Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq
by Steve Fainaru
Da Capo Press, 288 pp.
They were on every flight from Amman to Baghdad: hard-faced men dressed in civilian khakis and boots, their bodies solid and tough, their hair usually shorn to a crew cut. They didn't talk much, and exuded an air of confident menace. Everyone on the plane knew who they were: private security contractors. Most were former military men who had come to Iraq for the money, earning far more than they could back home, in exchange for the real risk of getting shot or having their heads cut off by kidnappers.
In the first months after the invasion, their presence was mostly a tacit detail. Any occupation requires a few extra hired guns. Only later did we begin to hear stories about thuggish foreigners in civilian dress spraying machine-gun fire from the backs of sport-utility vehicles. Our translators lived in fear of them. American soldiers often cursed them, saying the contractors operated outside of any rules and made their own job harder. But our resentment was mixed with ambivalence, because they protected us, too. All the major foreign media outlets with offices in Baghdad paid private security firms. Between 2004 and 2006, during my time covering the Iraq War, I rarely took a trip out of our compound without talking to our British security chief--whose salary dwarfed mine--about what route was safest, whether to take the armored car or not, and how many armed guards would be traveling with me.
Steve Fainaru, a reporter for the Washington Post, spent more than a year reporting and writing about private security contractors in Iraq, and won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize last year for his work. The broad outlines of the story are an amazing parable of governmental failure: the Bush administration sent too few soldiers to police Iraq's chaos, and as the violence grew worse, a parallel army formed on the war's margins, drawing from "a vast pool of veterans and ex-cops, adrenaline junkies, escapees from the rat race, the patriotic, the bankrupt, the greedy, the terminally and perpetually bored," as Fainaru puts it. As with so many aspects of the American occupation, no one had thought seriously about the consequences of bringing so many well-armed civilians--many of them trigger happy--into such a dangerous environment. Were they adjuncts to the military? Should Iraqi law apply to them, or American? No one knew, and no one seemed...