When a nation deploys ground forces, an inverse relationship exists between the number of military deaths and public support. This stark and monolithic metric, which economists call the “casualty sensitivity” effect, requires close examination today. On the modern battlefield, contractor personnel die at rates similar to—or indeed often in excess of—soldiers, yet the U.S. public and Congress remain largely unaware of this “substitution.” This article explains the phenomenon, identifies some of the challenges and complexities associated with quantifying and qualifying the real price of combat in a modern outsourced military, and encourages greater transparency.
Over the past decade, the United States has radically shifted the way it projects its power overseas. Instead of using full-time employees of foreign affairs agencies to implement its policies, the government now deploys a wide range of contractors and grantees, hired by both for-profit and nonprofit entities.
Thus, while traditionally we relied on diplomats, spies, and soldiers to protect and promote our interests abroad, increasingly we have turned to hired guns. Contrast the first Gulf War to later conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the Gulf War the ratio of contractors to troops was 1 to 100; now, with approximately 260,000 contractors working for the State Department, Department of Defense (DoD), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq and Afghanistan, that ratio has often exceeded 1 to 1.
To be sure, U.S. history is rich with examples of contractors; the privateers of the Revolutionary period are a case in point. But our current turn to privatized labor does reflect a new trend, spurred by the post-Cold War decline of the standing military and the elimination of the draft, supported by the public’s faith (not always backed up by data) that the private sector can perform work more efficiently than government employees, and fueled by the exigencies of the war on terror in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Many of these modern contractors perform logistics functions, such as delivering meals to troops or cleaning latrines on the battlefield. Others guard diplomats, convoys, and military bases. But contractors have also gathered intelligence, interrogated detainees, and engaged in tactical maneuvers, sometimes under circumstances involving hostile fire.
With the drawdown of standing armies following the end of the Cold War, the United States and other Western governments have increasingly used civilian contractors in support roles to free up limited military forces to perform combat missions. Since the initiation of hostilities under the rubric of the global war on terror, however, this extensive reliance on civilian support, coupled with the increasing technological sophistication of the contemporary battlefield, has pushed these civilians ever closer to performing tasks historically reserved for uniformed personnel.