Postmodern classic?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Review of Robert Young Pelton, 'Licensed to Kill'

RYP's just released book 'Licensed to Kill' is the latest in a long line of books describing the use of private contractors in the ongoing GWOT. There is 'Corporate Warriors' by P.W. Singer, 'An Unorthodox Soldier' by Tim Spicer, 'A Bloody Business' by Col. Schumacher (Ret.), and 'War Dogs' by A.J. Venter. There are some others, but I think in this genre, that is, covering the recent development of large scale security contracting, these are the main tomes of record. I'm not a huge fan of RYP, famous for previous books and his website 'Come Back Alive'. But I have to admit that this book seems to be about the fairest, as well as broadest, of them all. It's kind of odd to say that, since this book is kind of a new thing for him- he is not typically a journalist, and doesn't make any claims to be one.

The subject has had some critical attention, as you can imagine. Singer's 'Corporate Warriors' is generally considered the reference point for the subject, since he takes the full academic outlook and properly referenced notes to support his arguments. His argument is strong against the employment and deployment of private contractors in the GWOT. In opposition, Col. Schumacher approaches it from a much more supportive perspective, almost a paean to the 'Bloody Business'. AEGIS director Tim Spicer, of course, is an advocate for military outsourcing in his 'Unorthodox Soldier', as he's currently making his money in Iraq by it. Venter's 'War Dogs' is good for a closer look at how the industry has developed in current-day Africa in the decades past, and a little background on some of the player's in the current commercial security expansion of Iraq and Afghanistan. If you want the completely uncritical version, check one of these trailers for videos at Youtube promising the 'inside look at the military industrial complex'- heavy on the entertainment and 'irresponsible war-profiteering American cowboy' kind of coverage (generously dubbed 'MTV journalism').

Above all, RYP is a great storyteller, and he doesn't disappoint here. You get the old guys telling war stories, of which red-blooded American Billy Waugh, having an extensive Special Forces/CIA background, provides many varying experiences. Not only that, RYP actually hangs out for a month with a Blackwater team doing the Route Irish run from the Green Zone to BIAP in Baghdad. These episodes are very entertaining, justifying the purchase of the book alone, but I waited for the eventual condescension and smeering you might expect, considering what he's written before. Funny enough, from my perspective he kept it fair. My (completely subjective) opinion was that he saved his contempt for contemptible people, like Chapter 9's Jack Idema, who's been written about before (I'm not one of his supporters, who I won't even link to). And of course, the reverses and bloody nature of African politics, especially where they involve white mercenaries.

RYP visits the main places, as hostile and inaccessible as they are, with a remarkable lack of agenda. He does a run in Afghanistan, finding the Special Forces/CIA bases with remarkable ease, interacting with a gruntled SF sergeant and sharing a long taxi-ride with an intel/ops contractor who lacks some sociability and has an oddly puritan streak. I sort of wonder why they would speak with him, especially someone like Billy Waugh who must have lived OPSEC for over 50 years. Breaking the code of silence makes me suspicious, even if he didn't seem to say anything malicious. Most everyone else kept their handles (nicknames given by the team), only a few of his friends in certain positions- like Karzai's personal detail- giving their name. Or at least giving him permission to use them. Moving on to Iraq, he focuses on Blackwater but also gets into the other big companies, such as Triple Canopy, KBR, as well as others. But he goes on to cover the important events, such as the An Najaf siege. When he gets to the Fallujah 'Blackwater Bridge' incident, this is almost the high mark of the book- he covers it fairly. He takes account of the different pressures and incidents that led to it, and how people perceived it, and the ongoing legal battle. That would've been the easiest place in the book to throw in a casual slam of the industry, and he holds back.

RYP's convictions come out when he interviews some of the big movers and shakers. But he doesn't try to tell you he's some objective journalist, he covers what he knows and addresses the omissions he's become aware of. So Tim Spicer comes off as an arrogant ass in his London office interview, while Eric Prince of Blackwater and his counterpart at HART, Lord Westbury, come off as enthusiastic professionals. Knowing what I know, this doesn't sound too far-fetched. He also covers the attempted coup of Equatorial Guinea, involving some of their close friends (and notoriously Margaret Thatcher's son, Mark) and a South African friend of his who had been his bodyguard during some of his African travels. Yet this personal touch doesn't overly stain his coverage- you can see his bias, and how he presents the facts. Like I may have implied elsewhere, I've been involved in some of this over the past year (a very minor role), so I've read most books covering these subjects, met some people who were in places or incidents that were covered in this book, and I was impressed.

RYP does raise valid objections in his coverage of the recent expansion that this industry has experienced in recent years. The consequences could be quite dangerous if improperly managed, as well as the efficiencies realized with an effective foresight. It's not unimportant, because as supportive as I am, we should all be aware of the potential pitfalls that might come with 'outsourcing the War on Terror'. The interesting story he brings up is how Haitian President Aristide's abdication came about in late February 2004, less willing than previously imagined. Basically, amidst the chaos of the ongoing coup attempt by opponents, it was the security team that decided to withdraw, taking him with them to Miami, allegedly (and convincingly) unplanned and unwittingly. This is not a small point- a security company can easily become the Praetorian Guard of the Regime, like the Vinnell Corp. of Saudi Arabia appears to guarantee the Saud Family. A weak regime must rely on foreigners to support it, and conflicted loyalties then become a possibility.

Ultimately, I'd recommend this book as a good picture of the environment and the personalities that the security contractors work among. Despite (or perhaps because of?) his lack of chronological, connect the dots bits-o-fact journalistic approach to shape a story, he has an open narrative. And his unflinching effort to be at the frontlines gives him a credibility denied to the desk-jockeying denizens of the blackhole known as the 'Green Zone'. Check it out if you get a chance.


  • Wow, interesting... Sounds like I have yet even more books to add to my long list of reading I hope to some day get around to (Damn you, haha).

    I did like Pelton's old website, some pretty wild stories of adventuring through some of the worst places in the world.

    By Anonymous JC, at 7:08 AM  

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