Later this month in Texas, the movie Shadow Company will make its debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Self-described as a “ground breaking investigative” documentary, Shadow Company explores the origins and “destinations” of private security contractors (PSCs).
Back in January, Onnesha Roychoudhuri interviewed Nick Bicanic, Shadow Company’s director and co-founder of the production company putting the movie out. If you haven’t read the interview, you should.
Not to be redundent with Roychoudhuri, I asked Nick why he made Shadow Company.
"I decided to make this film because I could see that the Rules of War have changed. There was a relevant message about modern warfare that did not come across in other media. While wars are more and more in the public eye – they are also more and more in private hands. Thousands of private security contractors – soldiers for hire – were working in Iraq and I wanted to find out a number of things about them. What exactly do they do? What kind of people are they? What motivates them to do it?"
There are two interwoven themes in the movie. The first is a description and history of mercenaries. The second is the role of private military companies (PMCs), focusing on the subset of private security companies (PSCs), in modern conflict.
This movie will open some eyes, as it should. When you see the movie, go in with an open mind. Afterwards, consider investigations of corruption and bad behavior of firms like AEGIS, CusterBattles and financial improprieties from KBR, etc. The incident with the Blackwater contractors in Fallujah is discussed, but understandably not included is a lawsuit alleging a corporate penny pinching contributed to or allowed the incident to happen in the first place. Also keep in mind that of the dozens and dozens of firms operating in Iraq today, you’ve heard of only a few.
Will you be swayed for or against privatization of war zone duties? According to Nick, an early test screening was polarized: half of the audience felt the movie was biased for PMCs and the other half saw a movie biased against PMCs.
I would have complicated the survey if I were in that early test audience. To me, the movie showed a failure in usage and control. The powers that be intentionally grant too much autonomy to corporate entities and assume the mantle of responsibility is on the company. Nick does a great job in showing how PMCs operate at arms-length from the military; the US Armed Forces are hardly seen or referenced.
Delegation of authority is done without consideration of lost accountability. Academic debate over PSCs frequently begins or quickly gets to issues of accountability. This movie, however, hints at a deeper implicit, if not explicit, leeway USG grants the PSCs. It also highlights the US’s reliance on PSCs, which you, as the viewer, should judge as appropriate or not.
Engaging companies with poor and unsatisfactory track records, even tainted leadership, indicate bad policy. The choice to allow AEGIS to “fail upward” is, in my opinion, central to understanding the impact of PMCs.
Rarely, if ever, discussed is the impact PMCs have on our overall mission, which isn’t military. Interviews with Robert Young Pelton touch on this and the insurgent interview nails it.
If you saw Gunner Palace (see it if you haven’t) and saw a movie about inappropriate staffing (cannon-cockers working missions they weren’t trained for), you’ll probably see what I’m talking about in Shadow Company.
Overall, the film is well-done and thought provoking and does a good job distinguishing between mercenaries and PMCs, which too many people still can’t fathom. Interviews with Robert Young Pelton and Cobus Claassens, and the voice over by Oxford-grad James (an Operator), were excellent.
When you see this movie, ask yourself “What is the real impact of PMCs?” If you’re not concerned after watching the film, you weren’t paying attention.