennault and CIA-front companies to assist in clandestine operations. Following the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the CIA financed South African and Rhodesians likened by Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah to “thugs employed by the Klu Klux Klan,” to shore up the pro-western regime of Joseph Mobutu.27 After disbanding USAID’s Office of Public Safety (OPS), which trained foreign police forces, Vinnell won a $77 million contract for training and equipping the Saudi National Guard to defend oil fields. In 1979, when a rebellion rocked the kingdom, the company provided the tactical support needed by the Saudi princes to recapture the Grand Mosque at Mecca.28 Vinnell and a parent company, BDM, chaired by Frank Carlucci III, Reagan’s Defense Secretary, continued to oversee the kingdom’s internal security forces into the 21st century, with Booz Allen-Hamilton, a key government contractor in Iraq, taking control over the Saudi Marine Corps and Army Staff College and Science Application International Corporation (SAIC) developing a sophisticated intelligence and communications system for the Saudi Royal navy.29...




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