Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Private Military Contractors

From Outsourcing Sacrifice by Mateo Taussig-Rubbo:

I wish to draw your attention to another problem: the contractor’s relation to the traditional understanding of sacrifice, which has undergirded Americans’ imaginings about those who kill and are killed on behalf of the nation. There is an important tradition in the U.S. that says those who die and suffer for the country are honored in a certain way. Soldiers are eligible for medals and other honors; they can be buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery; their deaths are included in the body counts released by the Pentagon. We expect the president to acknowledge those deaths and to explain why they were meaningful. Although the reality often falls far short of these ideals, as we saw with the scandal surrounding soldiers’ inadequate treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the fact that this was seen as a scandal presupposes the tradition I am describing.

This tradition should prompt us to ask about the place of sacrifice in a democracy. For generations, military service and citizenship were thought to be intimately linked. How should the burden of defending the country, or advancing its interests globally, be distributed?

Using paid contractors, especially those who are armed and are U.S. citizens, complicates the tradition of honoring military sacrifice. At the moment, contractors are officially excluded from the forms of recognition extended to soldiers. If we think of them as mercenaries, this seems legitimate. Yet before we dismiss the contractor as a mercenary, we need to keep in mind the way in which calling a death a sacrifice can function as a form of accountability between officials and the public. If the government can deploy private military contractors to supplement its conventional forces, might that make it easier to get involved in a war?
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