Book Review: A Bloody Business: America's War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq

An element of private military companies is the rediscovered opportunity to join “the fight” without joining a public military organization. Reasons for taking the private route include being too old, too unfit, short-term goals (i.e. quick money, <1yr commitment, the experience, etc), flexibility of choice, or any number of other reasons. The fact is private military companies providing security, logistics, and other services in and around the modern battlespace is re-democratizing war.

Looking at the private military industry operating in Iraq, in A Bloody Business Colonel Schumacher reviews many of its varied components beyond the almost cliche private security details (the shooters). From construction to trucking to training and even the security contractors, the author profiles elements of the private military industry as under-appreciated, undervalued, and, in many of his examples, highly patriotic.

This is a book heavy on cheerleading for the private contractors as individuals without spending too much time on the question of the appropriateness of the industry. These men and women do not get the same insurance, logistic support, fire support, medical support, or equipment the public armed forces receive. In return, they get the opportunity to serve at their leisure, higher pay, and little recognition. This book attempts to correct the latter as “[n]either a glorification nor a cheap shot-riddled exposé”, as the back of the dust cover describes it.

Indeed, most of the reviews on Amazon and other sites echo this sentiment: “…the incredible amount of dangers they face, often times it is more than money which motivates them. For the majority of the contractors, it is their chance to serve their country” and “[t]hey are no less patriotic, no less courageous, than people in the military.”

Colonel Schumacher glosses over the issues behind the tremendous increase in using private military companies in the last decade. He largely attributes the availability of skilled security resources as a result of “Up-or-Out” policies, but this is a narrow reading of reality. There is more there than that, especially military downsizing etc but like most of the political arguments, Schumacher oversimplifies to spend less time on the intellectual analysis (and long-term realities) and more on the daily realities of the contractor.

Interesting is his observation of the multicultural and multiethnic make up of PMCs, which reminded me of the democratic and ethnically blind pirates of the 17th Century as described in Benerson Little’s excellent book, The Sea Rover’s Practice (reviewed here previously). The comparison is not meant to suggest a similarity between pirates and private military companies beyond the organizational and motivational parallels between these non-state forces that operate with paradigms different from the societies they come from. One example is a more democratized operation that includes dropping the discrimination found in their contemporary societies -- if they are operating on the same team or ship that is.

When Schumacher does explore the raison d’etre of PMCs use, he has both hits and misses. One "hit" is when he writes: “[b]ecause contract operations do not get the visibility that military operations do, the true cost, in terms of lives and impact on US foreign policy is disguised. As a concerned public, we need to be far more aware and informed about where, when, and how the United States employs these firm.”

However at the same time he misses the point by just including barely a page in his 262 page book on the political realities, but yet frequently returns to the point of the under-appreciated and under-supported contractor and their value. The latter is clearly the point he wants to make and does not want to delve into the politics behind their use like most other books on the subject. This is somewhat refreshing to a reader new to the subject but the human story should not outweigh the concern we the public should have over their deployment. The focus of the book is clearly to tell the story of the “unsung hero”. Schumacher makes no attempt to connect private military contractors with the evolution of war, which isn't his purpose anyways.

That all said, the book really is a good read and good on first person (almost whole chapters are told by the participant with only setup by Schumacher) accounts. The focus on non-shooters is almost refreshing. At times reading like a novel, it is a quick read.

I was once asked for a reading list that included first-person accounts of private military companies in action. Just a few months ago, I was pressed to provide anything, but I'd include this on a reading list for another -- non-academic -- perspective.