The Violence Economy

The only victors are the ones who get the spoils.

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One of the best ways to completely shut down conversation at a party, I have found, is to drop the term “military-industrial complex” into conversation. At best, you’ll get one bite, which will inevitably result in you being locked into a contentious conversation with one other person while the rest of the people around you find more pleasant and interesting things to talk about. At worst, no one responds, but you plow ahead anyway, and end up wasting five minutes of everyone’s time explaining the R&D process behind Lockheed Martin’s new type of Hellfire missile that has swords inside it instead of explosives.

Unfortunately, none of us go to parties anymore, so this will be a blog about the military-industrial complex.

It takes an enormous number of people to fight a war. In the 21st century the logistics behind how to kill people at scale have gotten very complicated, and doing so requires a truly staggering number of people whose jobs are not, strictly, killing-based. You would be forgive for thinking that most of these support jobs are performed by U.S. servicemembers, considering the past 19 years of aggressive veneration of anyone who has ever worn multicam pants. They are not.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and all of the other countries where the U.S. operates bases or houses its soldiers, including at home in America, a large amount of the labor is performed by “civilian contractors” working for private military companies (or PMCs). This is an aspect of war and of capitalism that does not get very much attention in my opinion. (This is also about the point where most of the other party guests would be moving away from me or “going to refresh their drink.”)

The idea behind this is that by outsourcing various tasks related to killing people to civilian companies, the government can save some money and kill people for cheaper. Unfortunately, according to a new report issued by Brown University’s Costs of War project, it does not work this way. Brown’s researchers found that outsourcing aspects of American overseas commitments has actually increased overall expenditures on war, largely because a small cabal of private companies controls all of it and uses that power to drive up prices while keeping their own costs low. Go figure!

How they do this is very simple. These companies often hire foreign nationals from developing countries whom they pay very little money to do jobs supporting the U.S. military. Many times, they hire citizens of the “host country” (lol) to do these jobs, and pay them slightly better money than someone would ordinarily make in a country whose economy has been bombed to shit by the people they’re now working for. In 2019, there were 53,000 of these people in the Middle East, compared to 35,000 actual troops, according to the study.

Because these people are now employed in the business of war, many of them die. The Brown study estimates that, since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, around 8,000 contractors have died in the “war on terror” — 1,000 more deaths than the 7,000 or so official American military deaths. Brown’s report dubs this process a “camo economy,” used by private companies to obscure the financial and human costs of the war.

Where this practice crosses from economically exploitative and morally corrupt to truly dangerous, in my opinion, is when the actual violence itself becomes outsourced. If you want a perfect example of this you can look at Russia (I know, sorry).

Russia is involved in some capacity in almost as many international conflicts as the United States is, albeit often to a slightly lesser degree, despite the fact that it has a drastically smaller number of actual uniformed troops involved. It does this, like the U.S. does, through various exploitative relationships with the governments involved that largely revolve around selling guns to them in order for favorable terms for extracting those countries natural resources. Russia distinguishes itself, in my opinion, by also having access to a massive paramilitary force that it can rely on to directly contribute to these conflicts, with a layer of plausible deniability inserted by the free market: civilian contractors.

Russia has many PMCs, as does the U.S., but in recent years its most visible outfit has been a company called the Wagner Group. Wagner Group is controlled (not officially of course) by a man named Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin’s nickname is “Putin’s chef,” because he made the nest egg of his massive fortune by hoovering up government catering contracts after the fall of the Soviet Union. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he’s also the guy behind the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that did a bunch of voter disinformation during the 2016 election (sorry, again, this is not a Russiagate blog). Wagner Group was founded in 2014, right around the time that the Syrian civil war was heating up and exactly at the time that Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine. Coincidentally, Wagner Group employees have been involved in a large scale in both of those countries, as well as in protecting Russian mining contracts by arming and training both sides of Central African Republic’s civil war, hanging out with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, et cetera et cetera. After a pitched battle with U.S. forces in Syria in 2018, it appears the Wagner Group is out of Putin’s favor, and now he is using a PMC called Shield. The goal is the same: to be able to do violence overseas without the barest shreds of accountability that using uniformed troops mandates.

What’s distressing to me is that the system of zero-accountability violence made possible by the cozy crony-capitalist relationship between Prigozhin and Putin is something that we are inches away from in the U.S. Erik Prince, the founder of the most notorious American PMC, Blackwater (now named Academi), has been begging the Trump administration to fully commercialize the U.S.’s wars overseas for years. He is also the brother of Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s secretary of education. The difference between Prince and Prigozhin is one of scale, not intent. Because both Republicans and Democrats have largely supported using actual U.S. troops for indiscriminate violence abroad, Prince hasn’t been able to get as big a slice of the global blood pie as he wants.

What the Costs of War project’s studies show is that, on a macro level, this may be changing. The U.S. Army outsourcing the burger flipping on more of its bases may not immediately look like a creeping trend toward privatized, deniable state violence, but that is its endpoint all the same. As the Washington Post’s story on the report notes, the government does not publicly acknowledge or track when contractors die or get hurt. Like our troops, they are cogs in the vast machine of American war; unlike our troops, we don’t even write it down when they break. If their own deaths aren’t counted, then you can imagine the level of accountability they’d face for deaths they caused: next to none. The Trump administration has already made significant efforts to make America’s wars less transparent, and a further shift to contracted violence would make this massively easier.

The U.S. public has clearly hit its exhaustion point with foreign war: even Trump and his most deranged fans correctly recognize that reducing the numbers of active-duty troops engaged abroad is the only winning political option. But that does not mean that American violence overseas — the nation’s most lucrative export for the past two decades — has to end. If we cut out the middleman of uniformed troops, private military companies will only get richer and our forever wars will get a new lease on life.

Photo: Jack Crosbie