SOMETHING WAS missing from my local Memorial Day parade.
There were soldiers, sailors, World War II veterans, firefighters, Girl Scouts, soccer players, marching bands, flag-draped floats and even a festive contingent from the Board of Education. But there was no float memorializing the hundreds of civilian contractors killed in Iraq.
It's fashionable to look down on the civilian contractors employed by firms such as Halliburton and Blackwater. When contractors make the news, it's usually in the context of stories about waste and fraud in reconstruction or service contracts, or human rights abuses committed by private security contractors. So when civilian contractors die in Iraq, most of us don't waste many tears. These are guys who went to Iraq out of sheer greed, lured by salaries far higher than those received by military personnel, right? If they get themselves killed, who cares?
But we should all care. Not because it's our patriotic duty to support the lucrative corporate empires that employ the thousands of civilian contractors in Iraq, but because most of the men and women employed by these corporate giants are in Iraq at our government's behest.
They drive trucks containing supplies for troops in the field. They operate dining halls at military bases, guard buildings, install and maintain computer and telephone systems and train local officials. They're part of our war -- and just like those who serve in the military, they pay for our government's mistakes with their health and their lives.
In Iraq, civilian contractors form a vast parallel army. In the Persian Gulf War, fewer than 10,000 civilian contractors accompanied more than 500,000 military personnel. In Iraq today, an estimated 126,000 Defense Department civilian contractors support 145,000 troops. Thousands more civilians work under contract to other U.S. government agencies.
A combination of poor record-keeping, corporate stonewalling and the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy has prevented even the Government Accountability Office from getting solid numbers on civilian contractors in Iraq. Prime contractors subcontract out much of their work to other companies, which in turn subcontract out much of their work to other companies, which in turn ... you get the idea.
Add in foreign corporations and the offshore subsidiaries of the U.S. giants and you get a game of corporate hot potato in which no one knows, at the end of the day, whose potato it was to begin with. In February, Congress heard testimony from the families of four Blackwater employees killed in Fallouja in March 2004. Their work had something to do with a contract relating to dining facilities at Army bases, but as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) complained, "We still don't know for sure the identity of the prime contractor under which the four Blackwater employees were working."
Only a fraction of the civilian contractors in Iraq fit the stereotype of the gun-toting, muscle-bound mercenary. Most contractors from the U.S. are blue-collar men and women: truck drivers, mechanics, IT specialists, former soldiers and cops, drawn to Iraq by the prospect of tax-free earnings that dwarf what they could make at home.
You could call it greed, but you'd be overlooking the economic insecurity and hardship that lie behind many decisions to sign up with companies such as DynCorp or KBR: the overdue mortgage, the unpaid debt from a spouse's surgery, the dead-end local jobs. And plenty of contractors also want to "do their bit," but for one reason or another -- age, health -- joining the military isn't an option for them.
Just like the troops they support, civilian contractors are dying by the score in Iraq. After the New York Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of Labor acknowledged 917 deaths, including at least 146 during the first quarter of 2007. Another 12,000 have been wounded or hurt, and those numbers almost certainly underestimate the true toll.
When they're injured or killed, contractors or their families often find it difficult to obtain healthcare or compensation. The industry is poorly monitored and regulated, and some contractors have alleged that their employers actively misrepresented employment conditions and benefits.
Congress is considering a range of legislation designed to increase contractor accountability and oversight. That's long overdue. The administration's heavy reliance on civilian contractors represents an unprecedented privatization of war that, if unchecked, could prove lethal for American democracy. The privatization of war hides crucial foreign policy decisions behind a thick corporate smokescreen, gives corporate giants an incentive to see the Iraq war prolonged and masks the true human costs of the war.
Contractors are deniable and disposable. They don't get military salutes at their funerals, and they're not invited to march in Memorial Day parades. But like the 3,474 U.S. troops killed so far in Iraq, they too are casualties of this seemingly endless war.