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February 01, 2007

Letters from Iraq, Out of Thin Air

Posted in: War

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

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