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Home > Reviews > Private Security Companies during the Iraq War

Private Security Companies during the Iraq War

Author Scott Fitzsimmons

ISBN No Hardback: 9781138844261

Review date 19/06/2019

No of pages 238

Publisher Routledge

Publisher URL

Year of publication 09/08/2016


Private Security Companies during the Iraq War - Military Performance and the Use of Deadly Force by Scott Fitzsimmons, hardback: 9781138844261

Our Review


£ 90

Not all private military companies are alike - and certainly American contractors were not all alike, when they did work inside Iraq after the 2003 war, according to a scholarly study.

Besides the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, the belligerent Blackwater contractors - who ‘tended to employ violence against suspected threats more quickly, at greater distances and with a greater number of bullets’ as Scott Fitzsimmons puts it - were a controversial feature of the years after the invasion of Iraq. Fitzsimmons goes into the tactical violence carried out, the military culture of Blackwater - and the different one of another contractor, DynCorp - and how the norms of company culture (drilled into recruits by instructors, for example) affected tactical behaviour in an emergency, and how many casualties resulted (including ‘friendly’ casualties). Fitzsimmons points out that Blackwater and DynCorp personnel did their work differently, with different results; Blackwater killed many more, yet intriguingly had a lower casualty rate (although Blackwater lost more personnel than DynCorp). The author points to Hart, ‘a British firm with a well-earned reputation for passivity, known to have killed only a single person during the war and is not known to have injured anyone’. Likewise Control Risks was never known to use violence; yet both British firms lost employees, and indeed clients.

As a result of what the author terms ‘15 minutes of carnage in Nisour Square’, in Baghdad in 2007, that saw Iraqi civilians killed and injured by Blackwater guards, negative headlines were written (and on the internet cannot be unwritten), ties were severed, contracts lost, and efforts made to retrieve reputation - new brands and company names. Smooth PR, and graphic design so that your logo looks less aggressive, cannot undo what men with guns and boots on the ground make.

Was more violence good for the carrying out of the security contract - the protection of assets? Certainly - as the American Army manuals and enlightened military opinion stated, if you alienated the locals, you were in effect helping the insurgents, for instance by running civilian cars off the road, leaving (to die) shot people and acting generally like untouchables. The author suggests that the very firing off of bullets at suspected threats - that is good for protecting yourself in a hostile zone - also makes those security personnel a menace to everyone else.

Fitzsimmons closes with the implications. Blackwater had a more ‘bellicose culture’ and was more likely to inflict deaths. As a ‘violence-prone’ firm, it drew ‘negative news coverage’ - and other firms that did not provoke such a backlash, including the Iraqi Government, did not get a good press. As in any contract, and just as it takes two to tango, the contractor did what its customer told it or allowed it to do. Clients of private security services, Fitzsimmons suggests, ‘should take a more active role in overseeing the work of the firms they hire’. If you’re hiring private armed forces, the author advises, ‘evaluate the militaryculture of the firms vying’ for business. How are personnel encourage to behave - do whatever they feel they have to, to keep the client alive? Fitzsimmons does point to the other side of the coin - hiring a more passive security firm, or being not well armed enough for the threat, can be deadly. Here he raises the 2012 attack on the US diplomats in Benghazi; ‘at least 60 gunmen swept through the front gate’ on the eleventh anniversary of 9-11, and three employees of the British security firm Blue Mountain were unarmed. What might a quick reaction from Blackwater or a Blackwater style force have achieved? Fitzsimmons correctly does not state that a Blackwater team in the ambassador’s compound that night would have saved his life; but he does say that Blackwater would have put up ‘a much more determined defence’.

In a political world where, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and allies are evidently unwilling to send in their armies or peace-keepers, meaning more call on private forces, the question is moot about what sort of force tax-payers or the United Nations would get for its money. In a forensic book, Fitzsimmons lays out how - as ever - the buyers of services can make a choice of the service they pay for; if they want to take pains over it. Culture, the author sums up, ‘can have a powerful effect on the behaviour exhibited by a firm’s employees’. To his credit, Fitzsimmons sets out the security contractor’s point of view; when given the job of protecting an ambassador, for example, you cannot explain away a moment’s or a day’s error - by saying for instance that the contract went really well, until the principal got killed. And yet as Fitzsimmons adds, ‘a firm interested in its long-term survival cannot place personnel and client protection above all other considerations’. Survival of the client can come at a humanitarian cost. In extreme and violent situations, just as in peaceful markets, it seems that the basic principles of the service sector apply.

A reasoned book about how well contractors can behave in warlike places and times, and a powerful argument that men do have a choice even in extreme situations over the use of ‘deadly force’. Thus a profoundly humanistic work for men of politics besides the security contractors themselves and the military to consider.