Books Worth Reading
  • Winning the Peace: An American Strategy for Post-Conflict Reconstruction (CSIS Significant Issues, No. 26) (Csis Significant Issues Series)
    Winning the Peace: An American Strategy for Post-Conflict Reconstruction (CSIS Significant Issues, No. 26) (Csis Significant Issues Series)
    by Robert C. Orr
  • Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World
    Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World
    by Ashraf Ghani, Clare Lockhart
  • The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (Vintage)
    The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (Vintage)
    by Rupert Smith
  • Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization
    Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization
    by John Robb
  • Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places
    Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places
    by Paul Collier
  • The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century
    The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century
    by Thomas P.M. Barnett
  • State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century
    State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century
    by Francis Fukuyama
  • When States Fail: Causes and Consequences
    When States Fail: Causes and Consequences
    Princeton University Press
  • Building States to Build Peace
    Building States to Build Peace
    Lynne Rienner Publishers
  • Making States Work: State Failure And The Crisis Of Governance
    Making States Work: State Failure And The Crisis Of Governance
    United Nations University Press

Entries in Contractors (3)


The Difference between Contractors and Mercenaries

One of my pet peeves is when people bandy about the words “mercenaries” or “private armies” without any understanding of what the terms actually mean. 


A mercenary can be defined two ways: either as an individual who soldiers in a foreign military, or someone who works solely for profit.  In the former case it can be one who doesn’t care at all about a paycheck but happens to believe in the cause of another nation and goes abroad to fight for it (like those who joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War) while in the latter case one’s loyalty is solely tied to the money he or she earns, regardless of the job they do. 


A mercenary is not a U.S. citizen who provides personal protection services to U.S. government officials and plays purely a defensive role (i.e. responding with lethal force only when attacked or when he believes an attack is imminent).  A Sri Lankan who handles chow at a dining facility, or the KBR manager from Texas who oversees him, are not part of some private army.  Nor is the Iraqi or Afghani who provides perimeter security or translator services at U.S. military bases.  These people are all contractors.  They work for the U.S. government as private citizens.  They don’t initiate offensive actions against enemy forces.  They are not enlisted or commissioned members of any "private army," nor are their counterparts who do similar jobs back in the States.


U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan do not work for a foreign military. I would suspect the percentage that do their jobs solely for the pay and benefits is not much different from the number of people who join the military for the same reason.   


By the way, the next time you’re in DC, visit Lafayette Park which lies right outside the White House’s front entrance, and check out of the statues of Lafayette (France), Baron von Steuben (Prussia), Tadeusz Kościuszko (Poland), and Rochambeau (also France), who stand on each of the four corners of the park.  All four men helped in achieving American independence.  Lafayette and von Steuben were particularly crucial to the effort.  Rochambeau fought as head of a French sponsored military force known as the Expédition Particulière.   The other three came on their own, because they either believed in the cause (Lafayette & Kościuszko) or were looking for work (von Steuben, and many others who don't have statutes). 


In other words, they served as mercenaries, and America honors them for their service. 


Why Contractors are Important

In addition to the time I’ve spent in Iraq with the U.S. Army and State Department, I’ve also worked as a contractor with a private military company.  I served as a force protection officer (security in military-speak) and Iraqi Army Advisor.  The firm, MPRI, has several contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, to provide Foreign Internal Defense (FID) training and other services.  My experience with them and other contracting outfits has been overwhelmingly positive.  In many instances, I’ve found contractors to be more competent and productive than many military or civilian U.S. government employees.


Often maligned as mercenaries by demagogues unfamiliar with the correct meaning of the term, contractors are essential for the simple reason that the U.S. government does not have the internal capacity necessary to accomplish the many missions and tasks it takes on.  Like most U.S. military personnel and federal civilians employees, the vast majority of contractors have served honorably and performed admirably.  Anyone who has been in Iraq or Afghanistan knows this is true. 

Out of ignorance, I initially despised contractors while stationed in Baghdad in 2003.  Then they showed up at our base and the lives of my fellow soldiers and I improved considerably.  The local national translators they manage are essential to supporting the mission.  And after your fourth straight month of MREs and chemically saturated T-Rats, the fresh fruit, salads, and American cooking you find in a KBR dining facility is a godsend.  So are the shower and bathroom units they bring and service, the PXs they setup, and the Morale, Welfare, and Recreations facilities they run. 


When leading men and women in dangerous, stressful, complex, and fast-paced environments over significant periods of time, one of the most important tasks of a leader is taking proper care of your people.  Early on in Iraq I saw a case where some soldiers from another platoon in my old unit took their frustrations out on the Iraqis they met on the streets.  The event occurred in part because the soldiers involved no longer gave a damn, with one of the reasons for this being that their quality of life sucked.  Of course, there is no excuse for such behavior, but the reality is such events do occur.  Having contractors in place to take care of tasks like protecting convoys, setting up chow halls, and building decent living accommodations reduces stress on the force, allows them to focus on other more essential tasks, and is necessary if any multi-year post-conflict stabilization or state-building mission is to succeed.


There are many types of contractors in war zones, not just those who provide support to the military or U.S. government.  Whether they admit to it or not, many non-government organizations that do humanitarian aid and development work are also contractors, though they don’t like to think of themselves as such.  For many NGOs, the money they receive from governments dwarfs that from any other source. 


Government officials spend this money not out of the kindness of their hearts, but to achieve a particular political end, particularly when done in a war zone.  NGOs know this and go where the money is, the only difference being that shareholders aren’t reaping dividends.  Many of those in the aid community also make bank.  One of my housemates from college was the Country Director for a major NGO in Iraq, and the amount of cash he pulled was several times more than your average military officer.  Plus, he got a hell of a lot more time off.


The bottom line is contractors provide a valuable service. The contracting system isn’t perfect and requires greater oversight and management by government officials, but for the most part it provides a net benefit when it comes to supporting America’s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without contractors, the U.S. military and civilian agencies would have drastically reduced levels of effectiveness.


How to Get a Job in Iraq or Afghanistan as a Contractor

For each company mentioned, you can click on the link and go directly to their career page/job listings.


There are essentially three types of contractors working in war zones . . .


First, there are those providing security for individuals and convoys (known as personnel security details, hereafter PSDs), like Xe (formerly Blackwater; click here for the PSD-specific jobs), Triple Canopy, or Aegis.  If you have prior military experience, particularly in the infantry or military police branches, or if you’re a former police officer and have a background in personal protection, you stand a chance working for one of the PSD companies that escort diplomats and most other civilian expats in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the military uses private security too).  The easiest way to get hired is of course to know someone who knows someone and get your job that way.  Most of the PSDs I’ve talked to knew somebody in the business from their time in the military or while a police officer and were hired on through a personal connection.  Failing that, you just have to apply to individual company websites and hope for the best.


If you really want to do security you can bolster your credentials by taking some private training courses in executive protection and high risk security operations, or learning some advanced weapons skills.  Designated Marksmen (snipers) are in particular demand.  So are EMT-certified medics.  Xe has a training center were you can go to improve your skills and make contacts.   At a minimum though, you need a few years experience in a U.S. military combat arms branch or a U.S. police force to get hired.


Then there are jobs performing quasi-military services like intelligence collection, analysis, interrogation, interpreter support, or security force training, and include firms such as CACI and MPRI.  If you have relevant language skills and can score a Secret-level security clearance, you can be hired on as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, which has contracted recruitment out to Worldwide Language Resources.  While WLR will be signing your paychecks, you’ll be stationed on a Forward Operating Base, living with a military unit, and be going outside the wire as needed.  WLR also has positions available for human intelligence collectors and analysts.   Global Linguist Solutions, which the Marines use, also has positions available for translators who want to work in Afghanistan.


If you’re former military or police and don’t want to do security but are comfortable working as an advisor or trainer in what's known as Security Sector Reform, then your best off with a company like MPRI or DynCorps, which train Iraqi and Afghani security forces (both the police and military).  If you have experience in international development, RTI has advisory positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries emerging from conflict.  These are USAID or DOS contracts, and involve building public sector institutional capacity, generating economic growth, or improving basic municipal services (water, electricity, etc), by advising local officials.


Finally, there firms whose job it is to service the logistical and life support demands of the military, such as Kellogg Brown Root and Agility Logistics.  The vast majority of war zone contracting consists of this latter type, and most of the individuals who work for these firms are not even Americans but locals or third-country nationals from places like Africa or the Asian sub-continent, and who are hired because they’re a lot cheaper in pay and room & board than even your lowest ranking enlisted man.  If you’re a U.S. citizen and want to get hired, you’ll need to have experience in managing large staffs, logistics and/or life support, and facility operations (such as generator maintenance or water purification).   


For those of you who pay attention to the news, you know that your best bet for any of these jobs for the next few years will be in Afghanistan.  The Iraq mission is downsizing and I recommend applying for the Afghanistan positions first to increase your chance of being hired.  They'll also likely last longer.


When I left the Army in 2006 I applied to over 50 different positions with NGOs and the USG to do development or aid work but only received one response for a stateside position I didn't want.  The last thing I wanted to do was go back to Iraq with a private military company doing security work.  But after about a month and a half without a job, I bit the bullet and started applying to private military companies. 


I used the site Danger Zone Jobs and at the time paid about $40 to gain access to list of companies working in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to some advice on how to get increase my chances of getting hired.  About two weeks later MPRI offered me a position to be an Iraqi Army Advisor. 


According to the team that runs Danger Zone Jobs, as of January 8th there were 168 companies listed on the site, of which 108 had job openings posted on their corporate sites for places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other high risk countries.   I’m not affiliated in any way with the site, but it worked for me, provided some useful advice, and saved a lot of time tracking down companies with gigs in Iraq, which is where I wanted to work.

UPDATE:  A good friend in the PMC business tells me that Mission Essential Personnel hires a large number of interpreters for the military in Afghanistan.  Check them out.