War on terror sought to cast US as a beacon of democracy, but private army Blackwater inflicts suffering on societies they work in

War on terror sought to cast US as a beacon of democracy, but private army Blackwater inflicts suffering on societies they work in


Recently, I spoke with one Marine infantry veteran who had completed four combat tours abroad for America. He told me that, after leaving the service, he lacked a community that understood what he had been through.

He sought to avoid social isolation by getting a government job.

However, after applying for several in law enforcement agencies, he “failed” lie detector tests (owing to the common stress reactions of war-traumatised veterans). Having accidentally stumbled on a veteran-support non-profit group, he ultimately found connections that led him to decide to return to school and retrain in a new profession.

But, as he pointed out, “many of my other friends from the Marines numbed their pain with drugs or by going back to war as security contractors.”

Not everyone views contracting as a strategy of last resort. Still, I find it revealing of the limited sense of possibility such veterans experience that the top five companies employing them are large corporations servicing the Department of Defence through activities like information technology support, weapons production or offers of personnel, both armed and not.

And keep in mind that such jobs are anything but easy. Many veterans find themselves facing yet more of the same – quick, successive combat deployments as contractors.

Anyone in this era of insurance mega-corporations who has ever had to battle for coverage is aware that doing so isn’t easy. Private insurers can maximise their profits by holding onto premium payments as long as possible while denying covered services.

A federal law called the Defence Base Act (1941) (DBA) requires that corporations fund workers’ compensation claims for their employees labouring under US contracts, regardless of their nationalities, with the taxpayer footing the bill. The programme grew exponentially after the start of the war on terror, but insurance companies have not consistently met their obligations under the law.

In 2008, a joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica found that insurers like Chicago-based CAN Financial Corps were earning up to 50 per cent profits on some of their war-zone policies, while many employees of contractors lacked adequate care and compensation for their injuries.

Even after Congress called on the Pentagon and the Department of Labour to better enforce the DBA in 2011, some companies continued to operate with impunity vis-à-vis their own workers, sometimes even failing to purchase insurance for them or refusing to help them file claims as required by law. 

While insurance companies made tens of millions of dollars in profits during the second decade of the war on terror, between 2009 and 2021, the Department of Labour fined insurers of those contracting corporations a total of only $3,250 for failing to report DBA claims.

At its core, the war on terror sought to create an image of the US abroad as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law. Yet there is probably no better evidence of how poorly this worked in practice at home and abroad than the little noted (mis)use of security contractors. Without their ever truly being seen, they prolonged that global set of conflicts, inflicting damage on other societies and being damaged themselves in America’s name.

Last month, the Costs of War Project reported that the US is now using subcontractors Bancroft Global Development and Pacific Architects and Engineers to train the Somali National Army in its counterterrorism efforts. Meanwhile, the US intervention there has only helped precipitate a further rise in terrorist attacks in the region.

The global presence created by such contractors also manifests itself in how we respond to threats to their lives.

In March 2023, a self-destructing drone exploded at a US maintenance facility on a coalition base in northeastern Syria, killing a contractor employed by the Pentagon and injuring another, while wounding five American soldiers. After that drone was found to be of Iranian origin, President Biden ordered an air strike on facilities in Syria used by Iranian-allied forces.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin stated, “No group will strike our troops with impunity.” While he later expressed condolences to the family of the contractor who was the only one killed in that attack, his statement could have more explicitly acknowledged that contractors are even more numerous than troops among the dead from our forever wars.

In late December 2019, a contractor working as an interpreter on a US military base in Iraq was killed by rockets fired by an Iranian-backed militia. Shortly afterward, then-President Trump ordered an air strike that killed the commander of an elite Iranian military unit, sparking concern about a dangerous escalation with that country. Trump later tweeted, “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will.”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Trump’s tweet was more honest than Austin’s official statement: such contractors are now an essential part of America’s increasingly privatised wars and will continue to be so, in seemingly ever greater numbers.

Even though retaliating for attacks on their lives has little to do with effective counterterrorism (as the Costs of War Project has long made clear), bearing witness to war casualties in all their grim diversity is the least the rest of us can do as American citizens.

Because how can we know whether – and for whom – our shadowy, shape-shifting wars “work” if we continue to let our leaders wage an increasingly privatized version of them in ways meant to obscure our view of the carnage they’ve caused?

  • A TomDispatch report / By Andrea Mazzarino
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