The Cornell chapter of the National Law Guild held a presentation yesterday on the United States’ utilization of private military contractor companies and the dilemmas that ensue as a result of their employ.
A part of the Cornell Law-sponsored Military Contractor Awareness week, the presentation, “Killers For Hire: An Investigation of Mercenary Armies, ” addressed concerns about the perception of the U.S. in the global and domestic communities due to the actions of private military contractors.
“We are concerned about crimes against humanity committed by agents of our country with impunity,” said Michael Siegel grad, a member of the National Law Guild, who introduced the presentation. “This [discussion] is a commitment to truth telling and dialogue, two things that are sorely lacking in this country,” he said.
The presentation was comprised of an excerpt from a documentary around which a panel discussion was held. The film, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, documented the presence of private military contractors, notably Blackwater World and Halliburton Corporation, and the adverse impact it has had on both Iraqis and Americans.
James Louis Saeli grad, president of the Cornell chapter of the American Constitution Society and a veteran of the Air Force, emphasized the prevalence of private military contractors.
“Contractors are extremely pervasive in the military. They do a lot of the same type of work,” he said.
Saeli explained that most contractors are military veterans. He said, “when you get out of the military, your skill set isn’t very large.”
Prof. Judith Reppy, science and technology studies, a former director of the Peace Studies program, noted that it was something of a “historical puzzle” as to how the United States, which has a defense budget that accounts for approximately half of global military spending, has a need for the private military contractors.
She attributed the current situation in Iraq to a combination of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s efforts to restructure the American military as well as a trend towards privatization of government duties.
“It’s a result of a long running trend [of privatization] and a set of particularly bad decisions on the part of the Bush administration,” she said. “The outcome has been disastrous.”
Montse Ferrer grad discussed the dilemma of how to handle actions of the private military contractors.
“[Private military contractors] do a wide variety of things, many military, but many not so military,” Ferrer said. “In theory, what they’re contracted for is security. Generally, they’re not soldiers.”
Ferrer noted four options to deal with the increasingly unwelcome presence of private military contractors.
“We could ban them out right, accept them as they are now, accept them and regulate their actions. Or, we could ban some of them and regulate the others,” she said. “It is very important to draw a line between what they are doing and what they should be doing.”
Prof. David Wippman, law, vice provost for International Relations, agreed with Ferrer over the confusion as to how to handle the private military contractors.
“There have been private soldiers as long as there have been wars. But, the number of them has been expanding exponentially and will likely to continue,” he said. “There is a question to their legal status, whether they are combatants or civilians.”
Wippman explained that depending on how the private military contractors were classified, different laws apply.
“They are definitely not combatants for legal purposes, but nor are they civilians,” he said. “Laws do apply to them, but finding a way to prosecute them is difficult.”
Prof. Matthew Evangelista, director of the Peace Studies Program, questioned the purpose of private military contractors.
“We don’t really [need private military contractors]; they’re part of a sort of fad that dates back to the time of a former Secretary of Defense named Richard Cheney.”
Evangelista addressed the impact private military contractors have on governments.
“They allow governments to get involved in wars that the public may not support, but so does low voter turnout,” he explained.
Evangelista also said that lessening the role of private military contractors would require changes that would not be well-received by the public.
“Changing things could potentially bring back the draft, which may not be a bad thing because it would force people to be more responsive to the government and pay attention to what’s happening,” he said.
One audience member questioned the difference between the military and private security contractors and why the presentation focused solely on the latter.
“There is very little distinction between military and private military contractors,” Saeli agreed.
“Both groups have contracts, the difference is the ‘private’ part.” Wippman added.
Another member of the audience commented on the appeal of the private military contractors to members of the American military, noting that many soldiers perceive their time in the military as a track towards a high-paying job.
“There is a way out of that,” Evangelista said. “The government could limit contracts and raise benefits for soldiers.”
Saeli said he understands of the appeal of private contractors. “When I work for14 hours in the air force, I go home tired,” he said. “When a private military contractor works 14 hours, he gets overtime.”