International Studies Public Forum brought Steve Fainaru, an investigative reporter from The Washington Post, to campus this past Thursday, Feb. 5 to talk about the lawlessness that private security firms brought to a shattered Iraq.
Fainaru spoke on his recently released book “Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.” The title is derived from the self-policed private security contractors operating in and around Iraq. The men provide security and protection for both people and shipments via SUVs and machine guns.
Fainaru recalls contractors consistently remarking on their compliance with their own code of ethics.
“The phrase, over and over, [that] I kept hearing was that they operated under ‘big boy rules.’ They’d say we’re all men and we just need to take care of ourselves. We police ourselves under our own code of justice,” Fainaru said.
Essentially, these men answer to no one. They operate under a system of law much different from any formal organization known in the United States.
Fainaru’s book takes the form of two parallel narratives, one being the personal accounts of soldiers Fainaru has met and the other following the development of private security groups. He discusses the nightmarish events occurring in Iraq’s private security industry and how Americans themselves were sucked into the mess.
“We traveled around in armored SUVs that were protected by security people with guns … What shocked me was that there was no discernable law about what they were doing,” Fainaru said.
Fainaru specifically spent time with Crescent Security Group, a small-time entity of the overall framework of the private security industry. Hundreds of companies mushroomed overnight as private security became necessary for conducting almost any business around Iraq.
While the narrative discusses private security from a broad perspective, it circles closely around the narrative of John Cote, a former U.S. Army Paratrooper. After returning from service, he had difficulty coping with civilian life and began to seek the intensity of the military in other places.
“[As a consequence], he was about to lose his driver’s license, so a friend told him he could make seven grand a month working for Crescent Security Group driving in and out of Iraq escorting convoys,” Fainaru said.
The job worked to satisfy Cote’s desire for adventure as well as provide freedom and a decent paycheck. After working for some time, he told Fainaru he planned to return home and pursue higher education. Unfortunately, the unpredictability and lack of control in the industry resulted in a tragic incident days after Fainaru left Iraq.
“I got a call from my editor in Washington telling me there was a story saying that five contractors with Crescent Security were kidnapped; John Cote, Paul Ruben and three other guys who I’d also met,” Fainaru said. “We wrote about the kidnapping but knew we’d somehow influence the course of events if we published anything else. No one really knew what had happened to them until a year later … A source brought five severed fingers from each person.”
The bodies were found and brought back to the airbase and it was discovered that there were signs of mutilation and torture. Disturbing incidents like this one came to be associated with a much larger company called Blackwater.
Fainaru noted that Blackwater Worldwide, a security company contracted by the U.S. government had been known for abusing both Iraqis and Americans.
“They operated in the green zone. Within the green zone, they would point their weapons at civilians and run people off the road while outside the green zone, they would get into shooting incidents every so often,” Fainaru said.
These occurrences generally included a number of civilian deaths and went mostly unreported and unpunished. One such occurrence included the massacre of between 14 and 17 people in a Baghdad neighborhood — the sheer magnitude making it impossible to ignore.
Blackwater security perceived a threat from a civilian medical student and his mother driving in a vehicle. Blackwater opened fire into the vehicle, killing the driver, as the driver’s foot remained on the gas pedal. They then fired a rocket missile into the still-moving vehicle, causing an explosion and a complete incineration of the vehicle and the people inside.
“This had come to crystallize what the private security in Iraq had become: the lawlessness, the incredible aggressive tactics, the lack of any real system to what had become essentially a parallel war involving tens of thousands of people,” Fainaru said.
Extreme events such as these have opened the eyes of administrators and have created hope for possible change. But Fainaru remarks that it’s impossible to stamp out the industry itself as demand will likely remain high in the future.