DATE July 9, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: P.W. Singer discusses the role of private military
firms in today's wars
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The war in Iraq was fought with the help of private military firms. So were
the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. These for-profit companies are
changing the nature of war, the American military and armies around the world.
They are corporations that specialize in military skills, including combat
operations, strategic planning, intelligence, operational support and
training. Private military firms have helped fight for democracy. They've
also been hired by dictators and drug cartels. Kellogg Brown & Root, Dyncorp,
MPRI and Vinnell are among the best-known private military firms.
My guest, P.W. Singer, is the author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The
Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." Singer is a foreign policy fellow
at The Brookings Institution and is the coordinator of the Brookings Project
on US Policy Toward the Islamic World. He's also working on a book about
child soldiers. I asked him, though, why the private military industry has
grown so much in the past decade.
Mr. P.W. SINGER (Author, "Corporate Warriors; Foreign Policy Fellow, The
Brookings Institution): Really, there's three changes that came together at
the start of the 1990s that led to the rise of this industry. The first was
essentially political. At the end of the Cold War you had massive military
downsizing, around six million less soldiers in the world, not just in the US
military but also the Soviet military, the East German military completely
disappeared, South Africa and etc. At the same time you had an increase in
demand. You had all these wars popping up all over the place that not only
these smaller militaries were deploying to--the Bosnias, the Kosovos, the
Somalias--but you also had a number that they weren't deploying to, like the
Sierra Leones of the world or the Liberias. And this led, again, to a gap
that the private military market moved to fill.
The second major force was essentially sort of technologic or strategic.
Essentially warfare itself is changing in the way we carry it out, and in
particular there's a heightened role of technology within it. Only this time
it's technology that we're pulling from the commercial sector rather than the
reverse, and so it's private companies that specialize in this area.
And then the final was an economic shift. Essentially it's a shift in
ideology about the way we go about business in public affairs, and it's called
the privatization revolution. And it's basically this growing belief among a
number of key thinkers, particularly within government, that if private
industry can do it, then you should turn it over to them. The question that
raises, though, is that sometimes it isn't always better to turn it over just
because private industry can do something, but that's a whole 'nother can of
GROSS: Can you give us an overview of how private military firms have figured
in so far to the war in Iraq?
Mr. SINGER: They've been all over the place in the war on Iraq. Actually,
what's interesting is The Economist magazine actually called the Iraq war the,
quote, "first privatized war." Private military firms handled everything from
feeding and housing the US troops, building our bases in the region to
maintaining some of our most-sophisticated weapons systems, everything from
the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-117 stealth fighter. They ran the computer
systems on a number of Navy ships. For example, I had spoke to a reporter who
was embedded, and he was actually surprised when he got on board a US Navy
guided-missile destroyer and he found that there were 20 different contractors
from four different companies on board this ship with him running the computer
systems, running the air defense systems of this ship. They also helped
operate a number of weapons systems. For example, the Global Hawk unmanned
aerial vehicle, which was this robotic plane that collects intelligence and
does targeting for us; that was not just the maintenance of it, but the
operation of it was privatized.
At the end of the day the ratio between private military contractors, and US
soldiers was one contractor for every 10 US soldiers, which is actually a
tenfold increase since the '91 Gulf War. In the '91 Gulf War the ratio was
1:100. Now we've gotten to 1:10. And it's actually probably going to grow
during the period of the occupation of post-Saddam Iraq. Some of the areas
that private contractors are taking isn't just the reconstruction roles that
we've heard about, but also, for example, building up the new police force.
The Dyncorp company, which is based in Virginia, just got that contract. It's
a rather controversial company--to training and building the new post-Saddam
Iraqi army. The Vinnell company just got that contract. And some people may
have heard of that name because it was targeted recently in Saudi Arabia in
May, 2003. One of its corporate sites was bombed by al-Qaeda. So, again,
these companies, you often hear about them just behind the headlines, and
that's the case also in the war in Iraq.
GROSS: It's not just the United States that is hiring these private military
firms within the Middle East. There are other countries--Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, maybe other countries beyond those--that are hiring private military
firms. What are some of the other countries doing, and who are they hiring?
Mr. SINGER: That's actually one of the major concerns about this industry
because what we're talking about is not a national industry in any way. It's
a global industry. It's not based in any one country. And, in fact, if you
try and shut down a company in one firm, it'll just move somewhere else.
These companies operate in over 50 different countries, pretty much in every
conflict zone in the world. Within the Middle East, for example, Saudi Arabia
is a key user of this industry. The industry operates essentially as an
enabler for its military. They do everything from train their military to
advise it. The Vinnell company is one of the key ones there, Northrop
Grumman, Boeing Services, BAE. But they also do things like run their air
defense network as well as help train some of their internal security forces
as well as do the maintenance work on pretty much all their air force jets.
But Saudi Arabia is no exception. These companies have operated in everywhere
from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola. You go to Latin America, they're very
present in Colombia and Peru. They're all over Central Asia right now. And
one of the worries, again, is: Who do they work for? In some cases they work
for the US government or our allies. The British government and Australian
government are at the forefront of this privatization trend. But also, in
some cases, for some people we'd rather not see get very good military
capabilities, countries at war that we'd rather not see at war. Ethiopia and
Eritrea were two countries that used these services against each other. Or
non-governmental groups that we particularly would not like to see get this.
Drug cartels in Colombia have hired these guys, actually used them to help
carry out a bombing of a civilian airliner. And also some jihadi groups
linked to al-Qaeda actually used some of these firms for military training.
So that's the problem of having an unregulated industry in this most important
area of warfare.
GROSS: And it is totally unregulated?
Mr. SINGER: There is no regulation at the global level that directs its
activities. The only thing that even applies closely in international law are
the anti-mercenary laws. The problem, though, is that the anti-mercenary laws
are so badly written they only apply to individuals, they only apply in
certain situations. One of the jokes within the industry is if you were ever
to be prosecuted under these anti-mercenary laws, not only would you deserve
to be shot, but your lawyer should be standing beside you because he deserves
to be shot, too.
When you go to the national level, it's the same kind of problems. Some
countries don't have any regulations applied to them. Other countries have
limited ones that apply. The US, for example, has some regulations that apply
to US-based firms. They have to be headquartered in the US. And essentially,
really, they mean if these services are given to clients other than the US
government, they have to go through an approval process through the State
Department and the Pentagon. That approval process is often unclear. Often
the firms are able to lobby their way through it. Congress usually doesn't
pay attention, and usually the companies get what they desire.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is P.W. Singer. His new book is
called "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."
He's a fellow at The Brookings Institute.
What's one of the examples of how a private military firm appears to have
saved the day in a conflict?
Mr. SINGER: That's one of the true dilemmas about this industry, is that on
one hand they're companies that are working in warfare solely for profit.
They're not doing it because they're good guys; they're doing it because this
is their job. And so in some cases, though, that often directs them towards
good ends if the right forces come together. And the classic example of that
is Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone. I have a chapter on this. And
Executive Outcomes is a fascinating company. It was started up in South
Africa. It was primarily ex-commandos from the apartheid army. These were
guys that, once Nelson Mandela took power, essentially could not work for the
South African defense forces anymore. So they had to leave because they'd
been on the wrong side but went out and formed their own private company. And
the result was that often they went to work for black African governments that
in some cases they'd operated against while they were in the old South African
In Sierra Leone, the situation was that you had a government that was faced
with probably one of the most evil rebel groups in the 20th century. It was
called the RUF, and the RUF did everything from used a lot of child soldiers,
committed massive atrocities. Its calling card was capturing civilians and
then cutting off their hands. This was about as dastardly a group as you
could ever find. And the government of Sierra Leone had a very ineffective
military and couldn't beat this rebel group. And so they turned to this South
African company, Executive Outcomes, to save the day, to help it out. And
Executive Outcomes deployed very quickly, put hundreds of commandos on the
ground within a matter of weeks. And where the Sierra Leone defense forces
couldn't beat this rebel group, the private military firm went in there and
cleaned their clock in a matter of days. And very soon after, Sierra Leone
had enough stability that it actually had the first democratic elections that
it had had in over a decade.
And a lot of people compare this experience to later on when the private
military firm had pulled out, the UN peacekeepers went in and, unlike the
private military firm, they actually couldn't do anything about the rebels and
the civil war started up again.
GROSS: What did the UN think of Sierra Leone's use of Executive Outcomes?
Mr. SINGER: Well, it actually frowned upon it because it felt that this was
not the way to achieve long-term stability. And it probably was right that it
wasn't the way towards long-term stability. But the government was caught in
a hard place. There was also the concern about the funding structure, on how
you paid for this firm. Again, this was not a firm that did it because they,
you know, felt any kind of kinship towards Sierra Leone or they felt they were
doing the right thing. They were doing it because they wanted to be paid.
Well, the government of Sierra Leone in the middle of a civil war did not have
the monies to pay this firm directly out of its budget. So they struck a kind
of unique deal where there was diamond mines that were in rebel-held
territory. And so the government said, `OK, we're going to privatize these
diamond mines and turn them over to your corporate allies.' And so now that
created an incentive structure for the firm to go out and beat the rebels. If
it wanted to be paid, it had to go out and beat the rebels and seize those
diamond mines. A lot of people weren't comfortable with the government
turning over this national long-term funding source for a short-term issue
like this, but a lot of other people said, `You know what? We have to save
lives at the end of the day.'
But it's a really interesting dilemma they're faced with and it also
demonstrates how the incentive structures can be aligned for good, or
sometimes they don't work out the way you plan. In the Sierra Leone case,
yes, the private military firm went in there and cleaned the rebels' clocks,
but it always focused on going towards the diamond mines first rather than the
broader aims at all times. A lot of the formers members of the company itself
actually said, `You know what? It might have made more tactical sense for us
sometimes to go towards objective A, but objective B was near the diamond
mines, and if we wanted to get paid, we went there first.'
GROSS: So does Executive Outcomes actually control the diamond mines now?
Mr. SINGER: It doesn't anymore. Some corporate allies of it--there was, you
know, investment links between them--does have possession of some of these
diamond mines now. And a lot of people would say, `You know what? It was a
good deal.' Other people would disagree. It's where you fall along this.
Another great example of what might have been is actually this firm was
willing to intervene during the Rwanda genocide. Where the UN was not willing
to go in and where the US was not willing to go in, they were willing to put a
force of around 1,500 commandos on the ground. And estimates of the number of
lives they might have saved go up into the hundreds of thousands. But no one
was willing to pay them and, so--You know what?--they didn't go in.
GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors:
The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors:
The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." He's a foreign policy fellow
at The Brookings Institution.
Let's look at the example in Bosnia. When the US was reluctant to send its
own military into Bosnia, Brown & Root went in and did some work. What work
were they asked to do?
Mr. SINGER: Brown & Root is a fascinating company, or rather it's a division
within a company. A lot of people may be more familiar with its parent
company, which is Halliburton, the vice president, Cheney, used to be the CEO
of. In the early 1990s, Brown & Root, which is a division within Halliburton,
got a very small contract; it was around $3 million. And it was to do the
planning for the possible outsourcing of military logistics, the possible
outsourcing of feeding and housing US military troops when they deployed into
areas where the US didn't have bases. And in the early 1990s, no one thought
it was going to be that big of a contract. But then, when the wars in
Yugoslavia started and then the US military intervened in the mid-1990s, this
contract turned out to be huge. It went from 3 million to being well $1
billion in revenue for the company.
The reason it turned out to be so large is that a political decision was made
by actually the Clinton administration at the time. They realized that it
wasn't all that popular to have US forces in the Balkans and that they didn't
have all that much congressional approval for it, and if we wanted to have a
large force on the ground there, we would have had to call up an extra 9,000
National Guardsmen to handle essentially the supply chain for this force. And
so instead of doing that, they turned over the supply chain to Brown & Root,
and so it meant that you didn't have to call up 9,000 National Guardsmen and
reservists, which would have been politically unpopular. And so Brown & Root
handled the logistics, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo when that war
started up. And so it turned out to be a very lucrative contract.
The irony of it is that at the time Cheney's company was profiting a great
deal from it, and this was in the same period that the oil industry wasn't
doing very well. So this contract actually propped up the company.
GROSS: Let's look at that company Dyncorp, which, among other places, is
involved in Iraq and Kuwait now. They were involved in Bosnia, and there was
a scandal surrounding them when they were there. What was the scandal?
Mr. SINGER: Yeah, Dyncorp is a very controversial firm. It's actually based
in northern Virginia, right near Dulles Airport, and it's a large government
services company that handles everything from information technology
to--certain divisions handle private military services. In the 1990s, it had
a series of contracts in the Balkans. Some of them were to provide police to
the international operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Separate contracts were to
provide maintenance services to the US military there. One of them, for
example, was that it did the repair work on US Army helicopters in the region.
In several of these contracts, Dyncorp employees got involved in some very
nasty activities, particularly within the sex trade. This happened both in
the Kosovo operation and in the Bosnia operation, so in two separate contracts
in two separate countries. Some of the things that they were doing was not
just, you know, participating in prostitution, but actually some of the
employees owned, so to speak, young women. And their Bosnia site supervisor,
so very high up the chain, actually videotaped himself raping two young women.
They were also involved in the illegal arms trade. So it was a lot of bad
activities going on there that certainly didn't represent the US government
well, given that these guys were there being paid for by US government
GROSS: So what were the repercussions of that?
Mr. SINGER: Well, this is where things get worse, and not just the individual
contact, but the potential conduct of the company itself. Two employees of
Dyncorp, one in Kosovo and one in Bosnia, not working together, were troubled
or actually disgusted by the activities of their fellow employees, and they
made it public and they reported on it. They blew the whistle. Both of those
employees were subsequently terminated by the company. And the personnel who
were actually participating in the crimes were pulled out of the countries,
and none of them have ever been criminally prosecuted.
The two employees who were the whistle-blowers then sued the firm for
basically firing them for a bad reason. One of them won her case within
England; it was run through an English subsidiary, so there was a case there.
And then Dyncorp lost that case, and actually the tribunal that judged it
found their argument for why they fired this woman to be completely
unbelievable. In the second case, Dyncorp very quickly settled with this
other employee who had blown the whistle and been fired. And so what's
worrisome then is not just the conduct of the employees, but how the company
responded to them.
And that's what a lot of human rights activists have been very troubled, not
by just what went on in the Balkans, but by the fact that actually the company
just got the very same contract to train up a new police force in Iraq. And
it's unclear whether the structures that have been put in place have any way
to respond to it again. At the end of the day, what you're talking about is
an absence of law where the Dyncorp employees, because they're private-company
employees, are not held accountable--and it's not just Dyncorp; it's any
private military employees--are not held accountable under the local law
because typically it's in a place where the local law isn't standing up--it's
a failed state--and they're not held accountable under US law because it's
extraterritorial--it's not taking place in the US--and they're not held
accountable under US military law because these guys are not wearing the
uniform. And yet, at the end of the day, to the locals, they are representing
the US government, even though they're not accountable to us.
GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of "Corporate Warriors." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the difference between private military firms and
mercenaries. We continue our conversation with Peter Singer, author of
"Corporate Warriors." And we meet writer and doctor John Murray; his new
collection of short stories is based on his work analyzing epidemics of
dysentery and cholera in Africa and Asia.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with P.W. Singer, author of
the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military
Industry." It's about private military firms, corporations that have taken
over many of the functions usually supplied by armies, including combat
operations, intelligence and maintenance. When we left off, we were talking
about some of Singer's concerns about the privatized military industry.
Another one of your concerns about private military firms is that they can be
used to circumvent certain restrictions on American military presence in other
countries; for example, this appears to be happening in Colombia. How are
private military firms being used in Colombia? And what are the restrictions
on American military there?
Mr. SINGER: Well, one of the unique aspects of this industry is it now allows
you to carry out public policy by private means. And what's going on in
Colombia is you have at least seven different private military firms that are
operating in the civil war there. In some cases, they're working for the US
government, filling roles that US soldiers wouldn't be able to fill, working
with Colombian military units active in the civil war as opposed to--US
soldiers can only do counternarcotics work. In other cases, you have private
military firms working for either the Colombian military directly or for
multinational corporations there carrying out activities that US military
wouldn't be able to.
And the concern is this is something that the Congress certainly hasn't
approved, and something that the US public isn't in favor of. And the most
recent example of how this can go awry is the shoot down--actually, the crash
landing of the California Microwave Systems plane that now has three private
military firms held captive by the Colombian FARC rebels.
GROSS: So the Congress has restricted American military troops
to--What?--about 400 in Colombia?
Mr. SINGER: Yeah. We've put a cap--or rather, Congress has put a cap on the
number of US soldiers than can go there and the kind of jobs that they can do.
The aspect of the industry is that it moves faster than the government can
often respond, so industry was then used to fill some of these areas outside
of this cap. So then Congress wised up to it, and said, `OK. We're going to
restrict not just the number of US soldiers, but we're also going to restrict
the number of American private contractors that can go in there.' I think the
cap is around 600 right now. However, again, the companies can adjust and
move faster. They're a business; they're very flexible. So one of the things
that they have done is bring in non-US nationals to carry out these roles; so
they're not American contractors, but they're carrying out the same jobs. Or
you arrange for someone other than the US government to hire them; for
example, a multinational corporation there. There's a number of oil companies
that have used these private military firms for certain activities. And so
the result is you get the same activities but without public policy approval
And some people would say, `You know what? That's a good thing. We need to
get the job done down in Colombia.' And other people would say, `You know
what? If you can't get approval from the public for something, then maybe you
shouldn't be doing it in the first place. And look at all the times where
things don't go the way that you plan them,' either this crash landing in
Colombia or there was a case of where they mistakenly bombed a village.
There's all sorts of things that haven't gone right.
GROSS: Well, who does the hiring? Who decides who are going to hire these
private military firms to do the stuff that the American military can't do in
Mr. SINGER: It's a very open structure, so you either have them working for
the US military or for the State Department, for example. Dyncorp has a
contract officially doing training of the Colombian Air Force and
counternarcotics work, but a lot of people have suspicion that it's moved into
counterguerrilla warfare given the types of planes that they use. They even
have helicopter gunships, which, you know, isn't often used for crop dusting
inside the US.
Then other times it's an open structure, multinational corporations who are
working in cohesion with--the US government and the Colombian government say,
`OK. We'll pay for it. We'll do the hiring. But we'll provide these
services over.' For example, Occidental Oil hired a company called AirScan,
which does aerial intelligence gathering. That private military firm not only
turns over its intelligence to the multinational corporation but passes it on
to the Colombian military that doesn't have this sophisticated capability.
And then in other cases you'll have a gift of foreign aid to the Colombian
government with the understanding that it will then use that foreign aid to
hire an American private military firm. And an example of that was a private
company called MPRI, which does military consulting. It was hired to help
retrain and basically restructure the Colombian military. It filled the role
that American military advisers would have filled in the past, but in this
case it was a different way to pay for it.
GROSS: Are these private military firms doing a lot of lobbying now?
Mr. SINGER: Certainly, and it works in two ways; two types of lobbying.
One's the traditional giving money to political parties. And for several of
the companies the amounts go over a million dollars in political donations.
But there's also another kind of lobbying that goes on that's a bit different.
This industry falls into often sort of the revolving-door syndrome where it's
primarily made up of retired governmental and retired military officers, often
very senior officers. And so they can go in and meet with their former
subordinates, people that used to work for them, and help provide suggestions
and guidance on what they think policy should be, policy that, by the way,
`You might want to consider giving this firm a contract and I'm now part of
And so that opens up another sort of type of lobbying that happens under the
table. And it's a very influential one, because often we're talking about
three- and four-star generals and admirals that can go in and lobby that
people have a great deal of respect for these guys because they gave so much
service to the US government, to the US people. The problem now is that they
are employees of a private company that often has a different agenda in mind.
GROSS: How did you get interested in private military firms?
Mr. SINGER: I actually first came into contact with this when I was working
on a research project linked with the United Nations in the mid-'90s looking
at what was the military situation in Bosnia right at the end of the war. And
the real question everybody was concerned about was: Could the war restart up
again when you had US peacekeepers on the ground now?
The controversial aspect was that you had a private military company called
MPRI that's based in Virginia that was actually training up one of the
adversaries in this conflict. It was providing military training for the
Bosnian Muslim side even though there was a cease-fire in place and you had US
peacekeepers on the ground.
And so I went there and actually spoke with some of the guys within MPRI.
They were very friendly. But what they were doing was something that really
shouldn't exist within our understanding of the way the world works. You had
a private company pretty much determining the balance of power in the region,
and that's something that, the way we understand war, shouldn't happen, and
yet here was this company, here they were doing this job. And so that was how
I first got interested in it, and then it turned out very quickly this company
was in no way unique, but actually there was a hundred-billion-dollar industry
GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors:
The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors:
The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."
What's the difference between a mercenary and somebody who works for a private
Mr. SINGER: That's one of those issues of debate in the industry. In my
mind, there's a couple of key differences between the mercenary practice and
this industry. The first is a mercenary is quintessentially individual and ad
hoc. It only talks about one guy. The mercenary units have no kind of
permanent structure. If they happen, they come together very loosely and then
end whenever the payment ends. They only provide one type of service. They
fight for you; they pull the trigger.
In the case of corporations, they're corporatized so they're not ad hoc;
they're permanent structures. They work in more than one conflict at a time,
they work in more than one place at a time, and they provide more than one
service at a time. They're often providing very innocuous things like feeding
troops or training people on how to use IT systems or they even handle--they
run the ROTC programs in over 200 American universities.
Another difference is the fact that their private military firms are
completely above the board. They're found to be legal, often you can buy
stock in them, whereas mercenaries, obviously--they don't recruit that way.
They do it sort of word of mouth and under the table, and you certainly can't
go out and, you know, buy a share in a mercenary operation.
GROSS: Now you're describing the difference between mercenaries and private
military firms. Are any of the private military companies actually hiring
people who have worked as mercenaries in other wars?
Mr. SINGER: Yes. And that's one of the interesting aspects of this industry
is that it's, in a sense, tapping the labor market that might have in the past
been mercenaries or are still operating as mercenaries in other cases. Many
of these companies have sort of a shell structure where they get a contract
and then hire a number of employees to fill it. They don't have standing
armies. They actually just have big databases of people that they can pull.
So you do have cases of people who had been mercenaries during the past or
might have carried out that job if it wasn't for this industry being out there
today. And that means that, in some cases, they don't have the regard for
human rights that often we would want them to happen, because you get a lot of
unsavory characters, not just, you know, former apartheid guys, but, for
example, there's a lot of people who used to be in the KGB that are now
active in this industry.
GROSS: You know, I'm looking at the cover of your book and there's three men
wearing camouflage uniforms with American flags sewn onto their shoulders, and
they appear to be in the desert. They're looking through binoculars. And if
you open up the credit for the photo, it says that this is a photograph of
MPRI personnel conducting senior observer controller training in Kuwait.
You'd think looking at this that it was American military because they look
like they're wearing military uniforms. Is there any confusion where people
assume that people hired from private firms are actually representing the
Mr. SINGER: Oh, it definitely happens, and it's not just because of, you
know, wearing the exact uniforms. Usually they just have the unit insignia
taken off of it. In the case of the Gulf, you had private military personnel
all over the place. And the scene that's on the cover is of MPRI employees
who provided assistance in the war gaming and planning that was later utilized
in the Iraq invasion. So they actually did their job rather well if you bank
on the success that we had. But the concern is that people on the ground
often can't distinguish between the two, and that can work to the disadvantage
of the public if these employees don't carry out their jobs in the way the US
public would want and they're seen as being US military guys.
But it actually can also work out to the disadvantage of these private
military employees, because there's confusion over what their status is. For
example, if they're captured by an opposition, it's up to the enemy to
determine what kind of status that they have. And the enemy can say, `OK. I
grant that you're a POW and you get your Geneva Convention rights.' Or the
enemy can say, `You're a private citizen; you're a civilian working within the
military sphere and you're being paid more than your soldier equivalents.
You're a mercenary, and I'm going to hang you.' And so that status
issue--right now it's up to the enemy to decide, and so it can work actually
to the disadvantage of these private military employees. So it's actually
very much in their interest for us to clarify all this.
An example of how it's playing out right now is actually in Colombia where you
have three private military employees who are being held captive by the FARC
guerrillas, and we've described them as hostages; the US government has
described them as hostages. And the FARC guerrillas have said, `You know
what? These guys were collecting military intelligence on us. They're not
hostages. We didn't go out and kidnap them.' And so the concern is what
might happen to these guys who are still being held. Layer on to that the
fact that you now have US military guys out there risking their lives to save
these three guys who are held. So it's really complicated and concerning.
GROSS: It sounds like the private military industry has grown enormously in
just the last few years. What are your concerns about that rapid growth?
Mr. SINGER: The most worrisome aspect of it is the fact that you have the
industry booming. It's turned into an industry that has a hundred billion
dollars in annual global revenue. It operates in over 50 countries. It
determines the very outcome of wars themselves. The US government and US
military soldiers are increasingly dependent on these guys for our success in
war, for our very lives, and yet government has moved at its sort of usual
slow bureaucratic crawl to respond to it.
And so we have this really fascinating and, in fact, worrisome instance where,
you know, if I had written a book about this aspect, about private companies
operating in the realm of warfare, if I had written this book a decade ago, it
would have been a work of fiction. And actually when I first started out on
it, I had a professor who said, you know, `This should be a Hollywood
screenplay. This isn't a good analysis.' And actually we now get to the
point where it's not a work of fiction. We're not talking about a `What if?';
we're talking a very fact, and that's, I think, not only fascinating about all
the novel and interesting areas that these companies are involved in, but it's
a bit worrisome when you realize that it's unregulated and we really haven't
caught up to this industry yet.
GROSS: When you add things up at the end of the day, do you think that we
live in a safer world as a result of private military companies?
Mr. SINGER: Wow, that's a really tough question. I almost think it's pretty
much the same. In some cases, the positives--there's a great number of
positives--we get better-quality services in some cases, intervention in areas
where people are afraid to go into, but on the other hand it allows us to
intervene into places that maybe we shouldn't be or carry out activities that
maybe shouldn't be happening. So I think it's sort of a wash.
You know, there's really no industry that you could describe as being
quintessentially good or quintessentially evil. It's really behavior within
industry that determines things. And so just like you have, you know, good
corporate citizens like a Ben & Jerry's, you have the opposites, like an
Enron, and the same thing happens within the private military industry, only
the stakes are a lot higher.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SINGER: Well, thank you for having me.
GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of "Corporate Warriors." He's a foreign
policy fellow at The Brookings Institution.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, doctor and writer John Murray talks about his short stories
inspired by his medical work in Africa. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John Murray shares an excerpt from his collection of
short stories and discusses treating patients in Africa
TERRY GROSS, host:
John Murray is a doctor and writer. He worked with the Center for Disease
Control's Epidemic Intelligence Service, analyzing epidemics of dysentery and
cholera in Africa and Asia. He's also been a teaching writing fellow at the
Iowa Writers' Workshop. Murray has just written his first book, a collection
of short stories called "A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies." Several
of the stories draw on his medical experiences in developing countries.
Here's a reading from his story "Watson and the Shark," about a doctor
treating war refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The victims had
been attacked with machetes. In the reading, you'll hear a triage nurse
referred to as `Made in Detroit,' because she's wearing a donated American
T-shirt with that logo. The doctor is treating a teen-aged boy whose stomach
was slashed by a machete.
Dr. JOHN MURRAY (Author): (Reading) It was a huge abdominal laceration right
through muscle, peritoneum, bowel and a healthy segment of the lower lobe of
the liver. I was assailed suddenly by the warm reek of gut contents and
pulled back sharply. This needed immediate work. The wound was a vicious
cutting injury made with a long, sharp blade, at least 12 to 24 inches long, I
estimated, and this was confirmed by the survivors around me. They had been
attacked with machetes, broad-bladed farmers' implements that were used for
clearing scrub and cutting cane sugar.
I got Made in Detroit to put in an IV line, run in a quick liter of normal
saline and then start a second liter and give the first dose of Ceftriaxone
and Metronidazole. I held off on the morphine because I guessed he was
splinting the wound with his own muscles and didn't want him to relax for the
fear of starting a major bleed.
Made in Detroit talked quietly to the man next to the boy, who was his uncle.
The teen-ager's name was Gabriel(ph), she translated, in his final year at
school and a star player of le football, a center forward who had already
tried out for the national team. All of his family had been killed.
Looking back into the tent, I could see that every eye was fixed on me and I
felt that sense of power and control that I needed then. This was why I was a
trauma surgeon, and I wanted life-or-death, all-or-nothing situations. Life
or death--that was why I was there in the jungle. And I honestly had a
tremendous feeling of being in the right place and of being filled with a
sudden glorious energy.
GROSS: John Murray reading from his new collection of short stories.
As an epidemiologist working in Africa, Murray saw a lot of machete wounds,
although he didn't treat them himself. I asked him about the problems faced
by the doctors who did.
Dr. MURRAY: What people found is that quite often the people who were
severely injured with a sort of a knife wound or a machete wound were going to
actually die, unfortunately, out where they were wounded, often from just
blood loss, where they stood, if you like, and it happened quite quickly. And
they were a long way away from any sort of help, so a lot of those injuries
were fatal, unfortunately.
In fact, you know, in Burundi and Rwanda and in countries that have had that
sort of violence, other public health problems actually ultimately compromise
the majority of deaths, if you like. And by other public health problems I
mean common infectious diseases--like diarrhea, cholera and dysentery were a
particular problem in Rwanda and Burundi--and other infectious diseases that
are sort of endemic in those countries under normal conditions, such as
malaria or pneumonia and so on.
GROSS: You said that some of the things that you had done were undermined or
destroyed by the circumstances of war or poverty. Can you give us an example
of something like that, something that you tried to change or that you thought
you had succeeded in changing and then it was undermined by circumstance?
Dr. MURRAY: Well, Burundi is a good case in point, because we worked there
for some time on establishing a system of managing epidemic dysentery, which
is a big public health problem in that part of the world. And a lot of work
had gone on into set up systems to manage it, to provide drugs, to treat it,
and systems to get drugs out to peripheral areas and systems for monitoring
how well treatment was working and so on. So it took sort of at least five
years. And then so all of that within the space of about three days or four
days, which is when the civil war began, was utterly destroyed; not just
infrastructurally, but from the point of view of personnel. So suddenly all
these people who had been trained and who were good people and who were
working and so on had gone; they'd either fled the country or they were dead.
And I went back later to try and find colleagues that I'd worked with on some
of the sort of dysentery work, and half of them were not there, and half of
them had actually been killed.
GROSS: What was your internal debate like about whether you could make a
difference or not, whether this work was worth it or not for you?
Dr. MURRAY: I really found ultimately that the local people--I mean, I'm
talking about people who come from some of the countries where I've worked and
who are there working now--and how they saw the situation and what inspired
them. And, you know, they remain committed to improving their own countries
under, you know, the most difficult conditions.
I think what they have is, I guess, a sort of fatalism, if you like, a way of
seeing the world that allows them to go on. They have very little, but they
have a great sense of sort of human spirit. And it's that human spirit, that
notion that just the act of trying to make a difference and keeping on going,
will ultimately make some larger difference.
GROSS: When you took the medical histories of patients in civil war or
developing countries, was the process very different than taking medical
histories in the United States? I don't know if you've done it in both
places, but I'm wondering if there were different meanings attached to certain
questions, if certain questions seemed too private, too off limits in some of
the countries that you worked in and if the ways that people had of describing
their bodies and describing their symptoms was very different from what you
were accustomed to.
Dr. MURRAY: It is a big issue when trying to get information from people who
come from a very different cultural background. So for example, rapid or fast
breathing, which we usually recognize as a sign of, say, pneumonia or a lower
respiratory tract infection, in some places it's called, for example, stomach
moves in waves; the stomach moves in waves, which is sort of a--which actually
you get when you have a fast respiratory rate, but they describe it in terms
of what the stomach is doing.
And something I remember very clearly is the term chicken eyes, which is used
to describe children who in Indonesia and in other places, too--children who
are starting to go blind from vitamin A deficiency. When they don't have
enough vitamin A, they start to lose their sight. And in the very early
stages they can see in the day, but they can't see at night. And the way
that's described culturally in some places is as chicken eyes; that is, when
it starts to get dark these little kids run into objects and trip over things
and can't see things properly. So it's sort of very early sign of losing
their vision, and that's what happened--chickens have bad vision at night. I
would not have imagined that that sort of would be sort of a way of describing
it, but it's a very good sort of marker of early vitamin A deficiency.
GROSS: Do you still practice medicine?
Dr. MURRAY: I'm still doing my international health work. I'm doing less of
it, but I'm still making trips to developing countries. I did about five
trips last year, mainly to Africa, to Ethiopia and Ghana mainly. So I am
keeping on going and working on more sort of discrete activities now that are
shorter-term things, but, yes, I am. I mean, I believe in it and think it's
worthwhile and would like to sort of keep helping where I can.
GROSS: Well, John Murray, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. MURRAY: It's a pleasure.
GROSS: John Murray is the author of the new collection of short stories "A
Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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