Mar
19
2008

Keeping Death Off the Books

Media ignore contractors killed in Iraq

As the Iraq War nears its fifth anniversary, close to 4,000 U.S. troops have died in the conflict. But a significant number of deaths connected to the Iraq invasion have remained off the books, uncounted by the U.S. military and seldom noticed by the media.

Private contractors have played an integral role in the occupation of Iraq, often performing duties that would have been carried out by the U.S. military. At present, it is believed that there are about as many contractors as active-duty U.S. personnel (about 150,000). The only available tally of contractor deaths in Iraq from the Labor Department stands at 1,123 as of early this year (Houston Chronicle, 2/9/08), a number that is almost certainly an undercount. But even this conservative figure is rarely, if ever, included in media discussions about the deaths associated with the Iraq War.

This hidden death toll receives sporadic media attention. On May 19, 2007, the New York Times ("Contractor Deaths in Iraq Soar to Record") reported:

"Casualties among private contractors in Iraq have soared to record levels this year, setting a pace that seems certain to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet for the civilians who work alongside the American military in the war zone, according to new government numbers."

To put the rate of death in perspective, the Times noted that these numbers "suggest that for every four American soldiers or marines who die in Iraq, a contractor is killed." That trend would continue for the rest of the year. According to the Houston Chronicle (2/9/08), "The number of civilian contractors reported killed in Iraq jumped 17 percent in 2007 and accounted for more than one in four deaths associated with the U.S. occupation last year." The Chronicle reported that, in total, 1,123 contractors were killed in 2007. That total is likely an undercount, since it is actually just a tally of "the number of insurance claims filed with the Labor Department's Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation. Workers whose families or employers do not seek compensation are not counted."

The privatization of so many functions of the Iraq War was not an accident. As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote (Nation, 4/2/07), it was this way by design:

"The often overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is their unprecedented scale of outsourcing and privatization. From the moment the U.S. troop buildup began in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon made private contractors an integral part of the operations."

Scahill added that "contractors have provided the Bush administration with political cover, allowing the government to deploy private forces in a war zone free of public scrutiny, with the deaths, injuries and crimes of those forces shrouded in secrecy. The administration and the GOP-controlled Congress in turn have shielded the contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints."

The unprecedented reliance on privatized forces is only rarely noted by the press. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (6/21/07) of over 400 media outlets found that "fewer than one-quarter of those outlets--only 93 of them--ever mentioned private military contractors beyond a brief account of a death or injury." In many reports, contractor deaths are effectively erased. USA Today publicizes its ongoing tally of “U.S. troop deaths in Iraq” under the headline “U.S. death toll,” and urges readers to visit its web page that hosts the tally “For details on each American killed in the Iraq war.” This list that USA Today refers to as a tally of “each American killed”—does not include the hundreds of contractors who have been killed.

In one of the exceptions to this trend, the New York Times declared that the rampant use of private contractors in Iraq represented "the face of battle in a new war and a new century... a rented army of 130,000 civilians supporting 160,000 United States soldiers and Marines. Taking the place of enlisted troops in every American army before this one, these contract employees cook meals, wash clothes, deliver fuel and guard bases. And they die and suffer alongside their brothers and sisters in uniform."

Those deaths, however, are disappeared by the White House and the military officials in charge of managing the war--and the perception of that war.

Consider the events of March 31, 2004, when four Blackwater contractors were ambushed in Fallujah. The killing and mutilation of these workers was a major news story, a clear sign of the intensity of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation; the U.S.'s reaction to those deaths was one of the bloodiest episodes in the entire war. But in the tally of U.S. deaths supplied by the Pentagon and reported across the mainstream media, these deaths simply do not exist.

There are, of course, many different ways to measure the cost of the Iraq War. The mainstream media find it permissible to discuss total U.S. troop deaths and the price tag of the occupation. There is some discussion of Iraqi civilian casualties, though much of that media debate is dedicated to challenging statistical estimates that are considered to be too politically damaging (CITES). But when it comes to private contractors, there is near-silence. The U.S. military and the Bush White House surely have an interest in concealing this aspect of the Iraq War. By keeping contractor deaths away from public view, the media grant them a tremendous favor.