We are all familiar with the ritual of the body of a dead soldier returning from foreign soil; solemn music, the national flag, escorts and salutes recorded in detail by the nation’s media. Words of consolation flow from politicians and generals to broken-hearted relatives, many so young they often clutch infants. It wasn’t quite that way for Deely, the sister of Robert, an ex-Paratrooper who was ambushed in Iraq. He was flown back from Kuwait and arrived at Glasgow airport. The undertaker told Deely there were ten bodies on the plane that day, two of which were unidentifiable. Robert’s coffin looked “like a big orange crate”. There was no fanfare, no union jack, no journalists and not one question. His death, as far as we know, wasn’t added to any list. The reason is simple. Robert was no longer a Paratrooper, but a private contractor. Some call them private soldiers, or Corporate warriors, or security consultants. Iraqis call them mercenaries.
The business of war is being privatised slowly and deliberately before our eyes. Robert’s orange crate of a coffin tells us so, as do the statistics. Patrick Cockburn, a well respected commentator on Iraq, estimated that there were around 160,000 foreign contractors in Iraq at the height of the occupation, many of whom, perhaps as many as 50,000, were heavily armed security personnel. The conduct of the war, and occupation afterwards, would have been impossible without their muscle.
Thanks to Paul Bremer, the US appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority each and every one of those contractors was given immunity from Iraqi law in the shape of Order 17 which was imposed on the new Iraqi Parliament. (Order 17 lasted from 2003 till the beginning of 2009.)
Nobody is interested in counting how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured by private contractors, but there is a vast body of evidence to suggest that there has been widespread abuse. Blackwater’s massacre of 17 civilians in the middle of Baghdad was the most notorious incident, but there were many more that went unreported. One senior contractor told me, on condition of anonymity, that he spoke to a South African who told him killing an Iraqi was just like “shooting a Kafir”. Other bone fide contractors, proud of their professionalism, told me of their disgust at the violence of “the cowboys”. If a contractor was involved in an incident which caused a fuss, they were whisked out of the country by their company. Impunity, by order.
While lowly contractors gambled with lives and limbs on Route Irish, the Chief executives of those same companies made fortunes. Mr David Lesar, chief executive of Halliburton, (former CEO being Dick Cheney) earned just under 43 million dollars in 2004. Mr Gene Ray of Titan earned over 47 million between 2004 and 2005. Mr JP London of CACI earned 22 million. The devil is always in the detail. Private contractors charged the US army up to 100 dollars to do a single soldier’s laundry bag. In an official report dated January 2005 the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen revealed that over 9 billion dollars had disappeared in fraud and corruption, and that was only during a very limited period of the Provisional Authority. Financial impunity too.
As one contractor told me the “place stank of money”. Little wonder poorly paid soldiers and elite Special Forces left in such numbers to join these private military corporations, as they saw their chance of a life time “to load up”.
These men “load up” with more than cash.
We are now used to seeing images of carnage and slaughter “over there.” We are accustomed to stories of missing billions, corporate greed, abuse, torture, and secret prisons. The Lancet’s detailed estimate of 654,965 dead as at June 2006 is almost beyond the mind’s capacity to grasp. It all seems now at a safe distance in time and place. Iraq fatigue, we are told, is upon us.
But “over there” is on its way back home to the UK and the United States. Iraq is inside the heads of “our boys”.
I was stunned to learn from the charity Combat Stress that deals with ex soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress syndrome that on average, it takes approximately 17 years for PTSS to manifest itself. They are bracing themselves (as is the US army) for a massive surge in the years to come.
Norma, a gentle nurse on the point of retiring who had spent years with ex-soldiers, opened the way for this story when she told me “many of these men are in mourning for their former selves.” An ex-soldier showed me a painting he had drawn of himself. “I just want my old self back.”
Order 17 may have been revoked in Iraq but its spirit still reigns supreme: the stink of impunity, the lies, the contempt for international law, the undermining of the Geneva conventions, the secret prisons, the torture, the murder……the hundreds of thousands of dead. As I imagine the intellectual authors of the above, Bush, Blair, and co with Aznar tailing behind, collecting their millions in after dinner speeches and setting up their interfaith foundations I cannot help but think of the nurses in Falujah today assisting the births of babies born with two heads and deformed bodies thanks to the chemical bombs rained on that city. Our gift to the future.
In a shameful speech to the soldiers of Fort Bragg on the 14th of December 2011 marking the end of the US military occupation Obama told the cheering troops they would be leaving with "their head held high". With the usual mix of sentimentality and hypocrisy in which they excel, they mourned their dead and ignored the Iraqi slaughter. In a decent world they would hang their heads in shame, beg forgiveness for their brutality, and start paying compensation to the millions of lives destroyed for generations to come.
Paul Laverty - 14th of December 2011.
Ken Loach and Paul Laverty at Cannes 2010