According to Shadow Company, a documentary about the recent, precipitous rise of mercenaries (or, to use their preferred term, private military companies), September 11 and its political aftermath provided the security industry with its own worldwide dot-com boom. Outsourcing armies has become a bigger business than ever before: In the Gulf War, one in a hundred soldiers were private contractors; in Iraq today, the figure is closer to one in 10. Though the contemporary marriage of warriors-for-hire and global capitalism has its roots in Africa, where a South African organization called Executive Outcomes squashed 150,000 rebels with a tactical force of merely 150 men in 1995, the client base for mercenary services has shot up from small-nation despots to the world’s only hyperpower. “George Bush has created the ultimate entrepreneurial Wild West scenario in Iraq,” says war journalist Robert Young Pelton. “You can watch the TV blurbs about hearts and minds, [but] that’s a lot of crap.” Privatizing warfare on a massive scale has been Commander Chimpy’s “solution” to fighting a supersized conflict with a downsized military.
The role of private military contractors in Iraq came under greater scrutiny when, in 2004, insurgents killed four employees of Blackwater USA, then dragged their charred corpses through the streets of Fallujah for the cameras. Yet despite public awareness, the U.S. use of contractors hasn’t generated much debate—it remains a non-issue among current presidential hopefuls, for example. And, as the documentary points out, it’s big news when traditional soldiers like Jessica Lynch are captured, but the far greater number of kidnapped private contractors has created relatively little stir.
Shadow Company attempts to provide a balanced view of a potentially polarizing issue, interviewing historians, security firm heads, war journalists, and former contractors themselves (the Army declined). Some interviewed say that contractors have been used “ethically” in certain cases: an attempt to topple a ruthless dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, for example. The end result is a feature filled with fascinating research about today’s mercenary boom but no strong thesis. Taking cues from the Canadian hit
The Corporation, Shadow Company‘s makers jazz up the material with infographics and comic-book-art re-enactments. The MTV-style pop-doc treatment plays up the profession’s sex appeal, even as some talking heads take pains to do otherwise. “A lot of people see this as an exploding field with all sorts of romantic and far-flung connotations,” says Pelton, who has a different view of typical mercenaries as nothing but career fighters who aren’t suited for much else—”a class of people that, if you took their gun away, couldn’t work at Wal-Mart.”