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'Killers for Hire' panel addresses complex issue of private military contractors

What's the difference between a private military contractor and a uniformed member of the armed forces?

"When I work a 14-hour day in the Air Force, I go home tired," said Cornell law student James Saeli. "When a private military contractor works 14 hours, he gets overtime."

Saeli, president of Cornell's chapter of the American Constitution Society and an Air Force veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, was one of five panelists at "Killers for Hire: An Investigation of Mercenary Armies," before about 75 people in Myron Taylor Hall, Nov. 13.

Speakers addressed a range of issues related to the controversial subject of private military contractors, specifically the hiring practices, actions and accountability of such companies as Blackwater Worldwide. Segments of a 2006 documentary "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" also were screened.

With reports that the September killings of at least 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians shot by Blackwater personnel guarding a U.S. Embassy convoy were found by federal authorities to have been unjustified and in violation of standards for using deadly force, the panel could not have been more topical.

However, private military contractors perform many jobs, not just security, Saeli said, from food service and maintenance to engineering, and many of these people are veterans.

"Trust me, when you get out of the military, your skill set isn't very large. There isn't a lot you can do. These guys do work they are familiar with and get paid five to 10 times what they made before," he said, noting the demoralizing effects these private contractors can have on uniformed soldiers.

Judith Reppy, professor of science and technology studies, attributed "the historical puzzle" of hiring more private military contractors in the United States, a nation with the largest defense budget in the world, to a long-term trend in the privatization and outsourcing of government functions, particularly by the Bush administration. If the idea was to save money, Reppy said, the record is not clear.

She said, "[Former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's commitment to the [privatization] of military affairs -- a commitment that sent us into Iraq without enough people on the ground to do what we said we were going to do" -- has led to disastrous consequences.

Montse Ferrer, a Cornell law student with experience as an elections observer in Spain and Latin America, argued for banning some aspects of private military contractors while regulating other activities.

"Some things they do are necessary and good," she said, such as to protect humanitarian-aid workers in hot zones, as other speakers later pointed out. "But a line needs to be drawn more clearly as to what they can and cannot do ... what is the government's function? What should be contracted out? ... There is not a clear distinction, and there needs to be."

Nor is it very clear what to do in terms of accountability, noted David Wippman, Cornell vice provost for international relations and professor of law, clarifying that private military contractors are not mercenaries and most do not qualify as combatants as these terms have very specific meanings. They operate outside the usual disciplinary framework of national and international law, he said.

He added that the Bush administration forged an agreement with the Iraqi government that private military contractors were immune from Iraq law. If the Blackwater contractors charged in the September shootings are considered civilians in the employ of a company, then they could be prosecuted for a number of violations. However, finding a formal means to bring them to justice through legislation or international convention, Wippman concluded, "is a big challenge we're only beginning to address."

Matthew Evangelista, professor of government and director of the Cornell Peace Studies Program, questioned the very need for private military contractors and whether the use of private military contractors might "allow governments to get involved in the wars the public would not otherwise support."

Evangelista suggested one alternative to the messy issue of private military contractors: "Bring back conscription."

The panel was coordinated by the Cornell chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which also is sponsoring "Military Contractor Awareness Week" the week of Nov. 12 in conjunction with other campus groups across the country. The NLG is a membership of progressive civil-rights attorneys and public advocates.

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