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We Shouldn’t Pay Africans to Die in Iraq

"I met them in Sierra Leone. Former rebels, shopkeeper, barbers–now calling themselves Iraq vets."


I met them in Sierra Leone. Former rebels, shopkeepers, barbers-now calling themselves Iraq vets. They had been to places like Habbaniyah, Anbar, Haji, on jobs for Pentagon subcontractors. One of them, Jeff Roberts-known as Firefly to the U.S. servicemen in Iraq-told me his story earlier this year, over several sessions of fried chicken and soda in downtown Freetown.Roberts was one of the tens of thousands of so-called "third-country nationals" who were paid 45 cents an hour to work with American forces in Iraq. To some, Roberts represents the wonders of free trade and open borders brought to military affairs. But the use of contractors-especially those from very poor countries-has made it difficult to determine the size and cost of the war in Iraq.
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When a third-country national dies, his mother does not call her congressperson; she might not even have a phone.
We measure the scope of the war in official troop numbers: 165,000 men and women on the ground, 20,000 required for the surge, more than 3,000 killed. But it is estimated that behind every soldier is a private contractor, at nearly a one-to-one ratio-a tenfold increase over the last Gulf War and more contractors than in all previous American wars combined. Unfortunately, no one knows the real numbers. A December, 2006, Government Accountability Office report revealed that the Department of Defense "continues to have limited visibility over contractors because information on the number of contractors at deployed locations or the services they provide is not aggregated by any organization within DOD or its components." Even to the Pentagon, the size of the war is a secret. And secrecy changes the President's political calculus for determining when, how, and for how long to wage war.We have a myth that we avoid wars because, as General William Sherman noted, "war is hell." But, in fact, there have always been real and significant political costs-both financial and human-of going to war. The use of third-country nationals to fight our wars reduces those costs: when one of them dies, his mother does not call her congressperson; she might not even have a phone. (There is no Cindy Sheehan in Sierra Leone.) By privatizing our military and employing unknowable amounts of invisible foreign labor, we have lessened the impediments to launching wars of aggression and undermined the political incentive to replace force with diplomacy.We have also instituted a network of cheap labor. When the Pentagon put out the call for private contractors in Iraq, it reached out to its contacts from previous military engagements. ESS, a British corporation with Kuwaiti holdings, had contacts in Sierra Leone dating from that country's civil war, a conflict noted for the prominent use of private military firms. When ESS became a subcontractor of KBR, the contractor hired to oversee Iraq's reconstruction, it sent recruiters to Sierra Leone. Thirty-five thousand of its 48,000 employees are listed as third country nationals.Sierra Leone is, by some measures, the poorest country in the world, with an estimated unemployment rate of 70 percent. That's why thousands of men lined up in March of 2005 when ESS announced that it would pay $150 per month for manual labor in Iraq. As Roberts put it, Iraq did not sound more dangerous than fighting for Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front: "I'm no longer afraid of the sound of guns," he said. The combination of large contracts and loose borders resulted in a pipeline of labor heading to the lucrative war zone-and in this case, the pipeline was set up at the tail end of a brutal civil war.Talking to Roberts, it seemed possible to anecdotally map the links between war, broken economies, and labor flow. He claimed that while some of his former rebel colleagues had gone to Iraq, others were fighting for Islamist warlords in Somalia, because the pay was so good.In the end, we simply don't have enough information about the wars being fought on our behalf, or the labor networks they fund, which are politically invisible to them. The week that I left Freetown, The New York Times reported that the United States had launched a covert bombing campaign aimed at Somalia's Islamists, for whom Roberts's friends now work.Author portraits by Jashar Awan