Biggest Private Army In The World?

There has been a lot of talk about this recently: that there is now the biggest private army ever assembled now working for the U.S. military in Iraq, or the largest one since the 17th century, or something like that. Traveling with P.C. is a constant tutorial in the ins-and-outs of military contracting; he has been studying this phenomenon for many years and continues to do so. So I wanted to put this idea in some perspective, especially as we have been interviewing and filming here along those very lines.

First of all it’s important to remember that private armies are nothing new. In fact the word “company” to describe a group of soldiers is said to have come from the history of hiring out privately financed militias in the past.

It comes down to what you mean by “army”. If you mean foreigners, i.e. non-Iraqis with rifles who go out on missions and fight battles or just protect dignitaries, that number is fairly small, only an estimated 2000 people. There is another 5000 or so Peruvians, Nepalis, Gurkhas, Ugandans, etc, who work at checkpoints and guard bases behind blast walls. But if you mean the other people in an army, who clean toilets, make food, drive trucks and work at checkpoints, well that number added to the actual fighters is very large….. 185,000 on the high end. But the vast majority of work done by private military contractors is completely mundane.

For example, Prothap and I began our “embed” at Forward Operating Base Anaconda, a former Iraqi military airbase that has been converted into the biggest U.S. base in Iraq. The population is somewhere around 28,000 people and it sits an hour north of Baghdad. Driving there, as I did in early 2004, is now out of the question except for heavily guarded convoys. We flew in a cargo plane.

On Anaconda there is a huge number of Indian and Nepali workers. They cook food, clean the toilets, drive the buses that move soldiers around the huge camp and generally do the grunt work. There are also a couple of “food courts” on the base, with a Pizza Hut, Subway, McDonald’s and a coffee place. These too are staffed by Indians.

Prothap can speak to most of these men (they are all men) in his halting Hindi and Urdu. One of them invites us to visit him in the camp where they all live on a far edge of the base near the airfield and we take a bus there one night while a dust storm blows clouds of sand out of the night.

The Indian workers live in a walled-off compound with its own guards who won’t let me enter and won’t let the inhabitants leave unless they are going to work. But Prothap, being Indian himself, is able to enter (without a camera, unfortunately) and talk with them for some time. Between this and other conversations he was able to get a picture of what it is like to work for the U.S. in Iraq: potential workers in India go through an agent, who arranges a job for them, and for this they pay $2,500. Once they are in Iraq they make between $300 and $900 per month, which means they must work for quite a while just to pay back the person who got them the job in the first place.

Indians, Nepalis, Peruvians… the real private army here is the army of third-world laborers, beneath the radar of the media and even of the soldiers we talk to, who live in another world from them, well fed and much better paid.

I also want to point out that there is a tendency to overemphasize the “private” nature of this operation, as if private capital hired itself an army and decided to invade Iraq. But that is a gross oversimplification because who is paying for all this? The government, of course. And I don’t care how big and scary Blackwater and Triple Canopy are they couldn’t have invaded Iraq without the satellite technology and fleet of ships and airplanes provided by the U.S. government. So the state hasn’t gone anywhere, really, it’s still there and it always will be.

Again, this is nothing new: take The British East India Company as an example. At one point this “private corporation” controlled the populations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and part of Bangladesh, meaning it had a fifth of the world’s population under its aegis, but it used the English Army as its muscle and the British Navy for transport. No matter what the Libertarian Party or other idealistic free-marketeers pontificate about, capitalism has always used the state and vice-versa. To those who say business could do much better and be much more efficient without that clunky old government in the way I say, “And if wishes were horses then beggars could fly.” Capitalism needs government like conspiracy theorists need the C.I.A. and Libertarians need The University Of Chicago.

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