Project Valour IT and supporting the severely wounded

A couple of months ago I had the priviledge to meet Captain Dennis Skelton who was working at the Pentagon with the severely wounded. Dennis is a great kid and has been at least a few news programs to talk about the program (Dennis himself was severely wounded by an IED attack on his Stryker unit in Iraq).

Oddly enough, minutes before I read that Armchair Generalist relayed a call to bloggers to support Project Valour IT, I just dropped an email to Dennis and a private sector individual looking to contribute to the same cause. 

Calling up Military Severely Injured Support (click here for info about the unit) at the Pentagon to follow up on the info AG posted, I learned the following, which I’m passing along for your information:

  • The Pentagon already coordinates with Soldiers’ Angels, the sponsor of Project Valour IT (see details on the project here).
  • Additional resources for mil support can be found at Amerca Supports You, a sort of clearing house of support information run by the DoD.

Just passing along the information…

Artillery Usage, up to OIF

MunitionsWhile researching cluster munitions, I came across this interesting chart in a 2004 presentation available from DTIC. Highlights from the brief presentation are below:

  • Non-precision munitions still have a role – but need more accuracy and less volume
  • Area delivered munitions problematic
  • High dud rates with cluster munitions vs. unitary warheads
  • Artillery round precision & collateral damage
  • Continued effort needed to improve responsiveness of precision fires
  • Improvements to Battle-Damage Assessment needed

One Year Left for the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction

I don’t know if this is related to the budgeted party celebrating victory in Iraq, but shutting down the SIG could buy a few more ice sculptures for added ambiance. The John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (HR5122), the full text available here at THOMAS and here on GovTrack, terminates the Office of the Inspector General on "October 1, 2007, with transition operations authorized to continue through December 31, 2007." Clearly we’ll be done with reconstruction in the next eleven months…

Paving the way for US Military Operations in CONUS

Just quickly, here are a few interesting highlights on expanding DOD activities within the continental United States (CONUS) from the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (HR5122). The full text is available here at THOMAS and here on GovTrack. I have highlighted some parts I found particularly interesting, but I’d be interested in reading what Opinio Juris and other legal websites have to say about this. 

Continue reading “Paving the way for US Military Operations in CONUS

If you’re going to oppose Private Military Companies, understand the issues first

We've been hearing for a while about private military companies seeking to jump on the Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) gravy train. Blackwater has been notably vocal in this, most recently in a Washington Times article and on Slate. Typical opposition goes like this, from the Glittering Eye:

Nearly 400 years ago Europeans met in desperation to solve a problem: war without end; war everywhere; war against everyone. The solution they came up with led to modern nation-states. States have a monopoly on military force.

Continue reading “If you’re going to oppose Private Military Companies, understand the issues first

On mountains…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms
their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
— John Muir

Book Review – Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror

Licensed to Kill is Robert Young Pelton’s broad survey of the modern world of mercenaries. Strike that, of contractors. Mercenaries, after all, as Doug Brooks of IPOA (International Peace Operations Association) said in the movie Shadow Company: anyone convicted as being a mercenary should be shot along with his lawyer (Doug, pardon my paraphrasing). Regardless, Pelton’s subtitle captures what these guys are: hired guns. Or as one of the contractors in the book put it: “guns with legs”.

Pelton’s book is (or can be) a quick read. It’s conversational, often with the feel that you’re sitting in a pub having a beer while he tells you a story (as you do in his World’s Most Dangerous Places books). For me, however, it wasn’t a quick read. I found myself highlighting sentences, scribbling in the margins, and applying colored flags for quick and future reference. Pelton may challenge the journalist\ community with how he gets into the action (journos not always being the type who will ride with the bad guy when something might happen), but this is how he gets the facts, the story, and the respect that opens doors later. A perpetual cycle, his access gets him more access and so on. Unlike other others who seek to justify a point of view, Pelton comes off balanced, telling it like it is and, very importantly, with context.

Licensed to Kill is more than a narrative of private operators, it is almost a forensic look into the use of private military forces. High profile actors in the world of hired guns, such as Erik Prince and Blackwater, Tim Spicer, Simon Mann, and Michael Grunburg (profiled deeper in Three Worlds Gone Mad) of various ventures, and even a con-artist who’s convinced he’s the greatest American hero.

This book is a great resource the pulls the curtain aside to see how the firms operate and their motivations, and where they are being used. If you’re not provoked to learn more, you’re not paying attention.

There have been numerous references to this book on this site, look for more in the future. There’d be more now in this review, except Ioaned out my copy…

American Mercenaries of Public Diplomacy

The United States increasingly relies private military companies to carry out its foreign policy. This is a statement of fact and yet it is a bit dodgy to say. In “contested” spaces such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (inside Pakistan actually), Philippines, Colombia (don’t forget the American contractors still held there), Africa (West, East, you name it), the Balkans, etc., private military companies and their contractors carry out the will of the President. Perhaps more importantly and clearly less recognized is the direct and lasting impact these contractor have on the local populations they interact with.
From training military forces in the Balkans to compelling warring parties to meet at Dayton, to providing personal security to Hamid Karzai, Haitian dictators, and more, these companies extend the foreign policy options of the United States in ways too few care to see or appreciate. In March 2004, a most public example of their utility in shaping the image of America happened in Fallujah when contractors were ambushed, burned, dragged through the streets, and ultimately hung from a bridge. The attack on these men was not motivated by their higher pay. These men were attacked as agents of the United States Government (specifically the CIA). The fallout from this ambush was arguably a milestone in the Iraq War as the war of images, perceptions, actions, and words heated up against the United States.

Other examples of contractors representing the United States on the ground include the infamous Aegis video. However, perhaps more long-lasting are the impressions made by our non-security contractors. Failures to build schools, bridges, and other facilities will stand as demonstrations of how the Americans did not truly want to better Iraq. We don’t have to look to KBR and other firms and allegations of running empty trucks on dangerous routes in order to bill the US Government more money. No, we can look at companies that performed like Custer Battles that through greed did their own part to sabotage our efforts at peace and stability in Iraq. The same can be said of the sadistic contractors in Abu Gharib who got little actionable intel from their inhumane treatment (it is hard to argue they didn’t create more enemies globally than they tried to learn about through their actions).

This isn’t to say all contractors or their companies are corrupt. There are good men with good intentions working hard and giving their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, contractors, whether they are the “bad apples” or good guys doing good, shape the perceptions of America and our mission in troubled areas of the world. The reasons the Executive Branch turns to contractors in lieu of US Government resources varies from a lack of political or economic capital or expediency or political favoritism. Whatever the reason, private contractors are agents of the United States.

The private military industry in general has a direct and immediate impact on foreign populations which American policymakers and the media do not see or accept overall. Although the media has been increasingly critical, it has thus far largely relegated project failures and shortcomings to the company and barely connected the company back to the US and local populations now altered perception of America and its power.

In the case of Iraq, the private military industry is frequently in the “last three feet” of contact with the Iraqi public. Waving guns, driving the wrong way and ready to pop a round into a radiator of a “deserving” vehicle in a (appropriately) paranoid environment (see the US Army view of this activity in Afghanistan), they operate with immunity (relative or actual) and radically and substantially alter Iraqi public opinion of Americans and America by their behavior. These contractors do not wear the uniform of the US military and yet this “Coalition of the Billing” directly represents the US and the “Coalition” whether we like it or not.

In the war on terror, when “hearts and minds” are needing to be won, or at least not pissed off, how are these de facto agents of the US, which the US does not acknowledge as extensions of the US Government, contribute to shaping the perception of the US?

Do they contribute to the American image at all?

At the University of Southern California, on October 17th, 2006, I will be hosting discussions that will look at the private security industry in Iraq, looking beyond the Haliburtons and Custer Battles and into the realm of the armed contractors who frequently are in the ‘last three feet’  of contact with the local population. At 6p, there will be a screening of the movie Shadow Company (, followed by a question & answer session with a panel of experts:

  • Nick Bicanic, the movie’s producer / director (confirmed)
  • Robert Young Pelton, author / adventurer; his latest book is Licensed to Kill (confirmed)
  • Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch,, author of Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation (confirmed)
  • Dr. Robert English, USC Professor of International Relations (confirmed)
  • A Former Blackwater contractor with 6 tours in Iraq (confirmed)

Sponsored by the Center for International Studies, with support from the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, this event aims to increase awareness about the impact of the private military industry, notably the private security contractors. Some of the questions to be explored: If war is ‘not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument’, what is the impact of outsourcing war on foreign and domestic policy? Does the state cede ownership and responsibility of this violence in a way that is different than traditional notions of ‘plausible deniability’? To what degree do the armed contractors represent the contracting state in the eyes of the local population and to what effect?

Private military companies, as employed by the United States, impact international relations, domestic politics, public diplomacy, and even the vocabulary of reporting on war. Please join as they ask these and other questions after the screening of Shadow Company.

Date: Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Time: 6p – 9p
Location: ASC Auditorium Theater (G26)
Cost: Free

A video of the of the Q&A will be available online after the screening.

(It is noteworthy that the USC Center for Public Diplomacy does not support this event and refused to include it in its regular email newsletter. This is even more interesting as I am a grad student in the public diplomacy program at USC and had to find sponsors and supporters outside of CPD to put on this event. The discussants, whom I knew previously due to my work on private military companies, agreed to come for the price of a hotel, for the cost of gas, or for free.)