WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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Contractor or mercenary?

I've struggled with what to write about the story in today's Washington Post, but it seemed too important to just let it ride.

The article is an excerpt from a new book by Post reporter Steve Fainaru, called "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq." The article, while sad, is definitely worth a read.

The story of the life and death of Jonathon Coté puts a very human face on the shift in how contractors have been used in the Iraq War.

Coté worked for a security company and was kidnapped and killed. Fainaru raises important questions about the policy implications of using private contractors to fill security roles in a war zone. Coté's company provided security for convoys, people and facilities.

At 23, his death is sad and the fact that his death and the deaths of other contractors is largely ignored is a shame. Apparently, no records are kept of those deaths, except by the individual companies.

While I recommend the story, one thing that kept jumping out at me was Fainaru's uses of the word mercenary to describe Coté and the other security guards.

I know Fairnaru is trying to make a point, that he believes that the government has gone too far in how it uses contractors. I'm not sure I would call them mercenaries, but I'm not sure what the right word is.

Is Fairnaru off-base? If contractors are fighting battles for the U.S. government, which is what the use of the word mercenary implies to me, then it makes me wonder what is the definition of "inherently governmental?" How far is too far?

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Dec 01, 2008 at 9:54 AM

Reader Comments

Thu, Dec 4, 2008 Michael Lent DC

We need to recognize that now by law and regulation, security contractors are treated differently from other contractors, such as a BearingPoint or SAIC, in Iraq. The inherently governmental gray area is real, but we have to remember that we now use thousands of private security FTE to defend the force and facilities at hundreds of domestic locations where national defense and homeland security needs to be safeguarded. They, too, might have to shoot to kill. As for warzones, as a taxpayer, I'd much rather have a (qualified, supervised, coordinated with the military) security contractor than pay for all that is involved in the lifecycle of a military person. Yes, it ought to be less expensive; it isn't because of poor acquisition planning and execution. There's no shortage of supply.


"Encarta Def. 1. soldier fighting for money - a professional soldier paid to fight for an army other than that of his or her country"Fight in a military sense is seek out the enemy and destroy not protect and defend which is a security function.Cote certainly did not seem to have a fighting responsibility."Encarta Def. 2. somebody interested only in profit - an employee who works only for personal gain" One wonders if this could be applied to Faimaru?

Wed, Dec 3, 2008 Steve LeSueur ARLINGTON VA

Here is Fairnaru's explanation from a WP web chat on Monday explaining why he uses the term "mercenary." By the way, he is referring only to companies that provide security services, and not contractors in general.Question: When you spoke with men like Mr. Cote, was there much resistance to using the term "mercenary?" Do they prefer being called "security contractors," or are they generally unconcerned with semantics?Steve Fainaru: Most of the security contractors do not use the word mercenary, and many are offended by it, for exactly the reasons you suggest. I chose to use it because I think it's important to call the job what it is: these are people who are fighting the war for money. That is their primary motivation for being there. Some have argued that because they are operating in support of the US-led coalition, and not a foreign government, they do not meet the definition. My point is that the companies hire not only Americans but also hired guns from other countries that have nothing to do with the Iraq war. They work side by side. So the companies are mercenary, but some of their employees are not? To me, that's parsing it too far. And Private Security Contracting, to me, is a meaningless term. It obscures more than it describes, like collateral damage and improvised explosive device.

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