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Death and Disappearance: Inside the World of Privatised War

The rise of private armies is taking over government operations overseas. Almost gone are the days of U.S. troops and "boots on the ground," The United States has become more devious, treacherous, and more deadly by hiring professional hit men to fight their wars.


Hired guns are, as the cliché goes, the world’s second-oldest profession. For much of history they were how wars were fought. But by the 19th century, nation states with their own armies were emerging as the dominant model, and mercenaries were squeezed out of the picture. The companies that did exist were few and tended to operate in the shadows.

All this changed after 9/11, and in particular, with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon needed to respond quickly to the chaos engulfing the country. The easiest and least politically costly way of freeing up more troops to fight was to hire contractors to do everything else - protect diplomats, bases and cargo. Between 2003 and 2008, the United States spent a total of $5.3 billion on security firms in Iraq. New companies sprang up to profit from the opportunity, among them Sabre International Security.

These firms were hired to protect assets, not to engage in fighting. But as a company called Blackwater demonstrated when its guards shot 14 civilians dead in a Baghdad square in 2007, the lines can easily blur in a war zone. After the Blackwater scandal, the industry and its government clients scrambled to introduce voluntary professional standards. Soon, the US was winding down its presence in Iraq, and public concern about the ‘privatisation of war’ faded.

The private security industry, however, did not go away - it evolved. Some firms were consolidated into larger entities through a process of buyouts and mergers. Many changed their focus to more discreet and profitable areas like cyber security and intelligence. Others carried on servicing the market for so-called hard security services, which got a boost from new government clients like China, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates. The usefulness of contractors as a low-profile way of waging war was meanwhile noticed in other countries like Russia, where new firms started to grow.

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