Security, Top Stories, World Affairs

Private Military Contracting Is Misunderstood

When I tell someone I used to be a security contractor, they almost always reply: “Oh you mean like those Blackwater guys?” I immediately have to dispel the myths and negative connotations associated with the private security industry. No, I do not work for and never have worked for Blackwater. I have, however, worked for Constellis, the company that purchased their successor, Academi. My very first contract was with the Department of Defense, fresh out of a standard Marine Corps career of four years—this time I could grow my hair slightly longer.

After six months spent working for the Constellis corporate monolith, I decided to leave for another contract with a company that had been around just as long as Blackwater but with a more innocuous name—SOC. Constellis was my first taste of corporate employment: power points, rosters, emailing permissions, time sheets, supervisors for supervisors, positions in the company that were unicorn-like in their purpose. The Marine Corps prepares you for life in a bureaucracy, but its allure as a war fighting organization is able to temporarily conceal the reality of endless rosters and signatures in black versus blue ink.

Today these contracting companies are a far cry from the images of the 21st century Vikings of the global war on terror that emerged during the heat of the insurgency in Iraq. Blackwater, founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL turned entrepreneur Erik Prince, entered public consciousness in 2004 when four of its contractors were killed while they were delivering food in Fallujah, Iraq. Their bodies were burned and hung from a bridge prompting a coalition offensive later known as the First Battle of Fallujah.

Later that same year, Blackwater contractors participated in the battle for Najaf against the Mahdi army of Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. Videos from multiple sources during the fighting presented the world with ball-cap and t-shirt clad men riding into battle on small black helicopters to prevent one of the strongest militias in Iraq from overrunning the city. That day, contractors ferried the wounded and ammunition back and forth while snipers suppressed insurgents from the rooftops alongside American troops. The action was extensively documented by the military, press, and the contractors themselves. With the world able to watch the highlights of this new asymmetric warfare online, “private military contracting” became an object of fascination.

By the time I arrived, the party was over. The intrepid new warriors of the Internet era were now perceived as sinister “shadow armies” staffed by “shadow soldiers.” The incident that catalyzed this new perception and a consequent overhaul in the nature of private military contracting occurred on September 16, 2007 in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Seventeen Iraqis were killed that day in what came to be known as the Nisour Square Massacre, and the incident has been the subject of at least five investigations which led to trials of the contractors involved. Blackwater was banned from operating in Iraq, and in 2008 a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was signed between the US and Iraq allowing for Iraq to prosecute contractors in certain circumstances.

Since the Nisour Square massacre, the legality of and liability for the use of force in a war zone by contractors has been opaque. Contractors today use the phrase “chicken or beef” to refer to any incident that will result in an individual being sent home so quickly that the choice of in-flight meal is the only decision in which they’ll be given a say. Protocol stipulates that force may be used in the defense of your life or the lives of other Americans in your care, and escalated in proportion to the threat presented.

It is after force is used that things become a wilderness of potential legal action, multiple levels of investigation, and agreements with the host nation. In the popular imagination, private military contractors operate with impunity but this was only ever partially true and during a narrow window of time. Today, if a contractor is involved in a use of force incident—justified or not—they will be investigated. The potential consequences include being blacklisted from further contracts, a civil lawsuit, and life in jail.

Since 2008, only a handful of known shooting incidents involving US contractors have occurred, the most well-known of which was during the 2012 terror attack on the diplomatic annex in Benghazi, Libya. Benghazi was another watershed moment in contracting in which a terrorist attack left four Americans dead, two of whom were security contractors. Amid the civil war in Libya, a group of State Department and CIA contractors repelled attacks from jihadist militants on the 11th anniversary of 9-11. Greatly outnumbered, the contractors held their ground until American personnel could be evacuated. This event is portrayed in Michael Bay’s 2016 film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which dramatizes the Global Response Service contractors’ response to the attacks.

13 Hours offers an image of private military contractors that only Hollywood could create—bearded, muscle-bound, tattooed, laconic mercenaries, infatuated with historic military orders (Spartans, Crusaders, Legionnaires and so on). In reality, the contracting population is as diverse as that which comprises the military. Some contractors opt out of the “vet beard” due to habit, or the novelty wearing off. Most of us work out because our occupation relies on physicality, and the philosophy of fitness is a cornerstone of soldiering. But reveling in martial culture isn’t for everyone, and most of us just want to collect our check and go home. The diversity of skillsets, interests and education among the people I’ve worked with is unparalleled. We have people who can fly planes, perform emergency surgeries, speak all manner of languages, salvage dive with sharks, navigate using the stars, brew beer, write a thesis on neoclassical art, climb up sheer rock cliffs, 3D print anything, fly drones, write a dissertation on Nietzsche, or play the banjo—there is someone for everything you might encounter while out on the frontier of modern warfare.

The environment in which security contractors operate provides fertile ground for self-development. As many static contractors work a shift of eight to 12 hours, the rest of your day is left for you to use as you see fit. Those working on the mobile side of executive protection might go days without a mission in some instances. The amount of downtime over a combined 18-month period overseas enabled me to read collections of books and articles and log days’ worth of podcasts and YouTube tutorials. The countless seasons of television we watched, the hours of video game play, and the time spent on social media would qualify as addictions. Your time is what you make of it. Many get their degrees or other certificates and move on from the industry into other ventures.

Some of my former colleagues have been contracting since 2005, and none have been involved in a use of force incident on the job. While statistical data on use of force incidents by contractors is not collected, the speed at which news travels within the industry makes these events seem exceedingly rare and heavily discussed when they do occur. Those who have worked in law enforcement prior to contracting tend to agree that the chances of being involved in a use of force incident is higher in the United States than it is overseas. In the state of California, for example, which has some of the strictest gun legislation in the country, there were 707 use of force incidents involving law enforcement in the year 2017 alone, 353 of which resulted in the use of a firearm. In other words, it is more likely that you will discharge your weapon in the United States as a police officer than if you are working as a contractor in a war zone overseas.

While misconceptions about what security contractors do persist, the industry is on track to expand and assume more roles as American foreign policy takes a less direct approach to armed conflict. Since his election in 2016, President Trump has weighed the idea of implementing contractors further in these conflicts while withdrawing troops. The number of contractors in Afghanistan has increased by 65 percent since the beginning of the Trump Administration. Granted, not all those positions are security-related but it is a sign of the possible further privatization of various theaters in the global war on terror. Former Blackwater founder Erik Prince returned to public consciousness when he was questioned during Robert Mueller’s investigation about a meeting with Russian officials in the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa. Prince had recently proposed the idea of backing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido with 5,000 soldiers against the Maduro regime, according to Reuters.

Like all competitive industries, contracting evolved and became heavily corporate in nature, leaving the cowboy conduct behind in 2006, but retaining the cowboy image for sex appeal. There are differences in terms of regulations, responsibilities, equipment, salary, amenities, and a small amount of prestige between a contract with the Department of Defense, Department of State, or other government agencies. Apart from an incredibly small community of contractors serving in a direct-action capacity, most fill a position afflicted by the kind of monotony found in any other salaried job. They do not wander the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan getting into nonstop gun battles, as some perceive. Their purpose is to ensure that those responsible for implementing foreign policy can do so safely. Most just see this as the best paying employment available with the skills acquired in nearly two decades of war. Regardless of the administration in charge, they know that their employment is secure with the likelihood of these conflicts ending being remote.


August Gold is a geopolitical commentator pursuing a degree in History at Columbia University in the city of New York. He served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps from 2010 to 2014, and worked as a security contractor with multiple deployments overseas from 2015 to 2019.


  1. Thank you for dispelling a lot of the myths I had swallowed, about PMC’s. Like many, my ignorance over what I had been led to believe were the roles of PMC’s, had led me to be somewhat squeamish about former coalition service personnel operating without the necessity of close air support and medevac capacity. I knew a little bit more about K&R operations and was willing to make an exception for this type of corporate need, but thank you for painting a picture that corrects the record on this industry. Regardless, it’s a free country and people should be free to chose employment as they see fit, within obvious limits. I am curious to ask how insurance for this sector is provided, and whether it was something you had to pay for out of your own pocket, or if your employer handled the risk and liability?

    One thing you might want to consider, especially if you have access to former colleagues with investigative experience, is the possibility of writing a yarn in this genre. Often the best way of changing peoples minds it to step into the realm of fiction. It allows you to recast Government, the media, the authorities, the military, corporate interests and any number of other actors, as hero, protagonist and villain, at you leisure. Given the number of former journalists who go on to write books, novels and scripts, it also accounts for the reason why so often the forces of good are cast as the bad guy, whilst the plucky reporter is often the hero of the tale. The reality is quite different, even though many of the selfsame types that ruthlessly doorstep celebrities and unwitting members of the public, have also served their time as war correspondents, in the arse end of nowhere.

  2. Being a military contractor might or might not be a good job. And yes, most contractor jobs are not about shooting, just like 9 out of 10 jobs in the military are in support position, not combat arms. But that is not the real question. What really matters is the use of contractors allows the US to project military or pseudo-military force into other countries with no real accountability.

    If 1,000 marines are sent into a country, it is public knowledge that there are 1,000 US troops there. If any are killed or injured, it is publicly known, But contractors? We don’t know how many US contractors there are “supporting” our troops in Syria, Iraq, Saudi, Afganistan, etc. If they are injured or killed it is often not reported, unless active service military members are hurt of killed at the same time.

    In other words, the widespread use of contractors reduces the visibility to Congress and to the public about what is going on in our “forever wars”. I am not arguing that these wars a the right thing to be doing or not. I am arguing that their extent and cost need to be publicly known and publicly accepted.

    If the US wants to engage is a war, it needs to put sufficient troops on the ground. If we don’t have sufficient troops in the volunteer army, we should not use contractors to make up the difference. We should re-institute the draft. If the American people won’t stand for that, we should not be in that war.

  3. If I may be permitted to go off on a slight tangent:

    Simon Mann, the infamous British Mercenary (or famous, depending on your perspective) has made some interesting points regarding the perception of mercenaries. Mercenaries are considered as morally questionable because they are not ‘fighting for their country’ and are only fighting ‘for money’. Yet, countries like the UK send troops (often special forces) to serve as advisors, and often as combatants to fight on behalf of other nations - hence in those instances they are not ‘fighting for their country’. Furthermore, Mann refers to the Regiment of Gurkhas, a regiment comprised almost entirely of Nepalese men (who are not even commonwealth citizens) who fight in the British army ‘for money’. Hence Mann argues that the moral difference between regular troops and mercenaries is often slight.

  4. Is this true? Please substantiate.

    If true, is this a DoD policy or an editorial decision by the mass media?

    This contractor died in a traffic accident and the NY Times wrote an article about him.

    This contracted truck driver was killed accidentally by US soldiers.

    I can keep on going.

    Perhaps you haven’t been as attentive as you think. No foul there. There’s a lot of news, after all.

    Without looking it up, how many US military personnel are in Singapore, Djibouti, S. Korea, Japan, the Philippines, UK, Italy, Germany, yada yada yada?

    Does Korea meet your definition of this? No peace treaty has been signed and an armistice exists. The UN Command is still in South Korea.

    You prefer compulsion over a voluntary acts? How long would it take to induct, train, etc all these personnel? Or would you prefer a massive standing military? How about the logistics and manufacturing channels? “If the DoD can’t drill and refine its own petroleum products, weave the material for its uniforms, and build and maintain its own weapons, we should not use the civilian sector.” How about software? The US military relies on civilian-written software for SARRS, AFMIS, Blue Force Tracker, SAMS, IFMIS, ILAP, AFATDS, etc.

    Without civilian support throughout all the channels, the US military would be mission incapable.

    Seems to me you’ve arbitrarily drawn a line, one based on very little knowledge.

  5. After time in the Legion Parachute Regiment, UKSF and UK Police I started as a contractor in 1998 in North Africa and have worked as a consultant ever since in mid/high risk environments. Your points are spot on, although there are a few observations in supplement.

    1. When you consider Quds Force & Wagner Group, apart from ideology, they also operate as quasi-autonomous groups to project covert power - JSOC/CIA but without the direct accountability risk. This is a different kettle of fish to Blackwater (ext.) et al who primarily provided protective services rather than direct action [I understand]. The days of Denard, Hoare, Spicer and even the likes of Stirling and Reid-Daly seem to be over in the West.
    2. Many guys do improve continually through self-education, unfortunately many do not and so fall into a trap of being still in the forces when they are actually in the civilian world. This is actually quite detrimental to protective services as, for example, they want to stick to timings, they issue orders and expect people to follow them, they teach didactically as you would to young recruits when they have a room full of 50 year old drilling engineers, they ‘revert to training’ in vehicle convoy methods when these are inappropriate to the situation etc. A kind of ‘group think from the past’. I’ve often said I’d prefer to recruit psychologists than soldiers for some roles…
    3. I cannot watch Hollywood interpretations of the job; indeed rather like a book and film offering completely different depth perception of issues, the public face of ‘mercenaries’, ‘operators’, ‘PMCs’ and ‘security experts’ is woefully underfleshed and inaccurate in most circumstances.
    4. The quality of Close Protection people in sandy and dusty places fell considerably after one of the major providers started to undercut the [burgeoning] competition and so cheaper ex-soldiers from Nigeria, South Africa, Eastern Europe etc were used as they worked for less than a time-served UK or US specialist.

    Thanks for the article August.

  6. This was a good read. Thanks.

    Contractors are involved the preparation of food, the installation of fibre optic cables; the building and maintaining of containerised housing and personal hygiene facilities; the laundering of clothes; the management of gyms, theatres, and other recreational facilities; the maintenance, repair, and upgrade of military equipment; teaching college-level courses in schools; treating patients in hospitals and clinics, and many, many other tasks. Even the collection of rubbish. Other than forward operating bases, think of military installations (and even some large naval vessels) as small cities needing to provide all the services, publicly and privately provided, you enjoy in your community.

    All contractors are supervised by a service member or a DoD government employee.

    You have a wartime military and a peacetime military. During wartime, the number contractors, many of whom have prior service experience that gives them an understanding of the battle rhythm (the way the military operates as an organisation) as well as holding security clearances, is increased to allow the military to quickly respond to events. During peacetime the number to contractors decreases. This allows the military to be kept affordable. If you think the 2020 defence budget at $738 billion is expensive, a military comprised exclusively of service personnel during both peace and war would need to double or treble in size and cost to perform all these tasks. But, military personnel have their frequent training beyond their military occupation specialties (truck driver, mechanic, medic, computer network administrator, etc.) that has them out of the motor pools, warehouses, telco offices, post offices, dining facilities, and every other workplace. Without civilians, be they contractors or government employees, operations would degrade and likely cease to function.

  7. @gagamba: there are 4,000 US troops in Djibouti, about 300 in Singapore, 27,800 in S Korea, yada yada yada. It is easy to google. Now try to find the number of contractors we have in Iraq, Somalia, and who knows where else…and then try to sort out the local translators, locals doing the laundry, and so on from those who are US citizens.

    And your examples of US news reports of contractor deaths are all from local news organizations. Even the NYT article was about a contractor from Long Island. I don’t know what other countries’ press does, but the US national press glosses over contractor deaths while at least reporting military deaths.

    The extensive use of contractors is a way to obscure our real commitment, and the attendant risks, we have taken on in many regions, Whether we should or should not be involved in those regions is not the issue, What I object to is the way the government is hiding the size of those costs and risks.

    But to the most important point: do I prefer “compulsion over voluntary acts”? If you consider a draft, properly enacted into law through democratic channels, to be compulsion, well, then I am all for it. War is not a commercial transaction. If we are not willing to serve ourselves, or risk sending our children into a war zone, we should not in that war at all.

  8. There are about 650,000 contractors assigned to the DoD worldwide. This number waxes and wanes as some contracts end and other start due to type of project, location, etc. Also, contractors have the freedom to quit, move to other contract jobs under other commands, etc. Central Command’s [CENTCOM] area of responsibility is the Middle East and Southwest Asia and there are about 50,500 contractors there, of which a bit more than half are in Asscrackistan.

    What you’re looking for the DoD’s Inventory of Contracted Services. You may also check with each command (PACOM, EURCOM, etc.) for reports.

    Write a letter of complaint to the editors if you feel their reporting is insufficiently nationwide.

    Sure it is. Do you think Lockheed Martin is donating F-22s to the Air Force and Hormel cans of Spam to the Army?

    It’s quaint to think of Paul Revere riding his horse through the countryside shouting the “The British are coming! The British are coming!” to rally the militia, but today’s military is far too technologically sophisticated to allow some kid with a few months training to start whacking away at an MLRS with a spanner. The level of expertise needed to support the weapons systems, the communications and intelligence collection equipment, and the logistics channels is far too high, and the DoD also decided to fob off the grunt work so that the service members may do more mission-essential tasks.

    Communications, logistics, and weapons technologies are force multipliers that keep far more personnel from being wounded and killed than ever before. Since Gulf War I, the US casualty rates are minuscule in contrast to Vietnam or Korea.

    Do you want to pay that cost in blood or in money?

  9. Great article. For those interested in the larger “Stability Operations Industry” do check out the ISOA - International Stability Operations Association - which has some 120+ member companies, about a quarter of which do private security (PSC) work. The rest do logistics, base support, aviation services, construction, landmine removal, medical services, development etc. .

    Also my own Acadmia page has lots of articles and resources on the industry (some a bit old & dated, but they’re there):

  10. That’s a great resource you’ve curated. Thanks for posting the link.

  11. What, Hollywood does not portray reality accurately? Tell me it isn’t so …

  12. Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam…Very true, and today we are borrowing the money for our wars from China.

    I’ve been in the service, in peacetime several decades ago, and worked with local contractors. I have friends in private security services, working mostly for corporations. No problems there.

    Where I have a big problem is the way our leaders today conduct their wars: they send other people’s children to fight them and pay for them by borrowing money from China. They are selling the lie that we can have a nice little war in a far-away country, and it will cost us nothing. The over-use of contractors in war zones is just another way they hide the true cost from the voters.

    This is not a matter of efficiency, contractors can be very cost-effective. It is a matter of democracy.

  13. I agree with you generally, but would quibble somewhat with the framing. My view is that the American doctrine is deeply flawed, in that modelling democracy in open-ended conflicts is an aberration purely driven by the political classes for their own self-aggrandisement. Take Iraq, for example, the war was settled relatively quickly and all that was necessary was to accept the unconditional surrender of the military, release power to them (with a few scapegoats placed in the dock, and the proviso that they come up with a framework for introducing democracy), tell the not to do it again and get the hell out of Dodge.

    Instead, they attempted to install their own man, which betrayed an incredible ignorance of the politics of the Middle East- and disbanded the military!!! Now some will say that hindsight is 2020, but I was both for the war, and for it’s quick conclusion from the outset. My favourite story on this subject is that Margaret Thatcher at a function with the Argentinian Ambassador, after the Falklands War.
    Apparently, she approached him over the course of the evening and said:

    “I hope we can be friends”

    “I hope we can resume trade”

    “Just don’t do it again!”

    I don’t have a problem with war, if there is casus belli and the country in question is defending their own interest. What boggles the mind is the assumption that democracy is somehow the natural state of man. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case, with most of the strongest and longest enduring democracies around the world founded on the blood of patriots.

    Today, I was watching a campaign event of Andrew Yang and this subject was raised. His view was that the power to declare war should be returned to Congress. He also stated that he was against the forever wars and saw the $6 trillion spent in the Middle East as a real waste, before one even considers the human cost (or words to that effect). It’s a shame that his views and those of Tulsi Gabbard seem to be very much in the minority.

    Although I never served, my father was an NCO in the USAF in Vietnam.

  14. The problem was Saddam and many of his henchmen went into hiding - it took about 8 months after the fall of Baghdad for the US to capture Saddam. If the US left before their capture, what was to stop them from retaking power? Many in the military were Saddam loyalists.

    Insurgencies are incredibly difficult to fight. The Malay Emergency lasted 12 years and Mau Mau was 8. And these were fought without the press endeavouring to expose wrong doings.

  15. Good points. But that’s why you win, withdraw, stand off, and be prepared to go back in. They would have only have had a limited time span to retake power, before the incumbents became entrenched in their positions. A strategy of rapid withdrawal and repreparation may seem counter-intuitive and would be quite difficult to manage logistically, especially from the point of view of managing unit friction, but lets not forget it would also reset the clock to conventional warfare for the purposes of potential future conflict, instead of the unremitting skirmish warfare and attrition that modern occupations seem to incur. Plus, do we really care if they end up killing each other in an internecine struggle, when we have absented ourselves from responsibility.

    I had a lot of mates who spent time over there, a couple of whom came back with thousand yard stares. I think one of the difficult things, was being told that they were liberators, only to then find themselves in the middle of a civil war. I don’t know what the time constraint would have been for build-up and wait, but the military is run on the concept of hurry up and wait- it’s ingrained. The only real risk would have been if the leadership had decided to remain hidden, and embarked on a strategy of rulership by proxy- but anyone who knows anything about the cultural traditions of Middle Eastern psychology, would tell you that the sheer embarrassment, the loss of face, from being forced to cower, whilst someone else took the senior position, would have been too much to bear.

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