The Uncounted Contractor Casualties

In the last two-to-three years, contractors have increasingly absorbed the most significant cost of our military actions. And contractor casualties are unlikely to decrease.
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Of all the things said and written about private military and security contractors working for the U.S. government in various war zones, one of the least discussed is the sacrifices they make. And like regular military forces, they also pay the ultimate sacrifice, as in dying. Unlike regular military personnel, their deaths rarely get any notice, aside from a company press release and a few paragraphs in the hometown newspaper.

Their sacrifices are so unrecognized that if Washington, D.C. were to build yet another war memorial on the mall, The Tomb of the Unknown Contractor would have to be considered a viable candidate for selection. To paraphrase the old saw about regular military forces, one might say in regard to recognition of contractors wounded and killed, "nothing is too good for our contractors, so that's what we'll give them. Nothing."

Admittedly, there is slightly better recognition of the wounded and dead contractors than when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq -- but that is not saying a whole lot. There simply has not been much detailed analysis of this subject. That is why a recent paper strongly deserved attention. It is "Dead Contractors: The Un-Examined Effect of Surrogates on the Public's Casualty Sensitivity," by Prof. Steven L. Schooner and student Collin D. Swan, both of the George Washington University Law School, and is forthcoming in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy.

In the paper, they examine the "casualty sensitivity" effect. Economists define this as an inverse relationship between the number of military deaths and public support. Currently, most studies suggest that "majorities of the public have historically considered the potential and actual casualties in U.S. wars and military operations to be an important factor in their support."

But Schooner and Swan believe this effect is being undermined by the use of contractors and merits reexamination. Sadly, the unrecognized fact is that,

The military is populated by a "blended workforce" that integrates soldiers with private-sector contractor employees -- comprised of both U.S. citizens and, to a large extent, foreign nationals -- in every conceivable aspect of the mission abroad." Not surprisingly, one result of this integration is that contractors are dying alongside -- or in the place of -- soldiers at unprecedented and (arguably) alarming rates. For the most part, this "substitution" has taken place outside of the cognizance of the public and, potentially, Congress.

Just how much risk are contractors exposed to? The authors note that on today's battlefield, the ratio of U.S. troops to contractors has never been lower. While the number of contractors employed by the military varied from conflict to conflict, historically, the ratio of contractors to troops averaged around one-to-six. Other than Bosnia, the last decade witnessed the U.S. government's first sustained operations where contractors consistently outnumbered troops in the battle space.

The Congressional Research Service recently reported that private security contractors are four times more likely to be killed in Afghanistan than uniformed personnel. As a consequence, contractors are inevitably bearing a larger portion of the casualty rate. The paper notes that cumulatively, contractor deaths account for over twenty-five percent of total losses since the U.S. entered Iraq and Afghanistan. But even that dramatic figure understates the extent to which -- in the last two-to-three years -- contractors have increasingly absorbed the most significant cost of our military actions.

And despite the fact that U.S. troops have been withdrawing from Iraq and will do the same in Afghanistan starting this year, contractor casualties are unlikely to decrease. A number of actions work against that. These include:

  • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates plans to reduce the number of Army and Marine ground forces by as many as 27,000 troops within the next three years.

  • On February 1, 2011, Army Secretary John M. McHugh suspended the Army's current effort to insource work from contractors and subjected all future insourcing proposals to rigorous review.
  • As the State Department prepares to take over the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified in early 2011 that he expects his staff to more than double in size within the coming year, from 8,000 to 17,000 people; most of that personnel growth will be contractors.
  • The outsourcing of military responsibilities is not limited to DOD but extends well into other agencies, such as the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The paper attempts to total contractor casualties to date. They leave out certain categories, such as contractors working for other states or governments and non-military/non-contractor U.S. civilian deaths, such as fatalities amongst non-uniform employees of the U.S. Department of State, the Agency for International Development, or the various Defense Department agencies -- so the following figures understate the total.

    Still, the number is more than large enough to merit attention. According to the data, "more than 2,300 contractors have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (in addition to another 58 contractors killed in Kuwait) between 2001 and the first quarter of 2011. Another 51,000 contractors have been injured; more than 19,000 at least somewhat seriously. This reflects the startling fact that contractor deaths now represent over 27 percent of U.S. fatalities since the beginning of these wars."

    In Iraq more than 1,537 contractors, about a quarter of the overall U.S. death toll in that country, have died since 2003. In Afghanistan, the 763 dead contractors represent approximately one third of U.S. deaths in that country.

    What is even more striking is that -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- contractors are bearing an increasing proportion -- annually and cumulatively -- of the death toll. According to the authors, DBA fatality claims by contractors in 2003 represented only four percent of all fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2004 to 2007, that number rose to twenty-seven percent. From 2008 to the end of 2010, DBA [Defense Base Act] fatality claims accounted for an eye-popping forty percent of the combined annual death toll. In 2010, contractor fatality claims represented nearly half (forty-seven percent) of all fatalities. In the first quarter of 2011, contractors represented forty-five percent of all fatalities.

    So contractors get killed, you say. Certainly tragic, but one can say the same about regular military casualties. Why do contractor casualties matter then? The answer, according to the authors, is:

    All of this matters because of the idea, inherent in our democratic notions of governance, that public support (or public consent) is critical to any successful military action abroad... Unfortunately, the number of military casualties no longer tells the whole story of human sacrifice associated with military actions... In fact, a massive contractor presence permits the administration to suggest, and the public to believe, that our military presence on the ground is smaller -- by as much as half -- than what is actually required to accomplish the mission.

    Thus high contractor casualties produce a substitution effect that artificially reduces the public's perceived human cost of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- quantified by some exclusively as soldier casualties.

    There is a lot of fascinating detail in the paper which I don't describe here due to space limitations, so let's go to the author's conclusion:

    An honest, accurate tally of the human toll of military conflicts plays a critical role in a representative democracy. Yet the public, the media, and American policy-makers currently lack relevant, accurate data. The pervasive deployment of contractors on the modern battlefield requires the injection of contractor deaths into the casualty sensitivity equation...

    Perhaps most importantly, we encourage the media to report responsibly on the true human costs of the government's contemporary military actions. This tally, particularly to the extent that it proves inconsistent with conventional wisdom, is important for the public -- and Congress -- to grasp and internalize both the level of the military's reliance on contractors and the extent of contractor sacrifice. Increasingly, contractors make the ultimate sacrifice, and that sacrifice merits respect and gratitude. Ultimately, the public weighs the intangible benefits of achieving foreign policy objectives against the most tangible costs imaginable -- the lives of those sacrificed to achieve those objectives.

    In weighing that balance, all lives must be counted.

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