Sunday, July 15, 2012

American Mercenaries

Shawn Engbrecht.  America's Covert Warriors: Inside the World of Private Military Companies.  Washington, DC: Potomac, 2011.  ISBN: 159797238X.

This book is fascinating.  It outlines the history of modern US mercenaries (which arose out of the armed forces' need for a supply train, and the lack of government companies prepared to step into that role: this reminds me of the private companies that used to bid on government contracts in ancient Rome; essentially, it is the same system, with the same benefits and demerits).  Engbrecht, who has served as an American soldier and a PMC/PSD mercenary, offers a unique and realistic window onto what actually goes on abroad under the authority of the federal government of the United States.  Some of it is heroic, in all the best senses of that word, and some of it is as despicable as anything you could imagine.  Like other people, soldiers (public and private) are human: some of them react badly to adverse conditions (which can be unspeakably harsh: Engbrecht is quite good at putting them into words, as good as anyone else I have ever read on war; I especially like how he uses verbatim quotes from extensive interviews with soldiers and mercenaries).

According to Engbrecht, the essential problem with PMCs up to this point in time has been the carte blanche that they have "enjoyed" since the Bush administration: they are not accountable for the bullets they shoot, the equipment they lose, or the people that they kill.  Some of them, mostly those with military training and good morale, are OK with this kind of freedom: they can be accountable to themselves without turning into marauding orcs.  Others are emphatically incapable and devolve into angry apes with heavy artillery.  They get drunk all the time (for reasons that make sense when you read Engbrecht's description of war: it sucks), wreck equipment, steal the taxpayers' cash (outright or through bribes and graft), and shoot at any Iraqi that steps within range of their weapons.  Engbrecht says that no army, public or private, can maintain morale without accountability.  I think he is right.  His plans to make PMCs accountable seem like good ones, insofar as they propose means whereby American mercenaries become answerable in the same way that American regulars are.  War is one thing that our federal government has learned how to do better than private militias, and the reason for this (recognized by Engbrecht) is accountability.  American soldiers know that they are on the hook for every bullet they fire, every dollar of public money they spend, every person (civilian or hostile) that they shoot.  While this does not make them perfect, it does render them much less wasteful and damaging to American interests than their private counterparts in the PMCs.  Engbrecht gives the numbers and the personal anecdotes to back this observation up.

A real problem with the PMCs is that they are run explicitly for profit.  Some friends may be sad when I say this, but it seems to me that there are situations where problems cannot be wisely monetized (or at the very least, something has gone very wrong in our attempts to monetize them to date).  Consider the following observation from Harvard-educated Kuwaiti businessman providing financial backing to one of the PMCs whose behavior Engbrecht found particularly atrocious.  Asked why he did not care about the crimes his mercenaries were committing, he replied as follows:
You would have to kill and report over ten dead civilians a month for the next two years before I even came close to spending what you suggest I dispense with now.  There is no financial justification in sending these men home [for blowing up civilians without provocation].  There are no criminal activities that they can engage in that I can possibly be held liable for as they are in fact immune from prosecution.  The truth of the matter is that it costs less for me to allow your men to continue to allegedly kill Iraqis than it does to replace them with those who won't shoot everything in sight.  A dead Iraqi has no monetary value to me, especially at the reported rate of one a month.  I would like to remind you that we are fighting a war and that casualties such as what you purport to have seen are sadly inevitable.  Besides, they are probably all insurgents anyway.  Therefore, you may fire one or two [of the unhinged cowboys] at your discretion to provide an example, but only after their replacements are here in the country.  As for the rest I strongly suggest you check to see if you are tough enough to deal with the kind of situation we have here.  This is a war and people die -- even civilians (111-112).
Money has relative value.  So does life, admittedly.  But for the sake of our souls (individual and collective), we need to find a way to value life that does not allow it to become as cheap as it appears here.  The Kuwaiti quoted above was a Shia Muslim, and the Iraqis whose lives he didn't value were Sunni.  The mercenaries he employed were a mix of Americans and foreign nationals.  All of them valued life instinctively, the way all people do, but they had managed to convince themselves that Iraqis were different, that their lives didn't matter, that they could be wantonly gunned down without consequence.  Engbrecht is right to call this out for a lie.  There are circumstances in which you are justified in killing another person.  Moral people do not identify these circumstances by profit margins: acceptable as these might be (arguably) for deciding what stock to purchase, they are no substitute for moral judgment in a shooting war.

I do not think you can create laws that will make people behave the way you want them to.  But the least you can do (as a legislator) is hold people responsible, in theory.  If you send armed mercenaries onto the battlefield to represent the United States (or her government, at least), you can hold them to military standards of professional conduct.  They won't all fall short of the standard: most of them will appreciate it as a useful tool, a familiar piece of humane civilization in a world of savage chaos where ordinary humanity seems to have come unraveled.  Respecting people's right to individuate doesn't mean letting do whatever they please, wherever they happen to be.  Groups of people, to be effective, are always going to have "laws" (morals, behaviors, written and unwritten codes by which they judge themselves and others, for better or for worse).  Engbrecht is right to argue for accountability, which is the essence of moral integrity, as I see it these days.  I answer for myself, for my actions, for my ideas, for everything that I am -- for better or for worse.  I don't pass the buck to somebody else ("war is rough!").  I accept it as my own ('war' doesn't shoot innocent civilians: people armed with guns do that; if I carry a weapon into a war zone, I am answerable for how I use it there).

Here are some of the stories Engbrecht tells that I found most poignant.  The first is from his own experience: 
There was one man I knew who on the surface appeared helpful and kind.  Somewhat obese, he was forever giving out candies to the Iraqi kids near our camp.  He was the original roly-poly Santa Claus type.  A devout Christian, he carried a small Bible with him and prayed briefly every night.  He seemed to be pretty solid.  One day, we overtook an Iraqi vehicle.  It was the typical rattletrap sedan, occupied by an adult couple with two grimy kids in the backseat.  In other words, they were no threat.  Insurgents do not bring their children along to wage war.  It was obvious they hadn't seen us, which is not surprising as we were doing about 2.5 times their speed and were well in advance of the main convoy.  We began to slow down, in preparation to indicate to the driver to move to the side of the road for the convoy to pass behind us.  Without warning, as our truck pulled abreast, Bob (I shall call him Bob) leaned out the passenger side window and speared the Iraqi with the muzzle of his rifle.  No warning, no wave, nothing.  Just harpooned him like a fish in a barrel.  The driver of the sedan, eyes wide and blood pouring from his face, hit the brakes as his car swerved to the side of the road.  As we pulled away, Bob fire two shots, one into the ground and the second squarely into the radiator of the vehicle.  Steam began to erupt from the grille while a very panicked family cowered behind the dashboard.  Upon questioning, he simply stated that he had thought he had seen a threat and had acted accordingly.  By the literal interpretation of the rule book, he was entitled to have done what he did.  But we had a hard time buying his concept of what 'threat' meant.  But that was becoming the norm as opposed to the exception, and no action was taken (116-117).

Bob proclaimed himself to be a former Special Operations Command soldier -- from First Ranger Battalion, no less, which happens to be my alma mater.  So, as old soldiers do, we conversed about the good old days.  Only problem was Bob couldn't recall the name of his company commander, first sergeant, or even the name of the drop zone where we made about 80 percent of our parachute jumps.  It quickly became evident that Bob was lying (118).

Bob was a bully -- nothing more, nothing less.  All he could talk about was combat, explosive devices, and threats.  He was scared shitless and, because he was scared, vented his fear on the innocent.  He had no right to be there, and yet there are thousands like him who consider the Arabs literally as "Untermenschen," meaning subhumans fit for the gas chamber.  His laptop contained a huge collection of war porn portraying violent death.  But he still gave candy to the kids on the other side of the wire, was perfectly jovial in the chow hall, and prayed to be a good person every night.  He was far too quick on the trigger and always aimed to destroy the vehicle, knowing full well it was all most Iraqis had.  Why?  Because the prick could get away with it.  Here, he was king.  For him to return home, he would at best be a shift manager at Burger King.  I believe power can be utterly evil.  When I look at him, I am reminded of how seemingly normal men became concentration camp guards.  Pat one child on the head and then shoot his parents.  Had he been born eighty years ago in Germany, doubtless he would have found his way to Auschwitz.  Bob was eventually quietly released and has since returned to the United States (118-119).
This account is eerily familiar to me.  Like Bob, I too have found myself in positions where I affected a kindness belied by my behavior.  I try to be kind to my kids, but I am sometimes short with them.  While there is a place for deviation (no one is perfect), there are standards.  I do not have carte blanche with my kids, and I should not.  I am answerable to my wife, to the rest of my community.  No one should ever have carte blanche.  No matter how good we aspire to be, what matters in the end is how we turn out.  I can preach kindness all day and even practice it a little (Bob gave the kids candy), but all my goodness goes out the window when I take those aspirations and turn them into vicious, unprovoked attacks on innocent people.

If I want to be a moral person, then I have to hold myself accountable to more than just myself.  I have to care about other people.  I have to apologize to them, when I should, and mean it.  It does not matter where I am in any hierarchy: if I am president of the country, dictator, or the leader of a religious sect, then my responsibility to others is the same.  I cannot pretend that the "mantle" of my authority gives me immunity from common standards.  I cannot say that people wouldn't understand, that people have to accept my decisions unquestioned because I am powerful and mean well.  I need to give reasons for my behavior.  I need to own it.  I need to recognize when it causes harm, and adjust accordingly.  That is what a good person does.

The next story comes from a friend of Engbrecht, another private military contractor interviewing a potential recruit for his company:
I recall asking him how long he had been in Baghdad and how much ammunition he fired off on a weekly basis.  My company was at that time getting into one or two serious fights a month so I had a good idea of what to expect as far as ammo expenditure went.  I nearly fell off the chair when he told me, in all honesty, about a thousand rounds a week.  That was more than what I had used up in the last four months, and I had been on the road nearly every day!  I was dealing with somebody who enjoyed dropping the hammer, and that was a very bad sign. 

I took a closer look at him.  He was a black kid from Detroit, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five.  Lots of gold.  Former Navy with an 'other than honorable' discharge.  He was also carrying three different Glock pistols on his body, in both .40-caliber and 9mm caliber.  Two on his vest and one in a useless ankle holster.  This was in addition to his custom AK-47 with a seventy-five-round drum magazine.  In all my years in the Ranger regiment, I had never carried more than one weapon.  I asked him why all the pistols. 

"In case they get too close or I am out of ammunition," was his response. 
"Why three?" 
"In case one or two don't work," was what he told me. 

I was pretty sure by then he was a gangbanger.  Just a punk who could pull the trigger when he felt like it.  If he did this shit back on the block in Detroit, he would be in jail.  But over here he was some kind of fucking hero.  The only people who carry a multitude of weapons are those who are scared shitless.  Lack of confidence in both yourself and your weapon so you make up for it by carrying multiple backups.  I had seen it before, but this case was extreme.  I asked him how many ambushes he had been in. 

"Four and a half." 
That was a new one for me.  "How did you get in 'half an ambush'?" 

He replied that he had been in the vicinity when an army unit got the chop up the road so he figured he was entitled to say that he was in a 'half an ambush.' 

We didn't take him and told him to go look for work someplace else. 

I only saw him once more, a few months later, just off a big intersection on the way to BIAP.  He was taking photos of a shot-up car full of dead Iraqis.  Probably his own handiwork.  I couldn't see any weapons on the bodies.  But there was nothing I could do, so we just drove on (121-122).
What stands out to me here is the remark on fear made by Engbrecht's friend: the bad recruit was afraid, so he packed way more heat than he needed and shot at anything that moved.  This fear is something that we all experience.  It is what causes us to react thoughtlessly, angrily, when people do things that make us feel uncomfortable.  There is some truth to the saying that fear makes cowards of us all.  It makes us forget about integrity.  We become so focused on survival that we lose our reason.  We lose the ability to see real threats, and we waste our time (and ammunition) shooting up civilians (or fighting against gay marriage).  We confuse a subjective experience ("I feel sick") with a categorical moral imperative ("Iraqis must die!" "gay people cannot get married!").  The competent warrior has faced his fear and conquered it.  Making his way through dangerous circumstances, he does not give way to instinctive terror and pour lead into every potential threat that presents: he saves his bullets for clear and immediate dangers (like the federal deficit, the housing bubble, the education bubble, the need for cheap and sustainable ways of living). 

People often play on our fears to get us to do things that we might otherwise be hesitant about.  We are surrounded by prophets predicting the end of the world ("apocalypse now!") and demanding our immediate, passionate support in suppressing imminent threats to society -- including many threats that are entirely fictional when viewed in the light of sober reason.  As a result of my personal experiences, I have determined that fear is not useful in making long-term decisions (like how much heat I am going to pack around Baghdad, how I am going to view sex and marriage, what moral values I am going to live by and be remembered for).  Fear can get us out of a little jam fast when we might otherwise croak, but it is only a stop-gap -- even then, it is better to be a cool hand, as Engbrecht proves with story after story (including the detailed account he gives of a routine fire-fight between PMC mercenaries and Iraqi insurgents lying in ambush).  I strive not to be scared of government, of the "secular" left, the "religious" right, the police, the military, the mafia, the gays, the straights, or people in general: that doesn't mean that I am careless or fearless, only that I try to see past my fear (having learned by experience that it is irrational, as likely to harm me as save me).  I do what I think is right and let the cards fall, whether I am terrified or not.  I try to focus on cultivating the good I believe in, looking past the bugbears invoked by prophets of doom (who exist all over the place, not just in one organization or ideology).  Eventually, I will most certainly die, just like civilization and the universe: but that fact does not mean that we should blow everything up prematurely.  Life right now is good, more precious for being temporary and precarious.  Don't waste it being paralyzed with fear of the inevitable.  Meet your fate with a joke and a smile, having done your level best to live a beautiful, fearless life.

The last passage I am going to quote here from Engbrecht comes from one of the "good guys" in the mercenary trade -- one of the quiet professionals who did not shoot up civilians or steal money or otherwise debase himself in the horror that he survived.  I was really moved by his words:
Combat strips one bare.  There is no room for prejudice or preconceived notions.  Everything is subjugated to the one end: survival.  It does not matter that the man beside you is black or Hispanic or rich or fat or good looking.  Nor is it important what type of car he drives.  What is important is his ability to shoot, move, and communicate.  One gets to know one's comrades far better than one knows lifelong friends or even family.  Infantry combat is a white hot furnace that bonds men for life because the price of failure is death (190).

War does different things to different people.  Some become remote while others party as hard as they can.  I have found that I actually have become much more compassionate, generous, and overall more caring.  I stop to feed the squirrels and tend to seek intelligent, intimate relationships as opposed to having a revolving door on my bedroom (190-191). 

What a lost cause.  We have become a nation (or perhaps we always were and I just never caught it) of fat voyeurs vicariously living out their childish fantasies by viewing inane and idiotic reality television shows.  We equate material consumption and wealth directly to happiness, which is a colossal error as the two are completely separate entities.  We focus on the superficial -- the types of cars, breast enhancements, hair removal, the newest technical gadget -- all meaningless.  I am not even remotely materialistic anymore (191).

And the longer I stay at home the more I realize the less in common I have with everybody else.  For it is not society that has changed, it is I.  When one returns from far-flung fields of horror, a couple of things occur.  The first is that I am overwhelmingly grateful for what I have and the lifestyle I am able to lead, with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the first three chapters.  When one undergoes serious travail, the meaningless barbs of everyday life are pushed to the margins of importance.  But it is the second one that causes angst.  For in learning gratitude and appreciation for life, we become intolerant in the ways of a society that takes it for granted.  It is both the bane and the boon of great democratic civilizations: our forefathers have striven mightily to construct the foundations of just and free societies, only to have their grandchildren grow up to take them for granted ... the children are rich and fat enough to become consumed with the trivial and inane (191).

So I live in a big house by myself, rarely venturing to go out, alone in a sea of thousands, which makes it all more lonely still.  The hardest part is having to forgive society.  I cannot judge you for you do not know.  How can you possibly be expected to have more emotional depth when the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to you is having the air conditioner break for an afternoon?  I must forgive America for her being obsessed with the trivial, the mundane, the idiotic.  It frightens me that so few of you have ever had to fight for it, to viciously engage in mortal combat with those whose sole desire is to eliminate you from the face of the earth.  You may hear my words, but they do not register, for you have no scale upon which to to measure the reality of them.  I must forgive you because you do not understand.  And I am glad you do not understand because that means that you will hopefully never gaze upon a small boy trying to rearrange his internal organs that lay spread on the ground all around him.  I do not wish for you to see that, ergo I must forgive your ignorance.  Which makes me even lonelier, the mournful wolf padding softly through the snowy forest under a full moon, while the rest of the world sleeps.  With a bottle of whiskey.  I love you all.  Now fuck off and leave me alone (192).
This is pretty much my view of the world right now, though I don't have a soldier's excuse.  The last words are particularly poignant, capturing how I often feel towards the LDS church, my mission hierarchy, politicians, and even on occasion the academic institutions I have worked for: "I love you all.  Now f*** off and leave me alone!"  (The university has thus far been the institution most accommodating to my simultaneous need for communion and solitude.  I get free rein to go my own way, provided I turn in all drafts on time and attend classes.)  And the earlier words about forgiveness are spot-on.  Not to mention the wish that more of us looked for life beyond trivial materialism.  Philosophically speaking, I am a materialist, now, but not the kind of materialist who thinks that we should all shop till we drop.  I wish we could live sustainably, cheaply, at peace with nature and ourselves.  I don't demand air conditioning, automobiles, brand-name clothes, a cushy white-collar job, a nice house, an expensive education, or whatever other bread and circuses are currently on offer.  I am interested in other things: authenticity, integrity, sustainable wealth (which does not require all the props of modern business: you can be wealthy with few possessions, as long as you have the right tools and know how to use them).

I feel stripped bare quite a bit, these days.  Only I don't always have comrades in arms.  The closest thing are my friends and family, the people I interact with personally on a regular basis.  These are the people I would do anything to help.  These are the people who really care about me.  I certainly don't want to push them away: I value them, even (perhaps especially) when they don't see things precisely the way I do.  They matter to me in a way that society at large cannot, ever.  They are the faces that keep me accountable -- not the laws, or the police, or whatever other mechanisms society at large deploys to keep us all in line.  The reason I am as honest, faithful, and true as I am (not perfect, but striving) is because I care about these people.  I want to be there for them.  I want to help them -- really help them, not just have vague hopes or aspirations to help them.  I respect their autonomy.  I love them for it.  I respect them.  They are wonderful people, and I am proud to know them.

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