Review: ‘The Invisible Soldiers’ warns of private security forces’ rise


Near the end of “The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security,” author Ann Hagedorn recommends that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warning in 1961 about the rise of the “military-industrial complex” should be updated.

In the 21st century, the former Wall Street Journal reporter writes, “calling it the military-and-security-industrial or even security-industrial complex” is more appropriate.

Soldiers for hire have long existed. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated the transformation of mercenaries “from covert and infamous to acceptable and indispensable,” Hagedorn writes. The best known of the private military and security companies is Blackwater, now renamed after a spate of bad publicity, but there are others, seemingly thousands of them, with contracts from the U.S. worth billions of dollars. Many are based in the U.S., others are foreign owned and have an international approach, finding clients wherever possible.


Largely outside of public view, these private, for-profit companies perform the security, logistics, intelligence and other duties that a uniformed military force might be expected to provide. Half of the 16,000 personnel working for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops are contractors, Hagedorn reports.

The strength of “Invisible Soldiers” is the impressive depth of Hagedorn’s reporting: copious interviews, generous use of sources, and a compelling narrative that focuses on people caught in the crossfire, notably Kadhim Alkanani, an Iraqi immigrant who joined the U.S. Special Forces and returned to Iraq to show his loyalty to his new country, only to be mistakenly shot by a U.S. contractor.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), at a hearing in 2007 about “the outsourcing of military functions to Blackwater,” decried the “privatization” of the government services that should be provided by the departments of State and Defense.

A Blackwater executive, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, calmly explained to Waxman and the others that the U.S. military is not large enough to do all the things that a complex, widespread, expensive mission like the Iraq war requires. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) suggested then that the military needs more people.

Prince was ready with a trump card: “OK, fine, then reinstate the draft” — an idea that is dead-on-arrival in Congress.

If the problems of having large numbers of armed contractors outside the military chain of command are so large and the media scrutiny and political concern so intense, why have the firms proliferated? Hagedorn, in a straightforward, journalistic style, offers a reason: lack of leadership from the White House. None of the wartime presidents in recent decades, she notes, has made a priority out of curbing the growth of military and security contractors.


The second part of Hagedorn’s thesis is a tougher sell: that the reliance on the private companies has become a driver of U.S. foreign policy, encouraging the U.S. to intervene in foreign hot spots that it might otherwise avoid. Still, she deftly explains instances in which the conduct of contractors in Iraq made the U.S. mission more perilous.

In 2004, when four Blackwater employees were killed by a mob in Fallujah, President George W. Bush ordered an assault led by U.S. Marines. The assault was halted after several weeks, but it had already led to a change in U.S. strategy and an even bloodier assault months later.

There was also contractor involvement in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. “In the weeks after Fallujah, the news surfaced that at least 22 of the interrogators accused of torturing the inmates at Abu Ghraib were private military contractors,” Hagedorn reports. “Such news again escalated the violence in Iraq and soon the number of Iraq attacks on American forces would reach an average of 87 a day. …”

Blackwater employees who were protecting a convoy in Baghdad in 2007 were accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. “Within ten minutes, Nisour Square had become a scene of death and despair as grim as any in Iraq since the invasion.” The U.S. brought charges against those involved in the killings. But Hagedorn doubts whether contractors can ever be forced to follow the same rules of engagement as military personnel.

“Invisible Soldiers” also reports on the people behind these private companies, some of whom are seemingly the stuff of fiction. Take Tim Spicer, former officer in the British Army’s Scots Guards, and the company he led, Aegis Defense Services Ltd.

“Invisible Soldiers” quotes a Boston Globe report that says Spicer has “a reputation for illicit arms deals in Africa and for commanding a murderous military unit in Northern Ireland.” When the U.S. moved to hire Aegis, protests came from Northern Ireland and the Irish-American lobby. But through adroit political and public-relations maneuvering, Spicer and Aegis were able to survive and receive some of the largest U.S. contracts.


As a final warning, Hagedorn delves into the evolving relationship between the private firms and the drones that are a favorite way of waging war for the U.S. administration. “Once again,” she writes, “the [private military and security contractors] were entering and locking into markets faster than safeguards and oversight could be established.”

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The Invisible Soldiers
How America Outsourced Our Security

Ann Hagedorn
Simon and Schuster: 293 pp., $28