We really don’t know what Matt Sherman exactly did as a federal government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a long article about him in the Washington Post and a long interview on National Public Radio (NPR).
The Post tells us he advised four Iraqi interior ministers and later was part of a brigade that operated in Afghanistan. But the nitty-gritty is missing, and probably with reason. These media outlets want to focus on the man and his emotional state, both soldiering in a war zone and coming home without the fanfare, parades and social support network that members of the United States military often receive. The NPR interview by Rachel Martin focuses on “the sense of purpose” that Sherman felt in the war zone. But it avoids defining that sense of justice. While both stories reference violence, because they focus on Sherman and his states of mind, they present a sanitized version of these conflicts.
The human interest angle also crowds out any discussion of why the U.S. Army felt the need to hire Sherman, who had previously worked for a large law firm. Since we get no sense of Sherman’s background or special skills, we are not in a position to evaluate whether one could expect to find his skill set among regular army personnel.
Both these two mainstream stories, appearing in the same week, avoid asking the two biggest questions about these disastrous wars: 1) Why did we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was the fighting worth it? 2) Was the unprecedented use of military contractors the most effective way to wage war?
By focusing on Sherman’s individual sense of mission, without every defining what that mission entailed, both the Post and NPR assume and want the public to assume that the mission was important, critical, noble and appropriate. By treating Sherman as an individual, and not part of an army of contractors, most working for large corporations, both the Post and NPR take it for granted that our massive dependence on military contractors was good policy.
That military contractors played a larger role in fighting our recent wars than ever before is indisputable. For example, an estimated 100,000 military contractors worked directly for the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006, which marked a tenfold increase in the use of private contractors for military operations since Bush I fought the first Iraq war 13 years earlier. The last time a combatant nation in an American war outsourced so many military functions to non-soldiers was the Revolutionary War, when the losing side—the British—fortified their troops with foreign mercenaries, primarily from Germany.
We don’t call them mercenaries anymore, because that name evokes thoughts of people who are only in it for the money, and we’d rather believe that our current mercenaries have a sense of “mission” or “purpose.” But make no mistake about it. Virtually all civilians who signed military contracts—either as individual “experts” or as the executives of private corporations—made a lot more than they would have if they were in the army. Like all other private sources of public services, be it for prisons, education or data processing, the companies providing military services are working on a profit basis, whereas the Department of Defense is a non-profit venture that rewards its employees—soldiers—with stable employment and a true sense of mission to protect our country that is indoctrinated into soldiers almost on a daily basis. Moreover, news reports through the years document that private contractors were less likely to follow orders and procedures and more likely to use excessive violence than the regular army, which certainly laid the groundwork for civil war and the emergence of ISIS.
In analyzing the failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it’s pretty obvious that using more contractors than ever before was a failing strategy.
A failing strategy, to be sure, but the use of contractors may have been the very reason the war was fought. We know that the reasons the Bush II Administration gave all turned out to be false: There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and in fact, had his own gripes against Al Qaida. It is easy to prove that “democracy building” had nothing to do with the Bush Administration’s war rationale. For one thing, no one in the administration gave “democracy building” as a reason for the war until after the world discovered that Bush, Cheney and their factotums were lying about WMD and the Hussein-Al Qaida connection. More importantly, if democracy building was the reason for going to war, then the administration would have planned to build a democracy after the invasion, which the subsequent chaos and the admission of key officials demonstrate was not the case.
Why did we go to war in Iraq then? The only explanation that makes sense—at the time and in retrospect—was that it created an enormous business opportunity for military contractors, most of which had contributed to the Bush II campaign and one of the largest of which had as it chief executive officer Dick Cheney before Cheney resigned to run for vice president.
None of this sorry history appears in either of these feel-good stories. What we get instead is the superficial story of one man’s struggle to return from a war zone. Always uplifting and a bit wistful, but in this case, it’s a whitewash of two wars that destroyed two countries, killed hundreds of thousands and cost the United States trillions of dollars, all to line the pockets of Bush II cronies. But that’s how government is supposed to work under the crony capitalism practiced by the 21st century Republican Party—and plenty in the Democratic Party as well.