Just Above Sunset
April 25, 2004 - Two friends from France comment on privatization and mercenaries...

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On delusion, mercenaries, Steubenville, Ohio and DeKalb, Georgia.


My American friend in France, Joseph, glanced through Just Above Sunset and noted the discussion last week of why "Lawrence of Arabia" is an appropriate film to consider these days (here) - and the item on George Bush’s odd sense of reality (here).  He was particularly amused by William Saletan’s take on Bush I cited –

See Trust, Don't Verify
Bush's incredible definition of credibility.
William Saletan – SLATE.COM - Posted Wednesday, April 14, 2004, at 3:27 AM PT

Joseph said he was struck with a question - "If we tend to view history through the prism of popular movies, does that make Bush the 'Momento' president?"

Ah yes, the movie we need to pay attention to is "Lawrence of Arabia" - but the move we actually get is "Memento."  I dozed off on the sofa one day this week and woke up to some political talk show on the television - or was it Abbott and Costello doing that "Who's On First?" routine?  Heck, if we're going to be stuck in some movie I was hoping for something better - Peter Sellers in "A Shot in the Dark" or something. 

Joseph further commented –


By the way, now that this thing has turned into the fiasco that most of us said it would, I wonder what your "unnamed friend" is saying these days...  Hey, the mistake is understandable.  We're a nation that admires CEOs, we wanted a CEO president.  Now that the nation and the armed services are being run efficiently, like a proper corporation (just forget how far we're in the red) I hope that we're all happy with the result.


I told Joseph I shall see my "unnamed friend" in a week or two – my conservative buddy is off at a trade show in Vegas this week and one somewhere else after that.  I suspect he will be silent on these matters.  Bush said he'd run the country as a CEO would, and Bush does have an MBA of course - but every company he was involved with went under.  There are CEO's - then there are CEO's. 

What I find curious, and something I find troubling, is that in addition to our 130,000 troops in Iraq, we also have more than 20,000 "private contract" troops we pay quite handsomely.  They've just this week been "tasked" with providing protection for the "Green Zone" - the only safe place in Baghdad, with all the palaces and fancy hotels and former government edifices, where Viceroy Bremer works.  This is to free up our "public" troops to go out and fix the larger country in whatever way they can.  This is a one hundred million dollar contract. 

These "private contract troops" do pretty much the same sorts of things our soldiers do - but get paid much more and operate under no Geneva Convention restrictions at all.  And, in a CEO kind of way, you see the future.  The war is becoming "privatized" - we're paying companies like Blackwater Security (it was their guys who got strung from the bridge in Fallujah) to do the dirty work - and that would be the wet work (targeted assassinations) and collective punishment (snipers taking out ambulances and children for maximum psychological effect).  We can say "our forces" don't do such things, and that is perfectly true.  Pretty clever.  The mistake France made in Algeria in the late fifties is that they used the regular army for torture and such things.  The truth finally came out and there was no deniability.  We've learned a few things since then. 

Who are these guys?  Some are former members of the South African Defense Force and South African Police.  Hired guns.  Guy who took out politicians who didn’t much like apartheid.  Try this regarding one of the four killed in Fallujah:


Gray Branfield, 55, admitted to being part of a death squad which gunned down Joe Gqabi, the ANC's chief representative and Umkhonto weSizwe operational head in Zimbabwe on July 31 1981.  Gqabi was shot 19 times when three assassins ambushed him as he reversed down the driveway of his Harare home.


Nice guy!  Well, he had marketable skills. 

As another fiend in Paris, Ric Erickson, commented,


In normal, not CEO, English - these 'private contract troops' are mercenaries. 


The Romans used them effectively for longer than the USA has existed; and the Nazis used them - forced them - but when the steam or money ran out, the mercenaries couldn't save the ballgame.  They saved they own asses.


Maybe so. 

But we have used them before.  They helped us become what we are.  Remember the Hessians we paid to help us win the war against England, our own revolution?  We paid Germans - von Steuben and de Kalb and their troops - to fight the redcoats for us.  And we honored Baron von Steuben by naming one of our cities after him – Steubenville, Ohio.  Not much of an honor, for those of you who have been there - Dean Martin’s hometown, rusting and dead on the river west of Pittsburgh.  But it was a nice gesture.  And then there is DeKalb, Georgia.  Well, maybe we didn’t like these guys. 

Anyway, for more background on our current pseudo-Hessian assassins, the New York Times gives enormous detail here and you will find a comment at American Prospect here. 

These guys represent the second largest force in Iraq right now.  There are more of them than there are Brits in Basra. 

We’ve privatized the war a bit.  I’m not sure where that will take us. 

Regarding privatization, I see the government over there is France is working hard at privatizing all these large industries - more efficient and all that.  Ric and Joseph will have holy hell to pay for that this year with demonstrations and strikes. 

But have Chirac's ministers considered privatizing the army?  We're working on that over here.  Remember your Bonaparte - L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace !

Ric Erickson gives details:


It's pretty neat.  On the state-owned radio, state-owned EDF (electricity supplier) is advertising itself in preparation for being sold via the stock market.  France wants to sell a less than controlling interest in EDF - to conform to EU regulations that state enterprises allow competition.  Who, besides EDF, owns and operates the electricity generators and the transmission lines in France?  How will it be possible for a home owner to buy electricity from 'Electros de Espana' for example?  Does the state intend to reimburse the current stockholders - the taxpayers? 


Well, out here in California we dealt with this when we deregulated the electric markets two years ago.  Anyone anywhere – from as far away as Texas and Canada - could feed the grid and get paid for it.  So they all got together and withheld power to force up the prices – and we had blackouts and the price of electricity went up three and four hundred percent for a bit.  The state was forced into long-term contracts at fixed high prices and went billions into debt just to keep the lights on.  Thus the free market works – many people made quite a lot of money.  France is next. 

But Ric points out the privatization business in France is getting folks worked up. 


Former law-and-order interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, now head of finance at Bercy, has just frozen 7 billion euros of planned state expenditure.  Unemployment figures have been revised upward.  Meanwhile, 650,000 unemployed cut from benefits on January 1st have won a court case, reinstating their benefits. 

The 'new' government that resulted from the recent massive slap in the face from voters seems to be more hapless than the one it replaced.  The government, now facing coming EU elections, is worried but seems incapable of veering from its course to total disaster.  Yesterday, Chirac's recycled prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, had the disagreeable task of meeting with all of the recently elected regional presidents - some 20 out of 21 who are members of parties other than the government's.  C'est dire - Socialists, Greens, Communists and other lefties. 

I don't sense that there is a huge swell of support for the parties of the left.  Rather, it seems like a total rejection of the last right-wing government's policies, and of the recycled new right-wing government's policies.  All so-called 'reforms' have either been abandoned or are on hold.  The emperor has no new clothes. 

Not only has Chirac seemed to have lost his political 'touch,' but the so-called new UMP party created to keep him in office is losing its cools -- blowing them.  Popularity polls show only 30-40 percent approval for Chirac and Raffarin, with the latter getting worse notes than his boss.  The percentage of 'don't-knows' polled is very small. 

The mayor of Paris is not waiting patiently until Chirac is out of office and loses his immunity from prosecution, to charge him with embezzling city funds.  Maybe not so grave; maybe only a court order forcing restitution...  But it gives Chirac a strong incentive to re-run for President.  He only needs a miracle. 

These days, 'l'audace' is nowhere in evidence. 


Indeed.  Privatizing everything in France to make it look more like America seems to be meeting resistance.  There’s little resistance here, but we’re not French, and proud of it. 

Is Chirac as detached from reality as Bush (see above)?  Ric comments on Bush – "At least he is consistently deluded, instead of only randomly."

Cold comfort. 


So just where is Baron von Steuben when you need him?  And how are we to manage our new Hessians?


It seems there is always more to be said.  “Tom Tomorrow” over at This Modern World commented -


To be fair, I'm sure a lot of these guys are just working Joes, truck drivers and so on, lured there by the prospect of quick money, just like people I knew growing up were lured to Alaska during the fishing season--you go for a few months and make enough money to live for a year. 

But Iraq's not Alaska, and when these guys are carrying guns and acting for all practical purposes as soldiers, things get a little ambiguous. 


Indeed they do. 

You might want to read Nicholas Von Hoffman on this in The New York Observer.

See Privatization in Iraq: ‘Contractors’ With Guns
Thousands of mercenaries have been put to work in Iraq. 
Nicholas Von Hoffman, April 22, 2004 - 9:41 AM

Von Hoffman has a gripe with CNN and all the rest on how they report on this:


American news organizations are not doing the truth a favor when they call these hired guns "U.S. military contractors."  They are not even being accurate: The men were not contractors to the government, but Hessians or mercenary soldiers in the employ of a corporate warlord, namely Blackwater Security Consulting.  Let’s call these people what they are, even though Americans have yet to feel completely comfortable with the idea of killing for money. 


Well, yes.  Call them that.  And as for Americans feeling completely comfortable with the idea of killing for money, “The Sopranos” on HBO is vastly popular, so perhaps we are less uncomfortable than Von Hoffman thinks. 

Of course the news media portrayed these guys as innocent “contractors” and talked up the mutilation of the four in Fallujah as incredibly sad – implying these were just guys over there to make things better.  There wasn’t much on one of them having previously admitted to being a hired assassin for the forces trying to keep apartheid going.  That might have ruined they narrative?  Something like that.  And they are dead, and we do want to avenge them, somehow. 

Yes, they were bad guys.  Then things get all mixed up.  How are we to think about what is happening? 


Does that justify killing them?  No, nothing can justify taking human life - but if you take one-third of a million dollars a year to walk around in somebody else’s country with a machine gun, and you get wasted by the locals, I don’t think you deserve a very big or elaborate funeral.  They were there for the money, and these men - elite ex-soldiers that they were - knew the risks, and they took them.  So be it. 

Evidently, thousands of mercenaries have been put to work in Iraq, and this raises some troublesome questions.  Is all this stuff we are fed on TV and in the newspapers about the new and democratic Iraqi Army and constabulary just lies?  Why aren’t Iraqis guarding "bureaucrats, soldiers and intelligence officers"?  Why aren’t soldiers guarding themselves? 


Well, we do see the Iraqis we have trained to provide their own security are not displaying immense enthusiasm for that task. 

The Associated Press reports (Thursday, April 22, 2004 - 3:21:42 AM PST) that about one in every ten members of Iraq's security forces "actually worked against" our troops during the recent militia violence in Iraq, and an additional forty percent walked off the job because of intimidation.  Who says?  The commander of the 1st Armored Division - Major General Martin Dempsey.  And Dempsey says we’re at a critical point. 

So we don’t have enough troops for our guys to protect themselves that well, and the Iraqi guys we trained are flaking out on us, or even turning on us. 

Maybe privatization is the only good answer. 

But Von Hoffman suggests this may be a bit bothersome -


Not only does privatization not save money waging war, it creates problem after problem, only some of which are visible at this juncture.  If captured, are these mercenaries prisoners of war and subject to the Geneva Convention, or can they licitly be shot as spies and saboteurs? 

We know that there are thousands of mercenaries now loose in Iraq.  Only some of them work for Blackwater.  Apparently, there are a number of companies who hire these people, so the question arises about how much control the American authorities have over the irregulars running about the country.  Dyncorp mercenaries in the former Yugoslavia were accused of rape and robbery.  The point is that they are not subject to military discipline, and even if they commit no acts universally regarded as criminal, they may still do things that offend the Iraqis: They might drink alcohol, use insulting gestures, whistle at women or find a dozen ways to get into trouble doing things which are innocent enough if done in Indiana, but which are incendiary acts if done in Basra. 


Oh yeah, I had forgotten about that Dyncorp business in the former Yugoslavia.  I shouldn’t have – as Dyncorp is now a subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and I worked for those folks for almost a decade.  No, I wasn’t a mercenary.  I just herded the geeks and dweebs who kept various financial and manufacturing systems from crashing too often. 

But in any event, this is an odd coalition bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq, whether they’re ready or not, and whether they asked us to do that or not.  Hey, it’s GOOD for them.  And it was, after all, a war of self-defense – at least originally. 

An odd coalition?  Yes.  As I see it the largest coalition component there now is our military at 130,000, followed by Halliburton, its subsidiaries and the reset of “industry” at 26,000 or so – but I’m not sure whether to count GE and Siemens as they suspended operations in Iraq this week.  Then come these “contract soldiers” at 20,000 or so, and then the Brits at 15,000 more or less.  Spain and Honduras and the Dominican Republic have bailed.  Poland is making noises that they might bail out.  Australia is with us but has dropped to under eight hundred folks – and won’t send more.  Ah, but Fiji and Tonga are holding firm.  That’s a couple dozen right there. 

Maybe we do need these “contract soldiers.”  No one else is stepping up, and this does pay well. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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