Iraq is rapidly vanishing into the mists of uncollectable, unknowable news, with information travelling only as far as an Iraqi scream can be heard. But sometimes, if you peer closely, you can glimpse reality. Last week, Shia militiamen seized four "security contractors" working for the Canadian company Gardaworld. Buried in the story of this small horror is the bigger tale of a vast shift in how Western wars will be fought in the 21st century if the American right has its way - and one of the great lost scandals of this war.
These men are not "security contractors", nor are they "civilian operatives", nor "reconstruction workers". There are now more of them in Iraq than there are professional soldiers: Britain alone has 21,000 in the country, raking in $1.6bn a year.
As he scurried out the door in 2004, Paul Bremer - the first US viceroy to Iraq - issued Order 17, which exempted all mercenaries operating in the country from having to obey the law. He in effect gave these men a licence to kill - and they are using it, every day.
Yas Ali Mohammed Yassiri was a peaceful 19-year-old Iraqi trying to get on with an ordinary life in a deeply unordinary Baghdad when he boarded a taxi on his street in the Masbah neighbourhood. The mercenaries guarding the US embassy spokesman in Baghdad drove around the corner, so Ali's taxi slowed down - but the convoy opened fire anyway, to clear their path. Ali was hit in the throat and died immediately. Although the US embassy now admits the convoy "opened fire prematurely", the mercenaries were merely sent home; they are free, happy men.
This is not a one-off freak. It is virtually an everyday occurrence. Colonel Thomas Hammed, who was placed in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi military by Bush, explains, "They [the mercenaries] made enemies everywhere. I would ride around with Iraqis in beat-up Iraqi trucks, they were running me off the road. We were threatened and intimidated."
In April 2004, mercenaries working for a private militia named Blackwater were guarding US occupation headquarters in Najaf when a protest by Shia Iraqi civilians began to stir outside. According to the Washington Post and eyewitnesses, Blackwater opened fire on the protesters, unleashing so many rounds so rapidly they had to pause every 15 minutes to allow their gun barrels to cool down. A video of this attack made it on to the Web, where a mercenary can be seen describing the Iraqis they are gunning down as "fuckin' niggers".
The distinguished reporter Jeremy Scahill claims in his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, that mercenary troops in Iraq are even using "experimental ammunition" that US forces are forbidden from firing. These bullets, made of "blended metal", are designed to shatter on impact, creating "untreatable wounds". One mercenary recently bragged about the ammo's impact when he shot an Iraqi with it: "It entered his butt and completely destroyed everything in the lower-left section of his stomach... everything was torn apart."
Last year, Representative Dennis Kucinich asked Pentagon officials at a Senate hearing if the US Department of Defence would prosecute a private contractor who murdered Iraqi civilians. After being told repeatedly, "Sir, I can't answer that question," Kucinich said: "Wow. Think about what that means. These private contractors can get away with murder... They aren't subject to any laws at all."
How did this happen? How did Iraq become flooded with private militia making a killing? The story begins back in the early 1990s, when Dick Cheney was secretary of state for defence. He believed Pentagon "bureaucracy" was mere Big Government and had to be smashed into a thousand corporate pieces to be made "efficient". Cheney's proposals continued at a slow pace during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who brought mercenaries into the Balkans - then went into over-drive when he was Vice President.
The US right has a slew of reasons to privatise the US military so rapidly. The most obvious is simple corruption. It funnels money to companies in which they have a huge stake, and who in turn donate a fortune to the Republican Party. This is justified in public by a market fundamentalist conviction that governments can never run anything properly, so their functions must always be sold off.
But this is a secondary motive. The main limit on an aggressive US foreign policy today is the limited number of US citizens who are prepared to kill and die for it. Mercenaries solve the problem: just buy troops in. The public is far less likely to protest against a war if the victims are hardened Colombians in it for the cash, rather than their cousin from Wisconsin who signed up out of patriotism. In mercenary wars, all citizens are asked to give is money, not blood. The Cheney model of mercenary warfare being tried out in Iraq is, in fact, a way of making possible his vision of a 21st century in which wars for resources will be "necessary" on a "regular basis".
We have been here before. In his Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli describes how, in its dying days, the Roman Empire was no longer able to inspire a large citizen-militia, and increasingly bought armies of willing foreigners. The result was dissolution, decadence and imperial collapse. What would the world look like if Cheney's vision of privatised armies prevailed in this century? There would be far more wars, far less checked by the rules of war built up after the nightmare of the 1940s: in other words, more Iraqs.
History also points towards a longer-term danger. Where governments depend on private armies, they become increasingly their servants, physically incapable of standing up to them. In the 14th century, corporations determined the fate of the Hundred Years War, and in lulls in the fighting would burn down towns that refused to pay for their protection. The French sovereign was powerless to stop them, because his own forces were too feeble.
Little more than a century ago, the East India Company ignored the explicit orders of the British government and attacked Portuguese garrisons in India, solely to boost its own profit margins. The Empire relied on private militias, until they slipped off the leash. Phillip Bobbit, a former advisor to presidents Nixon and Reagan, warns in his book The Shield of Achilles that as we dissolve back into private armies, we are setting ourselves up for a repeat of this corporate dominance over government.
Dick Cheney effectively believes in rule by corporations, rather than rule by the state, so for him, this is a comforting vision. For the rest of us, the seizure of British mercenaries in Baghdad provides us with a glimpse of a future where we are stumbling unwittingly on to corporate battlefield with no end. The Iraqis are living - and dying - in this dystopia today.
© 2007 The Independent