Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror

Licensed to Kill: Robert Young Pelton

Blackwater is the best known of the private military contractors (PMC) in Iraq. There are a number of books out now about PMCs and mercenaries — I chose Pelton’s Licensed To Kill because of his reputation and his previous books. He *likes* going to incredibly dangerous places like war zones, finding the local warlord, talking to him, then leaving alive after making a friend.

In one part of the book he went on his own to a military encampment on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, an encampment of a US military / black ops group that officially Does Not Exist. After a bit, they trusted him enough to talk, but did ask how he got there without getting killed. So, I figure an adventurer like Pelton is highly qualified to write about PMCs.

PMCs, for the most part, provide security in the form of the Personal Security Detail (PSD). In Iraq, PSDs protect important dignitaries, shuttle people to and from Baghdad Airport, that kind of thing. They are not mercenaries (soldiers for hire and available to the highest bidder.) But the boundaries can blur. If fired on, PSDs will fire back, and Pelton details multi-day battles they’ve been through.

Transporting people to Baghdad Airport is seriously dangerous. PSDs generally go in a squad of several heavily armored cars with machine guns and lots more weaponry too. Under the State Department rules, if a civilian car comes up on their convoy too fast or slows down too much, the PSD is permitted to open fire to back off the car. If the car doesn’t respond, they are permitted to kill. Can’t see how this will be winning many hearts and minds in Baghdad. But then some of those cars speeding towards them are attacks. PSD members are regularly killed and maimed by car bombs or in ambushes.

PMCs and their contractors have protected legal status. Under US occupation rules, they can not be charged with any crime in Iraq. Trials, if they occur, must happen in the US. Grotesquely unfair and abusive policies like these have understandably enraged the populace and led to reprisals. In one instance, documented in a widely distributed video with an Elvis soundtrack, contractors fired apparently without warning at cars. After a long investigation the reports were classified and no one was charged. (As an aside, I wonder how someone who shoots at cars that aren’t doing what he wants can ever readjust to civilian life.)

Pelton often makes the point that most contractors are in their 30’s-40’s, had been in the military engaged in covert operations, and couldn’t find much demand in civilian life for their specialized job skills. The pay for a PMC contractor in Iraq is $600 a day or so. But that’s for a 24/7 week, which works out to about $25 an hour.

Most PMCs see their business in strictly capitalist terms. They provide trained teams to do specific jobs and bill out at three times what they pay the contractor, just like any job agency does. Jobs can be subbed out several levels deep, with everyone getting their piece of the governmental money pie. Even with that, sometimes it can be cheaper and more efficient for the military to use PMCs rather than doing it themselves. Sometimes PMCs do a better job than the actual military, as witness one attack described in the book where Blackwater fought back while the Coalition force was paralyzed into doing nothing.

But where does it end? At the top level, the PMC executives are plugged into the political and governmental power structures, make huge sums of money, and often able to route around damage or bad publicity to continue their business of being hired guns. Well, not all of them of course. PMC executives are hardly ever anyplace dangerous. They contract everything out. If a contractor is killed, the next of kin gets $64,000 – from the government. The contracts make it clear if anything happens, the PMC is not liable. Even with that, there are ongoing lawsuits, like from the families of four Blackwater contractors who were killed in a Fallujah ambush. Their bodies dragged by cars, then hung from a bridge. (An autopsy showed they were almost certainly killed by bullets in the opening seconds of the attack.)

Pelton points out that Blackwater can’t settle the lawsuits even if they want to, because this would set a precedent that would destroy the entire contractor apparatus they’ve set up. So, in the end, it’s (surprise) about making money. Should someone get killed or maimed, that’s their problem. This is capitalism at its most exploitative.

There are also the outright mercenaries, hired to attack and kill, often working with a government (or insurgents) with their real objective being to get control of the natural resources of whatever country they’re fighting in. The South African company, Executive Outcomes, is profiled here in all their dubious glory. They were the model for future PMC and mercenary companies to come. It doesn’t always end pleasantly for mercenaries either, as witness Niek du Toit who is currently doing thirty years in an Equatorial Guinea prison for attempting a coup there. The coup cover story was they wanted to restore democracy to the country,. But in actuality, it was a privately financed plan to grab the oil riches of that nation instead. Democracy had nothing to do with it. Sound familiar?

Pelton generally keeps an even tone. One of the few times he expresses an opinion is about Jonathan Keith Idema “a transparent criminal” and a small time loudmouth who ended up running a private prison and torture chamber in Afghanistan until being jailed for five years there. That the US military had to know what Idema was doing makes the whole business of unregulated and unmonitored loose-cannon contractors scary indeed.

Blackwater plans to become a full-tilt PMC capable of launching aggressive attacks anywhere. In other, they want to be mercenaries. Given that company’s obvious huge patriotism and US military background, they unquestionably would not back anything not supported by the US government. But what of other mercenaries almost certain to come who will sell themselves to whoever? Not that backing the imperialist aims of the US is a good thing, not hardly at all. But Blackwater, who by all accounts are highly competent, would not be a rogue agent. Other mercenary companies almost certainly will be.

Once the US leaves Iraq (and they will), PMCs will have to do some serious downsizing. Obviously, they will resist this, and resist the ending of the war. As my friend DJ at Asymptotic Life eloquently blogs.

War: Someone always benefits

In politics, they say “Follow the money.” In analyzing a conflict, the concept is similar: look for who benefits. There’s almost always some group or person that benefits from the conflictâ┚¬â€ and they have a vested interest in keeping the fighting going.

[tags]Robert Young Pelton, Licensed to Kill[/tags]


  1. Excellent review. I would point out, however, that without sympathetic leaders at the highest level of our governmenht, the PMCs would not have the clout to keep the war going on their own– unless they branched out into unsanctioned ops. When I say “Someone always benefits,” usually, on the “State” side, those people find their way into the highest levels of government where they CAN resist peace efforts– or often, appear to support peace while subverting it with every move.

  2. At the top of the PMC food chain in the US is Kellogg Brown and Root who are a subsidiary of, you guessed it, Halliburton.

    Which, I think, amply demonstrates your point.

  3. Bush and Cheney have their own private army at their beck and call.

    Bush sent Blackwater personnel into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to “police” the place.

    Bush had Republicans in Congress authorize spending for $385 million in “detention centers” around our nation.

    Bush had Republicans in Congress strip our nation’s governors of authority over their state’s national guard units.

    Blackwater reportedly is building a third “training center” on the West Coast, to go along with their “training centers” in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

    Bush signed an executive order giving him (and Cheney) sole authority over our nation in case of an emergency, bypassing the U.S. Congress and the courts completely.

    Hmmmm, I believe I see a pattern emerging…a NAZI pattern. Now all Bush, and Cheney, and Rove, and Gonzales have to do is dress up in NAZI SS uniforms and the picture would be complete.

  4. A point that needs to be emphasized about these “contractors ” is that they
    operate outside the Law , military and civil , ie. ‘ to kill with impunity ‘

  5. Good review of a good book. Like it or not, war (like just about every other capital-intensive venture) is being outsourced. And because of the profits involved I’m pretty sure that the corporate powers behind the PMCs could be quite “party-neutral” should the Democrats retake the White House. IOW, it will be business as usual for PMCs, regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.

    BTW, ignore the rantista at; the person behind it just uses it to game searches about Idema in order to discredit Pelton and anyone who’s got the goods on that two-bit hustler. The fact is he was never part of some US operation. Just a media whore and whack job. There are tons of other sources out there about him. And Pelton himself is very approachable about the subject.

  6. […] Young Pelton, author of “Licensed to Kill. Hired Guns in the War of Terror” was interviewed on NPR after Blackwater head Erik Prince testified before Congress […]

  7. The book answers many questions regarding “contractors” in Iraq and Afganistan. I was naive enough to think the “contractors” killed in fallujah were there to build roads or buildings rather than a security detail. This book puts a face on the people who not only run Private Security companies but gives the circumstances under which this type of disease could flourish as a quasi part of our government and forgein poloicy. The entire existence of these groups and their employment by the defense department speaks of the sickness of our government and the betrayal of everything America has stood for since its founding. I am a patriot but not in the modern definition. I believe in the ideals of the declaration of Independence and that all are created equal and individual rights are not negotiable or can be abridged in times of emergency. The incidious nature of the current administration’s abuses of our system and government are the greatest threat to our existence as a nation since the civil war.

  8. […] är länkat ovan): Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater,  Znet, Robert Young Pelton: License to Kill, Politics in the Zeros, CorpWatch om DynCorp som är ett av de största legosoldatsföretagen, Wikipedia om Private […]

  9. […] more on PMCs, check my review of Licensed to Kill. Hired Guns in the War of Terror by Robert Young […]

  10. […] Licensed to Kill. Hired Guns in the War of Terror, (reviewed here) Robert Young Pelton says that among private military corporations, Blackwater has a reputation for […]

  11. […] Young Pelton also explores this in Licensed to Kill. Hired Guns in the War on Terror. Many of those who contract for private military corporations like Xe (formerly Blackwater) have […]

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