Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, May 9, 2004
by Susan Ives

When I was a lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division, I was the adjutant general-forward. In layman’s terms, that’s the personnel officer who wallows in the mud with the snakes and armadillos while the brass lounge in their air-conditioned headquarters sipping champagne. Or at least that’s how I saw it.

The first time we deployed for a field exercise, my boss and I went through my packing list. Concertina wire, check. Machine gun, check. Copy machine … copy machine?

“That copier breaks down once a week!” I told the major. “We’re supposed to be practicing for the battlefield. What do I do when it breaks — call the repairman?”

Ha, ha, ha. I waited for his answering chuckle. Instead, he handed me a slip of paper.

“The phone number for the Xerox office,” he said. “They’ll send someone.”

The copier lasted three days in the swamps of Louisiana, where we were pretending to liberate Haiti. I patched through a call.

A few hours later, someone called a chirpy “Yoo-hoo!” at the entrance to my tent. It was a man in a suit and tasseled loafers, toting a briefcase. I was in limp fatigues, a gas mask strapped to my hip and a rifle slung over my shoulder.

I hated that repairman.

When I returned, I dogged my major with questions. “What if we really went to war? Would he pull up in his baby blue Honda if bombs were dropping? Is he covered by the Geneva Conventions?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” my boss replied.

Well, we’ve come to the bridge, and it’s time to cross it.

There are 15,000 private contractors from about 180 companies working in Iraq, doing everything from food service to oilfield security to interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

But my questions from 25 years ago remain unanswered. Will they be there when the bombs fall? And what is their legal position on the battlefield? Corporations have proved hesitant to expose their civilian employees to the dangers of war.

Late last month the German engineering firm Siemens, hired to build a power generation facility in Kirkuk and a mobile phone network serving northern Iraq, significantly reduced its staff because of worsening security conditions. General Electric also suspended work on several power plants.

Soldiers have to stay. The copy machine repairman doesn’t.

The legal position is murkier yet.

The 1st Geneva Convention of 1949 (Section II, Article 13, if you want to look it up) seems to be the only reference to contractors, and it refers only to the treatment of the wounded and sick. It covers “persons who accompany the armed forces without actually being members thereof.”

Mercenaries are explicitly excluded but are narrowly defined. A mercenary, according to the Geneva Conventions, “is any person who is specially recruited in order to fight in an armed conflict, who takes a direct part in the hostilities, who is motivated by money and is promised substantially higher pay than that paid to other combatants of similar rank, who is not a national of one of the countries involved in the conflict ….”

The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported in March that Blackwater USA has hired 60 Chilean commandos who worked for former dictator Augusto Pinochet to provide oilfield security in Iraq. The Johannesburg Sunday Times reported that Gray Branfield, a security contractor killed in Iraq last month, was admittedly part of a 1981 death squad that gunned down the African National Congress’ chief representative during the apartheid era.

Nice guys. Are these gun-toting security guards mercenaries or contractors? Last summer Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, issued a decree that requires all non-Iraqis accused of crimes to face punishment in their country of origin.

And after civilian contractors escaped prosecution for running a prostitution ring in Bosnia, Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows criminal proceedings against Defense Department contractors working abroad.

But for now, the contractors seem to be operating in a lawless shadowland.

Allegations about rape and torture in Abu Ghraib prison highlight the ambiguity.

A Central Command spokeswoman said, “One contractor was originally included with six soldiers, accused for his treatment of the prisoners, but we had no jurisdiction over him. It was left up to the contractor on how to deal with him.”

That’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Rogue contract employees cannot be given a get-out-of-jail-free card while soldiers working under their guidance are subjected to the full force of the military justice system.

Will someone call the repairman? There are some laws here that need to be fixed.

Share This