Musings on Military Contracting and the Challenge of Alterity

As I was recently undertaking final corrections to my major paper and beginning to embark on the quest for a job that will allow me to make contributions that I deem valuable as well as to pay off student debt, a friend forwarded a call for proposals for a professional photography grant. I chose to apply and proposed that I receive support to introduce myself to the Pashto or Farsi languages, upgrade my gear, and piggyback with an experienced group, such as Bond Street Theatre, on their forthcoming return trip to Afghanistan. Once there, I would photograph daily life—highlighting similarities, rather than differences, between Afghani ways of life and those of the rest of the world. In addition to being an expression of my long love affair with photography, this proposal also represents an interesting extension of my research focus during the past three years concerning private military firms (PMFs) and their impact on statebuilding and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A recent TEDx Talk[i] by Peace Action Networks’ Dick Simon[ii] concerning the concept of “THEM” addressed an issue that has become apparent in my research as well. Those I interviewed who had worked or served in Afghanistan and Iraq—military and state department personnel, diplomats and contractors—discussed their experiences with the local residents of Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked each person I talked with how they would describe the average Afghans and Iraqis they had met in their time in those nations. One theme soon became apparent—that “they” are just like “us.” The common person wants to provide food and a good home for their family, to work and feel appreciated, but most importantly they want their children to lead better lives than they have experienced. After hearing this the first time, it struck me that this described most people that I know. Each subsequent similar description simply drove home the fact that this is an underlying desire among all humanity and not unique to our own mental models or way of life.

Given this deep common claim, how does “THEM” relate to American statebuilding, reconstruction and contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq? Simon has suggested that “THEM” is the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language[iii] as, “It is responsible for the suffering and death of millions … [it] is used to isolate, to insult, to marginalize. It has a devastating impact on geopolitical and societal levels, as well as within personal relationships, yet we continue to use it every day.”[iv] …“We label others as THEM rather than doing the hard work of trying to garner a more nuanced understanding of complex situations.”[v] Through long months, or in some cases, years, of working alongside their local host populations, many of our servicemen and women and others who work overseas have come to think in terms of “we” rather than “us” and “them.”

Scholars have noted that after ten years and countless casualties among all involved, Americans have grown tired of waging war in Afghanistan.[vi] A working paper from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government has estimated that America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will ultimately cost between $4 and $6 trillion.[vii] And this, despite the fact the statebuilding and reconstruction mission has gained little ground and a share of the progress it had made was lost when the Taliban regained control of some areas in recent years. In Iraq, an insurgent group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant temporarily wrested control of major cities away from their populations and governments earlier this year. It is arguable that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is more stable than either was before American occupation. Unlike the last United States foreign conflict, the Persian Gulf War, these military missions evolved to include lengthy occupations complete with reconstruction and statebuilding efforts. While the local populations of these countries have yet to recover from conflict, the private firms playing roles in the long occupation have profited tremendously.

With the rush towards neoliberalism in the 1980s, many government functions were privatized in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. For the armed forces this meant slimming down as selected responsibilities were shifted to the private sector. A share of military men and women found their roles disappearing. Many of these individuals¾American and otherwise—found employment with various private firms. So, while the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) cut force levels, it did not actually reduce expenditures or its ultimate responsibilities. Instead, these simply changed character and hands and the DoD had to develop fresh oversight capabilities to monitor its new “assistants.”

While the term private military firm suggests a mercenary force, contractors actually fulfill a variety of roles. Peter Singer has described their functions using a “tip of the spear” typology.[viii] Military provider firms, in layman’s terms, are people with guns. Corporations and governments around the world hire them to provide valuable combat expertise. If rebels have taken control of your chief revenue source, for example, the for-profit firm Executive Outcomes can help. Closest to our concept of the mercenary, relatively few of these companies exist. More common are consulting firms, such as MPRI, that use their skills to train other forces around the world, rather than engage in conflict directly. Military support firms, including Halliburton, comprise by far the largest number of PMFs and their employees drive trucks, serve food, build barracks, launder uniforms, and otherwise perform any number of tasks that armed forces personnel had previously done themselves in support of their missions.

PMFs grew rapidly in a post Cold War world in which 6 million veterans had found themselves displaced.[ix] Meanwhile the global obligations of the nations affected by this shift to large-scale defense contracting have only increased too. The Logistics Civil Augmentation Program is the U.S. answer to this challenge: a roadmap for using the private sector as a force multiplier for the military.[x] With the military mission in Iraq having ended in 2011 and winding down in Afghanistan, America has nearly eliminated its troop presence in Iraq and greatly reduced its force in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, as if part of a seesaw, the reconstruction mission remains and diplomatic efforts to assist both countries have intensified.

As I noted above, nearly all human beings share basic desires and needs, but in conflict and postconflict societies, critical economic and educational requirements often go unmet. More than one member of the military I interviewed recounted stories of impoverished Afghans and Iraqis accepting money from individuals they did not know to undertake activities of whose purposes they were unaware.[xi][xii] Mostly, this was done without malicious intent and because it was often perceived as superior to, for example, selling one’s youngest daughter to support the rest of the family through the winter. Desperation drives many to commit acts they would not otherwise perpetrate. A deep-rooted fear of infiltration leads policymakers to offer many contracts to “third country nationals,” contractors neither belonging to the occupying country or the occupied country. One military official I interviewed described the animosity that many Iraqis felt towards contracted Indian truck drivers in his convoys, as the local citizens knew they were capable of driving the trucks themselves.[xiii] This example suggests that not only can contracting deprive local populations of any economic (and subsequently educational) opportunity it may also contribute to a divide between the occupiers and the host population—bolstering, rather than preventing the notion of “THEM” and reinforcing a cycle of violence.

No matter how efficient and effective PMFs are at performing their jobs they “may set back the overall war effort and America’s prestige in the world by employing mercenaries who appear to be out of control.”[xiv] Specific cases of tragedies committed at the hands of contractors undermine the faith the local population may have in the statebuilding and reconstruction mission, while the tendency to rely on private military firms to provide skills that may otherwise be found locally weakens local citizen support by ignoring their needs. This scenario opens a wide gulf between people, as it isolates, insults, and marginalizes the local population the U.S. is ostensibly there to help.

Nonetheless, re-imagining the application of the private sector’s role in various defense missions around the globe may aid in overcoming this process of “THEMification.”[xv] To support programs promoting “broad-based participation and civil society development … democracy and good governance, economic growth and free enterprise, sound environmental stewardship, and quality education and healthcare”[xvi] the U.S. State Department has proposed cooperation with “citizens and civil society organizations at home and abroad … U.S. nongovernmental organizations, institutions of higher learning, and private sector partners who share our objectives.”[xvii] Working as a skill multiplier with local populations rather than a force multiplier for the military, private contractors may assist in enabling local citizens in assuming ownership of statebuilding and reconstruction efforts. Close cooperation with targeted country populations is likely to strengthen mutual understanding and aid in the deconstruction of “THEM.”


Bilmes, L. (2013). The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Spending Budgets. Faculty Research Working Paper Series. Boston, MA: Harvard Kennedy School. RWP13-006. Retrieved on February 26th, 2014, from:

Bruneau, T. C. (2011). Patriots for Profit: Contractors and the Military in U.S. National Security. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Department of the Army (DoA). (1998). LOGCAP Battle Book: Logistics Civil Augmentation Program: a Flexible Alternative for Supporting the Force. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Materiel Command.

Geddes, J. (2008). Highway to Hell: Dispatches from a Mercenary in Iraq. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Hilton, I. (2001). The Pashtun Code: How a long-ungovernable tribe may determine the future of Afghanistan. The New Yorker. Retrieved on February 20th, 2014, from:,

Simon, D. (2014). The Most Dangerous Four Letter Word. TheWorldPost. Retrieved February 17th, 2014, from:

Singer, P. W. (2008). Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Updated Edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Slaikeau, K. and Zarif, F. (2012). Five Questions for America to Answer about Afghanistan, The Arab Spring, and Nation Building at Home. Small Wars Journal. Retrieved on January 20th, 2014, from:

U.S. Department of State (US DoS). (2004). Mission Statement. Mission. Retrieved on December 10th, 2013, from

[iii] Simon (2014).
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Slaikeau and Zarif (2012).
[vii] Bilmes (2013).
[viii] Singer (2008): 91-100
[ix] Geddes (2008): 42
[x] DoA (1998): 3
[xi] Individual interview with military personnel on December 18th, 2012
[xii] Individual interview with military personnel on February 15th, 2013.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Bruneau (2011): 109
[xv] Simon (2014).
[xvi] U.S. DoS (2004).
[xvii] Ibid.

Chris Price_headshot_1 5X2 (2)Chris Price earned his Bachelor of Science in History with a minor in Political Science from Virginia Tech, and is currently a candidate for a Master’s degree in Government and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. His Major paper concerns private military contractors and their impacts on statebuilding and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. When not serving as a teaching assistant, Chris frequently volunteers his time as a photographer for events related to Virginia Tech and the community of Blacksburg.

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