Letters from Iraq, Out of Thin Air

I’m getting email from people I don’t know in Iraq and it’s freaking me out.

Iraq has always seemed far away, probably because I’m not in touch with anyone on deployment there. That all changed a few weeks ago when I was inexplicably added to a mailing list meant for a team of contractors working in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace. (I sent mail asking to be removed but no luck.) Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a surreal stream of messages — each mundane mail (time sheets due tuesday!) followed by a completely disturbing one (fill this out if you’re injured, diseased or dead).

This week, the team was traveling to a local police station when they were attacked. It seems a “national” threw an anti-tank grenade at the last SUV in the convoy and it detonated on impact. Luckily (for the contractors, at least) it impacted the ground a few feet shy of them, but it did manage to shell shock several on board. How do I know? Well, I’ve got the injury reports to prove it.

It’s not like we don’t know that terrible things happen in Iraq — the media makes sure we hear all the most salacious bits. But there’s something about hearing day-by-day details, even the most boring ones, that really drives home what life is like there in a way big media just can’t. For these contractors, you see all the mind numbing bureaucracy of a typical megacorp punctuated by bomb blasts and blood. It’d be like a bad sci-fi movie if it wasn’t so undeniably real.

And there are tons of questions: What kind of training were they given? Is this operation really running on such a shoestring that folks are have to use free email services (like mine) to receive confidential information? Can they cash out and head home if the job turns out to be more than the bargained for? What in the world would drive someone to sign up for this? (Did I mention they’re working 90+ hours a week?)

Private military contracting in Iraq is scary. (Not that being a solider isn’t.) As a civilian, you’ve a comparatively soft target; tons of risk with not so much military backup. You’ve clearly waived any guarantees you might’ve had of a safe workplace (so much for employer liability). And, should there be any question about your actions, you no longer have the right to a civilian trial.

All this makes me feel a little dirty for reading through the details of the seriously dangerous work these folks are doing. But since I can’t get off the list, it’s hard to resist the messages as they come. And now that I’ve read enough to feel a connection, I almost look forward to them. It’s like overhearing someone talking on a crisis hotline — you can’t do anything but hope things turn out alright. And there’s no way to know how it turns out unless you keep listening.

For more on contractors in Iraq, see Salon’s Outsourcing the War, NPR’s Iraq Contractors Brave Ongoing Risks and Ellen’s Life in a private army in Iraq.

image grabbed from polaris

3 Responses to “Letters from Iraq, Out of Thin Air”

  1. 1 Aparna Pappu

    That’s crazy! Being on such a random mailing list I mean. And scary – I hope the guys out to bomb these people can’t get on the mailing list just as randomly.
    The whole thing is such madness that I don’t know who to feel sorry for – the contractors? but they have a choice – they can stay home – but then again do they really have a choice? a lot of people are finding it hard to come by jobs in the US and these lucrative but dangerous jobs are the only option for them
    – the US soldiers who sometimes have to protect these guys but have no real jurisdiction over where they go and what they do and may inadvertently lead every one into harms way
    – the poor misguided idiots who are bombing these contractors – its not going to solve anything killing these guys but then again in a country where there seems to be no system, where the govt seems like a puppet show and where you have been invaded for no rhyme or reason its hard to expect people to behave in a sensible manner.
    one thing is for sure – the media here covers all this in a way that allows people to tune out. or is it the people here who don’t seem to care? how can you follow a news story of hundreds dying with shows like American Idol to name one.
    better end this rambling while I think I am making sense.

  2. 2 Phillybits

    Omg. I came across this from ArcaNext.com, a blog aggregator, and had to click through to read this. That’s just creepy.

  3. 3 Jason

    Aparna: I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s entirely possible that some folks from the other side are on a contractor mailing list or two. They really oughtta be more careful with the signups. Then again, it could tell us a bit about just how expendable these contractors are. Ugly…

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