The death before Christmas of a New Zealander working for a private security firm in Iraq -- and David Fisher’s interesting follow-up in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday -- had me digging through papers to find an article I picked up in LA in August 2005.
By curious coincidence I was in the States to interview a group of actors in the courageous drama series Over There, the only tele-series set in a current war and which pulled few punches about the stark realities of what was happening to American troops on the ground, and their families at home.
I wrote a Listener article about the series when it was re-screening here after disappearing below the radar the first time around. In the States it had been dropped after its first season.
“Created by writer Chris Gerolmo and industry veteran Steven Bochco (who devised the innovative Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and LA Law), Over There proved too uncomfortable for an American public with increasing doubts about this war, and which had even less interest in seeing their troops portrayed as often unheroic, sometimes confused and occasionally as nasty bastards.
“When a central character gets his leg blown off at the end of the first bruising episode it was almost asking viewers to change channels. And when one American soldier, the fatalistic Mrs B, stands over the body of an insurgent, slowly crushing his dead fingers beneath her boot, we are invited to think the humiliations at Abu Ghraib probably started with just such small but calculated incidents.
“Over four million in the States watched that uncompromising opening episode, only 1.3 million viewers tuned in for the final.”
In that same article I noted this: “Coincidentally when this Fox cable series ran in the States, the network was also screening Company of Heroes, a two hour documentary about a Marine company taking Fallujah in November 2004. It was a graphic account of door-to-door fighting, death on the frontline and the fears of those back home. It was Over There, but true.
“And the www.goarmy.com recruitment ads running at the time looked scarily similar to Over There, Company of Heroes and CNN footage.
“The lines between advertising, documentary, news and drama were effectively being erased, more casualties of war.”
After I had been on the set in a dry valley north of the city -- which looked uncannily like what I imagine Iraqi villages to be -- and interviewing the actors in their trailers I lazed around the pool on the following day and, as is my custom, took every newspaper available.
Inevitably I come home with clippings, whole supplements, books sections and the like. These clutter up my house for a month, sometimes a decade, and then I finally get rid of them.
The 8000 word article The Other Army in the New York Times Magazine of August 14 2005 by war correspondent Daniel Bergner made its way home and took no finding at all yesterday. I have read it repeatedly. (It’s on-line at the Times but you have to pay.)
Bergner spent what was obviously weeks with guys working for the private security company Triple Canopy and offers a penetrating insight into this life of big money and high risk.
The company had contracts to guard 13 Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters throughout Iraq, a six month (renewable) deal worth around $US90 million.
Bergner notes that when it won the contract it “scarcely existed”. Its managing partners had military backgrounds, a company name, and money borrowed from family and friends to bid on the contract.
Anyway they got the gig, searched the Net for armoured vehicles and guns, placed recruiting ads, and then got together a couple of rucksacks full of cash -- each holding half a million dollars -- to pay their “personnel”.
Triple Canopy is now one of the largest private security firms in Iraq.
That’s the fascinating story, the figures are even more interesting: there are around 25,000 - 30,000 armed people working for these companies.
According to Bergner the word “mercenaries” is despised by them and even “private military company” is dismissed as inaccurate. “Private security company” is the favoured term.
Bernger says the Pentagon refuses to discuss the role of these companies (he tried repeatedly), largely he suspects because of the military’s embarrassment about the [low] number of troops which initially stormed into the country.
“Some people will tell you they’re here for Mom and apple pie,” a private security guy told Bergner, “That’s bull. It’s the money.”
Ah yes, the money: they make between $US400 and $US700 a day -- although Bergner says non-Westerners earn far less and Triple Canopy’s Fijian and Chilean guys only make between $US40 and $US150 a week. Yep, a week! They sleep in barracks while the Americans have their own dorms.
In this way democracy and equality is spread.
These companies are of course eroding the official military because guys who are staring death in face from inside an American uniform figure they might as well do it for better remuneration.
Special Forces has apparently responded with re-enlistment bonuses of up to $US150,000.
At the time of writing Bergner noted that Triple Canopy -- by not losing a single worker or having a client killed -- had just been named one of three companies that will divide up a billion bucks from the State Department to carry out protection work in high-risk countries around the world.
One of the founders of Triple Canopy, Matt Mann, spoke about “creating a national asset”.
Outside of the stunning book Generation Kill by Evan Wright (a Rolling Stone writer who went with a Marines special operation unit in the opening days of the war as they ploughed on to Baghdad to the sound of thumping hip-hop and heavy metal), this is one of the most illuminating pieces I have read about what this war means from the ground and through American eyes.
Money, thrills, camaraderie -- and it beats sitting around a small town in North Carolina.
But that tele-series was also enlightening -- and as it unfolded it was evident writer Gerolmo had drawn on Generation Kill for incidents and attitudes. It’s out on DVD now. You need only to watch the second gripping episode (the unit is manning a roadblock at night and who knows who or what is in that car coming down the road: Fleeing civilians? Insurgents?) to see why it didn’t really grab the folks at home.
When the Arab-American soldier Tariq tries to explain to his colleagues why young Saudis have joined the conflict Gerolmo gives him an analogy viewers on the couch might understand: It’s like being a hippie in the 60s and hearing about Woodstock. You can’t just not go.
“It’s jihad, the holy war against the Americans. For some of these kids it’s like the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in their world.”
That wasn’t what many American viewers wanted to hear.
[Apropos of nothing I see according to the Herald on Sunday that Eric Clapton has never played here before. Then who was that guy at the Supertop about 18 years ago?]
[More Music from Elsewhere is here ]