Soldiers who fight for pay, rather than for a cause, are generally seen as disreputable. For example, American Patriots hated Hessian “mercenaries.” In contrast, idealists who go to war eventually command a degree of respect. One recent estimate has been that 16,000 Islamist enthusiasts have flocked to the black banner of ISIS. Clearly, ISIS represents a cause worth fighting for in the minds of many young Muslims, just as did the Spanish Republic in the 1930s for many young leftists.
In 1992 the American military began spinning-off many of its logistical and support functions to private contractors. (See: Cry of the Halliburton.) The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to a huge increase in the number of contractors in the combat areas: at their peak 155,000 in Iraq and 207,000 in Afghanistan. These numbers equaled or exceeded the number of US troops present. About as many contractors have been killed in the two wars (6,800) as have US military personnel (6,838). The use of the contractors has raised several concerns.
On the one hand, there is the venerable anxiety over “waste, fraud, and abuse” (WFA). The US paid out $200 billion for “contractors.” In 2008 Congress created a Commission on Wartime Contracting to search out WFA. Inevitably, it found many instances of over-billing and under-performance. Its estimates of spending lost to waste or fraud range between one-seventh and almost one-third of money spent, depending on what they were looking at.
On the other hand, there have been concerns over unjustified violence visited on civilian populations by armed contractors. The case of Blackwater guards who shot-up Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, killing 17 Iraqi civilians, has led to the conviction of one guard for murder and three others for manslaughter.
Still, contractors may be used in the current unpleasantness in Iraq and Syria. President Obama has pledged that there aren’t going to be American combat troops in Iraq. However, no one in the American government wants to totally cede the ground to Iranian advisors either. Using security contractors might offer a way to square this circle. Many of them are veterans of the US or other military forces. They could train Syrian “moderates” (to the extent that anyone can find some) and Kurdish immoderates. They could even be grouped into small combat units to directly engage ISIS forces. Backed up by US air strikes, they might make a useful contribution to the war without a name.
Contractors offer an attractive solution to several sorts of problems. First, having contractors handle logistics, maintenance, and other support functions allows the US military to concentrate its troops on war-fighting. The number of contractors can be expanded and contracted rapidly to meet the circumstance. The alternative would be to maintain a permanent large force of regular troops to handle these missions in both wartime and in peace time.
Second, nobody but their families care if they get killed. Their wounded don’t go to Walter Reed Hospital. They don’t get veterans benefits. The names of their dead don’t get printed in agate type at the bottom of an inside column in the New York Times and their faces don’t get broadcast in respectful silence on the PBS NewsHour. There isn’t going to be a Monument to the Fallen Contractor on the Washington Mall anytime soon.
 “Paid boots on the ground,” The Week, 14 November 2014, p. 11.
 The Iraq War cost at least $1.1 trillion and the long-term price may run as high as $3 trillion. Since the war itself offers an example of WFA, I’m not sure that getting nickel-and-dimed by private contractors should be our first area of concern. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_cost_of_the_Iraq_War