Like a volcano finally erupting after repeated rumblings, the actions of a Blackwater USA team in Baghdad last month have brought to the surface a scalding gusher of animosity toward the private military industry. Everyone, it seems, has a reason to hate the men in black.
American soldiers dislike them because they get paid a lot more for similar work. Iraqis dislike them because they have become a symbol of infringements on their sovereignty. And many American leftists dislike them because they are seen as war profiteers.
Given all this antipathy, it is easy to assume the worst about military contractors, justified or not. Take the Sept. 16 incident, in which at least 11 Iraqis were killed and which was the impetus for a House hearing Tuesday. Blackwater says its employees fired in self-defense after being attacked. Iraqis claim that the Blackwaterites fired indiscriminately and without provocation. There is no reason to assume -- as so many critics do -- that the more damning version is true, especially because the harshest condemnations have come from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, a notorious hotbed of sectarianism.
Whatever the facts in this particular case (and they are now being sorted out), there is no doubt that there have been plenty of incidents of contractors killing civilians. But then, there have also been plenty of incidents of coalition and Iraqi soldiers killing civilians. That's what happens in a war zone, especially when your enemies don't wear uniforms.
Are some contractors overly aggressive? Of course. But so are some soldiers. Admittedly, the problem is probably worse among contractors. They are not tasked with defeating the insurgency, so they do not have to take into account the feelings of the locals, as soldiers are supposed to do. All they have to do is to get their convoys or VIPs safely to their destinations. (At Tuesday's hearing, Blackwater founder Erik Prince said that although 30 employees have died in Iraq, the company has never lost a diplomatic protectee there.)
Some of their actions in completing their missions can set back attempts to win "hearts and minds," but they do perform a valuable function. Because so many contractors are pulling guard duty (estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000), more soldiers and Marines are free for pacification operations.
Most contractors aren't outlaws or cowboys. Even Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, a critic of the industry, concedes that "most are highly talented ex-soldiers." Though they get paid more than their active-duty counterparts, they have less job security and lack the medical, retirement and other benefits.
Of course they're in Iraq to make money, but the vast majority wouldn't accept a paycheck from just anyone. Most are willing to put their lives on the line only because they are helping the American war effort. And in many cases, they have performed heroically.
In 2004, for instance, an eight-man Blackwater team held off Muqtada Sadr's gunmen, who were besieging a Coalition Provisional Authority office in Najaf. A Marine who fought alongside the Blackwater team (and was evacuated for medical treatment by a Blackwater helicopter) received a Silver Star; if the contractors had been wearing U.S. uniforms, they undoubtedly would have received decorations too.
The problem is that a few wrongdoers spoil the reputation of the rest. There have been far too many instances of companies submitting fraudulent bills, not doing what they promised or hiring unqualified thugs.
The answer isn't to demonize the entire private military industry, at least not unless we want to recruit so many more soldiers that we no longer have to rely on contractors. It would take about 200,000 more soldiers to return the Army to its early 1990s size, when there was much less reliance on contractors.
Assuming that we will be stuck with the mercenaries for the foreseeable future, we need better safeguards to limit their abuses and to integrate them better with the military.
It is outrageous that almost no American contractors have been held criminally liable for conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan, but hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed. You can't blame this shortcoming on the security firms; they don't have the power to send their own employees to jail.
The problem is that there is a gray zone in the law when it comes to contractors on foreign battlefields. Congress has passed legislation to make clear that contractors fall within the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as civilian law (the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act), but neither the Department of Justice nor the Judge Advocate General's Corps has shown much enthusiasm for enforcing these rules. That needs to change.
Beyond that, we need to do a better job of integrating contractors with military units so as to avoid mix-ups such as the one that occurred in 2004 when four Blackwater employees were killed in Fallouja, triggering a Marine offensive. Malcolm Nance, a veteran intelligence operative who has worked as a contractor in Iraq, makes an intriguing suggestion in the Small Wars Journal: Create a "force protection command" within the U.S. military that would be responsible for overseeing contractor operations. This would help make contractors more useful to military commanders.
Under the right circumstances, we could even expand the use of private companies. In the past, I have suggested hiring private firms to end the genocide in Darfur.
Such proposals may seem outlandish at first blush, but only because of the negative reputation, only partly deserved, that mercenaries have acquired over the centuries. If we can figure out how to limit their abuses and hold them accountable for their conduct, it makes sense to continue using "free lances" (as mercenaries were styled in Renaissance Italy) to supplement the efforts of our overstretched armed forces.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World."