The armed security contractor in Iraq makes an appearance on the collective American radar only when events get so ugly they won’t go away: the charred bodies of four Blackwater guards swinging from a Fallujah bridge in 2004, the 17 civilians reportedly killed by Blackwater men in a Baghdad square in September.
Mostly their presence—anywhere from 20,000- to 70,000-strong depending on who’s counting—moves on a battlefield that, in the words of the 1980s television series “Tales of the Darkside,” is “just as real, but not as brightly lit” as the news we see every night. They kill, bleed on the side of the road, and recover with stumps and prostheses, just not at Walter Reed Medical Center.
Richard Zbryski put the shadowy existence of the private parallel army in cold, hard perspective when he described how the body of his brother, Walter Zbryski, a 56-year-old retired New York City firefighter, was shipped home from his job as a contracted truck driver in Iraq. “What really upset me was that he was laying there floating in 6 inches of his own body fluids,” still wearing his bloodied clothes, with half of his head blown away, Zbryski told the Chicago Tribune.
His brother was one of the more than 1,000 civilian contractors killed since the war began. More than 180,000 remain in Iraq today. Most are unarmed, doing everything from feeding and providing basic services to the U.S. military to constructing bases, transporting equipment, and rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure.
But it’s the hired guns and spooks—the tens of thousands of guards protecting diplomats and VIPs, government buildings, reconstruction projects and convoys, plus prison interrogators—who bring into focus the fate of the mission and the implications of privatizing the military. They have people wondering what new breed of mercenary super-soldier American money is buying.