The scandal at the the U.S Embassy in Kabul has been brewing for the past couple of days. This CBS News story–SHOCKING HAZING AT U.S. EMBASSY IN KABUL–gives a pretty good overview of what the allegations are. Sleep deprivation, sexual predators, hookers, boozing it up, etc. According to one whistleblower, the guards acted like “deviants running rampant.”
My response: you’re shocked? Get a clue.
I’ve had the chance to interact with a cross section of private security guards, sometimes called “mercenaries,” over the past few years. Some are decent folks, good people; some have risked their lives to keep me safe. To them, I say thank you.
But, almost all I have met fall under the category of “well trained psychopath,” as a veteran war correpsondent I know once described them. Most probably wouldn’t argue with that characterization–they know they’re totally fucking nuts. The proof? Look at what they do for a living!
Let’s consider a few factors at play. These are mostly men who choose to spend the majority of their time, or at least a few years, in really dangerous places. They do this a) for the money, and b) as importantly, because they get off on being in that kind of environment. Testosterone fueled, high stakes, life or death. Each day, there is the possibility they might shoot somebody and ask questions later. In fact, if they’re being hired by the U.S. government, we actually want them to shoot people and ask questions later. The job of these men is to protect their client: if they perceive a threat to our diplomats or civilian officials they are supposed to shoot, even if that means accidentally whacking the occasional local.
I’ll make some more sweeping generalizations. These folks aren’t too politically correct. I have witnessed, with me’ own eyes, private security guards sexually harass women. I have also heard, with my own ears, plenty of stories from female friends in war zones who have been harassed. (A female friend, who shall remain nameless, was stalked at her compound in Baghdad by a private secuirty guard.) It’s par for the course. There ain’t too many well bred Ivy leaguers who sign up to ride shotgun for a Triple Canopy convoy(they’re the ones being protected in the backseat, right?) In Kabul, specifically, I was told that a favorite brothel called Paradise was still up and running, which caters to Western men, a large number being security guards.
Another factor at play– we’ve been engaged in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for such a long time, there’s been a decline in quality of private security guards. The level of professionalism has fallen–part of this is that the demand to fill the government contracts remains high, and in reality, there are only a limited number sane and qualified people to fill the jobs, and who want to continue to do this for years on end. (The letter to Sec. Clinton from the Project of Government Oversight states there was a near “100 percent” turnover in the guards from ArmorCorp.)
Throw in a massive amount of substance abuse, the availability of firearms, the lack of available women (which means each woman takes on more value) and you get a video like this one. I’ve attended a number of parties over the years with a heavy security guard presence, and guess what, these guys aren’t too much fun to be around when they’re really shithammered. Think of a frat party with automatic weapons and less subtle humor. Which seems to be the case here in Kabul–guys who took the norm a few steps beyond the accepted level of boorishness and ultra-violence and got busted for it. You put a bunch of these dudes in close quarters for months on end, or for years, and all it takes is just an extra dash of dirt bag to get the kind allegations we’re hearing.
(Just to point out: two years ago, Blackwater, America’s favorite private security firm, got in trouble(sort of) for killing 17 Iraqi civilians. So I find it funny that we’re surprised that the types of people who are willing (and they have to be willing) to kill 17 civilians on the drop of hat are also not always well behaved and well adjusted citizens.)
Big picture: to support our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to support our large number of civilians and our diplomats and our military officials, to support our NGOs and our media outlets, in these violent places, we’ve come to rely on these hired guns. And mercenaries are going to act like mercenaries. We can blame the individuals here, but I think we have to look closely at the environment we’ve created overseas in our occupational adventures. It is an environment that is often lawless, chaotic, and morally diminished. It’s war, after all. So let’s accept some responsiblity as Americans, and let’s look closely at the photo above. We have no excuse to be shocked.