Saturday, April 11, 2009

Invisible Soldiers: Global Inequality, Mercenaries and Iraq

What do Peruvians, Chileans, Argentineans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Colombians, El Salvadorians, Hondurans, Ecuadorians, Bosnians, Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis and South Africans have to do with the war in Iraq? Despite the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries of 1989, the U.S. has been contracting people from developing countries to do their dirty work on the front lines in the war in Iraq, to replace its soldiers on security duty, since 2003. Thanks to several grave irregularities and legal loopholes, through private outsourcing companies such as Blackwater USA, (a secretive private military company based in North Carolina), the highly trained mercenaries are hired as “security guards”, to protect the U.S. and British military in the most conflictive areas, as well as places of interest such as the oil fields, paying them an average of US$4000 a month. There are some 180 international private security companies operating in Iraq, among them are Triple Canopy, Zapatas, Titan, CACI, Vinnell Corp, Custer Batle, Armor Group, Kroll Security International, Global Risk Strategies, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, Trig Guard Force, and Aegis. As there are no official figures, it is estimated that the private mercenary force is now the largest group operating in Iraq, outnumbering the U.S. military. Promoting more war with fewer troops, this is a force with no accountability mechanisms such as the U.S. Code of Military Justice, the Pentagon Criminal Investigations Unit and the military chain of command.

Ex-soldiers, police forces and commandos from the war with Lightning Path in Peru, Pinochet’s military regime in Chile, apartheid-era armed forces in South Africa, and the Bosnian war are lured into taking the highest risks in the war in Iraq, for a salary that is much higher than the U.S. military boys receive, and seem to have full impunity: they live above the law and rules of war and social engagement. These mercenaries often have a history of war which knows no rules, no limits. They have been implicated in torture sessions, such as the scandalous Abu Ghraib. They are heavily armed and employ shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics. They are referred to the “mad dogs of war”, that murder innocent civilians in the streets, open fire on civilian vehicles and terrorize the Iraqi population. They are in turn objects of the Iraqi resistance attacks. The mercenaries are the least desired forces in Iraq. The Iraqi people want them to leave. They have no alliances, no loyalties, and no protection. If they die or are injured, no one is held responsible, they are on their own. Their priorities are survival and earning cash. Whichever company presents the best offer will be their employer, whichever side of the war they are on, they are free to switch whenever it benefits them to do so.

The mercenaries run a high risk for their lives, exposed to dangerous situations without adequate equipment such as dismantling bombs and being subject to Iraqi ambushes, work lengthy hours in poor health conditions, without medical assistance, are to be available twenty-four hours a day, and although contracted for “vigilance”, they are fully involved in conflict. They wear no uniform, and many of them do not even speak English and therefore cannot understand directions from the military personnel. They often have run-ons, tensions and fights with the U.S. soldiers, who see themselves as being superior to the mercenaries, while being all too aware that their salaries are much lower.

The mercenaries are recruited through newspaper ads placed by ghost companies that set up shop for about a month in their country, and then they disappear without a trace. These companies have alliances in top levels of government in the home countries. Only those most resistant to high stress levels are contracted, after being tested in evaluation processes up to six months conducted in inaccessible rural areas. They are then trained in the top-secret training camps in the U.S. From there they are sent to Iraq for six months to a year. If they make it out alive, they return to their home countries with a trauma that no one is responsible for. Since none of the mercenaries are officially registered, more and more are being contracted to replace the dead and returned. The companies and the government of the United States are not held responsible for injury or death resulting by their mission in Iraq, according to the mercenary contract, if there is any. In developing countries, most of the recruiting happens verbally, secretively, not giving the mercenaries any guarantees. Sometimes they return to their home countries to find that they have not even been paid. They are the invisible players in the Iraq war, disposable soldiers of mercy in an unequal globalized world. Due to recent criticism in the U.S. of Blackwater’s lack of legal accountability for misconduct of the mercenaries in Iraq, foreign mercenaries are now punished by being jailed in Iraq and/or discharged without pay for any misconduct. Training camps have also been outsourced to Mexico, increasing the invisibility of the developing country mercenaries.

It is their economic need, in developing countries, which motivates such a risky endeavor. Some mercenaries are paid varyingly from $35 up to $1500 daily for performing the tasks that no sane soldier will undertake willingly, or are even permitted to under international military law. These are extremely high salaries for those coming from developing countries. Mercenaries are often recruited unbeknownst to their family members, so that they cannot plead them to stay alive instead of earning money. They just disappear without a trace. Not only is the U.S. taking advantage of the “free market” and global inequality in their quest for dominance, it has also favoured the war image on the home front, as the mercenaries are not included in the official body count, making the war seem much less bloody in the U.S. media for its taxpayers. However, in Iraq, Latin-Americans are the second largest group to have died, after U.S. soldiers.

Not only is the U.S. saving its troops in the privatization of security in Iraq, money that is supposedly meant for the “aid” budget for Iraqi “reconstruction”, is being diverted to pay the salaries of the mercenaries. Since 2003, Blackwater received a $300-million U.S. State Department contract, away from the eyes of the American public, and without consulting U.S. Congress. This modern war privatisation strategy is a military “revolution”: using taxpayer dollars for military outsourcing. Blackwater was also contracted for the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina: it paid security forces $350 a day, and billed the government $950. These companies in turn donate to the U.S. Republican Party. This is a lucrative market for companies such as Blackwater, and the criminal character of this private war opens up a serious discussion about democracy, ethics, military conduct, laws, human rights and international security.

Under which law would mercenaries be held responsible? U.S. law? Iraqi law? Their home country’s law? Officially, they don’t exist; they are contracted illegally and secretly. Although U.S. mercenaries’ families have filed law suits against Blackwater, those from developing countries do not stand a chance. They are merely an object in the global “free” market. Their lives fall into the global black hole of oblivion, such as the casualties of the arms trade, drug trafficking and the trafficking of women. Most likely, the war must end before these mercenaries’ lives become visible, after the fact.


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