Paravant LLC, an arm of defense contractor Xe, formerly Blackwater Worldwide, has admitted to involvement in an incident in Kabul early this month: several off-duty Xe contractors were involved in a car accident with a vehicle they believed hostile, and subsequently shot at it. Disciplinary channels will sort out the facts of the encounter, but the immediately noticeable detail is that off-duty contractors are not supposed to carry weapons. The inflammatory detail, and Blackwater’s notoriety, obscure another pertinent fact: in a war zone, there is no such luxury as “off-duty.”
The United States is actively engaged in several armed conflicts around the world. Its military is stretched thin, its defense budget jeopardized, its soldiers tired. Many have been deployed for years, on unexpectedly lengthy tours, and even reserves have felt the pinch. Record numbers of Army reserve units have been called to duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As active fighting consumes the majority of military resources, necessary support structures are left dangerously under-staffed.
Defense contractors like Xe are effective gap-fillers. Private contractors provide the requisite support, from flying transport planes and guarding food convoys, to protecting American diplomats and training foreign police units. In dangerous countries, contractors risk their own lives in furtherance of American goals. They perform a function as necessary to American victory as it was when their professional forebears, Hessian mercenaries, fought alongside outnumbered and out-gunned American patriots in our own Revolutionary War.
It is often the case that private industry moves at a more efficient clip than the Federal government does. In the case of defense contractors, the clip is all the more efficient because of the pressures of the field: mistakes aren’t a matter of beaurocratic review and audit, but of life or death. And while unnecessary violence is never to be condoned, it must also be understood that America’s soldiers, and the contractors who support them, are hardly engaged in a high school debating contest. They are not in a gentle country, and they were not sent there because of any local love of peace and tranquility. While peace must always be the ends, the means must unfortunately sometimes be violence. When that violence requires an out-sized proportion of America’s armed forces, the infrastructure positions which provide for the mechanics of peace are left to private industry, and companies like Xe are contracted with accordingly.
The methods of contractors will, and should, always be subject to the strictest scrutiny and the most severe discipline. But methods aside, the necessity of these men and women, and the trying conditions in which they earn a living, are not to be easily overlooked.