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Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

ERSM Video Follow Up (Updated)

Following on the post about BIAP Road / Route IRISH video on this site, I was contacted by someone who knew and had served with in the military with one of the KIAs in the video. The loss of a buddy or a family member is difficult and reliving it on video may intensify those feelings. Our exchange over email prompts me to write this post (that and the large number of hits I get on the BIAP post).

The purpose of posting the video is to, as I explained to the friend in private email, highlight the difference between realities. The differences between the corporate AAR and the Yeager AAR are interesting, but not something I will get into. This is something for you to see and read yourself. Many, especially the mainstream media, ask what our government is thinking by allowing it and who is really benefiting from the war?

There are two critical questions here and "what is our government thinking" is one. First, what was the government thinking? The military wanted more forces and the Administration said no. We had enough to win the war but not enough to win the peace. While some may argue this was a difference of opinion in defining war (see comments), it is an issue of defining and understanding purpose and goals.

The purpose of changing the "regime" required a force to maintain order post-conflict. It required civil affairs and "reconstruction" crews to move in immediately to maintain or impose order, as the situation dictated. As we saw post-Katrina, it is too easy for civil society (and we’re supposedly more civil than Iraq) to breakdown in the absence of basic services and not meeting basic needs.

Keep in mind that criminal and power-hungry elements were able to seize power in the vacuum we created. Why were the military leaders, present and former, including General Shinseki and General Wesley Clark, ignored? Why is some 25% of the reconstruction budget spent on private security?

The roots of this quandary, as I see it, may be found in the increasing civil-military relations divide in the United States. Far from the President not visiting Dover and Rumsfeld using a signature machine to sign condolence letters, we have Executive and Legislative branches increasingly separated from the military. The success of the Administration to hide the effects of the war from the public and allow us to keep watching baseball and football, fill up our Hummers, and bet on March Madness without distraction means ignoring the nearly 2,500 KIA and nearly 20,000 wounded. But that does not explain the use of private military forces to provide security for "persons, places, or things".

Most often the accountability point is placed on the table as the primary reason for the US to field, or allow the fielding of private military force. Sometimes the first point raised is avoidance of what’s been referred to as the Dover Test: the test the President and his policies goes through when a flag-draped coffin lands at Dover Air Force Base. Those pictures don’t happen unless an airman snaps an illegal photo of the coffins. This isn’t the place to delve deeper into the reasons, but one might suggest obfuscation of the security dilemma created by the White House strategy (against the advice of some military strategists) and the ability to deploy security forces to the benefit of some and without Congressional or military oversight that would accompany ‘public’ force deployments. One might also suggest over-extension as a contributing factor.

The result is more important than the reason. Operating with the explicit permission of the USG, the use of private military companies are more than the tool of American foreign policy, they are conducting foreign policy at (too often) their own discretion and under their own rules. Their actions are, also too often, represent face of the United States government and society. In other words, this is foreign policy and public diplomacy by proxy.

Even if one disputes the
Clausewitzian notion that war is "not merely an act of policy but a
true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse,
carried on with other means", the local population on the ground
invariably see the force, public or private, as representative of
American force, and by extension American foreign policy.

So why not increase the ‘public’ force to provide this security? Besides the above stated reasons of why PMCs were initially engaged in such large numbers, the White House was concerned about the perception, this would create in, mostly, if not exclusively, the US. Keep the numbers the same or similar through stop-loss was better than deploying more troops. Remember the arguments against deploying more then look at troop deployment figures.

PMCs, like ERSM, provide a service the Administration did not want to provide through the military. Whether or not ERSM, Blackwater and other firms did all that was possible or reasonable to prevent tragedy is ultimately the result of failed oversight. If a military unit failed to properly plan, provision, or execute, there would be repercussions. The implicit firewall between PMC and State and DoD both encourages distance and discourages adequate oversight to prevent and punish failures. This firewall doesn’t have to exist. As the client, contracts can be written to require certain standards of performance, excellence, and punishment. However, there is a long history to tell us how relationships with defense contractors will go. This isn’t true of all contractors, but it can happen too often and just as often, arguments over the use of PMCs fail to consider the fact the USG has the right and obligation to faithfully execute our foreign policy and conduct public diplomacy to protect and advance our country.

When ERSM does not provide armored vehicles and Blackwater does not provide a fifth or six gunner and possibly violates OPSEC by asking directions at a hotel, the fallout is on the United States even if the White House and Rumsfeld and Rice wants to refer to the deceased as "only" contractors. But they do refer to them only as contractors and fail to acknowledge their contribution to our image overseas, let alone in theater. 

The bulk of the PSC operators are good, well intentioned (and experienced) guys. The bulk of the PSCs operating in Iraq are unknown to the general global citizen / observer because they fly low and avoid the radar. Unfortunately, bad things happen and PSDs are there with limited reserves / support and it seems sometimes the corporate drive interferes with the military mission. It probably happens more often. Sometimes they’re lucky and sometimes not.

Just a few thoughts. The video isn’t exciting, it’s sad. Good men die what may have been preventable deaths.