Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mercenaries in Iraq

In today's LA Times, which has broken many a good story, there is a substantial article on private contractors working for the American occupation in Iraq. Public records, which the article implies are far from complete, show that there are 180,000 such contractors in Iraq, compared to 160,000 US troops. In other words, the occupation is being supported by a big group of people only indirectly under US government control (although the US taxpayer pays the bill).

One might quibble about whether these are "mercenaries" as in my title, since many, perhaps most, are not there to fight: they are construction workers, translators, laundry workers, and truck drivers. But some unspecified number are heavily armed guards who are there to shoot people. And beyond that? Twenty years from now the stories will still be coming out.

My research on "the law of arms for war," as Sir Geoffroi de Charny called it in the 1340s or 50s is beginning to look more and more like it has contemporary relevance, though I never thought that this would be the case. It looks like the "laws of war" as developed since the Thirty Years War are coming unraveled, with a big assist from the biggest military establishment in the world. The atmosphere is like the days of privateering, or the guerrilla warfare that engulfed France in the late 14th century ("the Black Death changed everything").

Of course, this has been on its way for a while now. The 1980s saw a huge upswing in "death squads" and "militias" that could do for their masters and those who rented them things that governments couldn't admit to doing. And, as in the case of the most successful band leaders of the Hundred Years War, some of their leaders and some of the brokers are rich and respected today, sitting at desks in the halls of government or taking part in behind the scenes "peace negotiations."

Darn, I'm going to have to rewrite the last few lectures in World History...

Image: From an MSNBC story of 2005, American contractors who quit because of the brutality routinely committed by others.

Update: A relevant column from today's Washington Post.

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