Commentary

Contractors Doomed to Repeat the Mistakes of the Past

An army may travel on its stomach, but it lives to fight another day by studying its history. For the U.S. military, the study of history is not an academic pursuit but a deadly serious business. That is why there are offices like the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the Army Center for Military History, the Naval Historical Center, and the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to name a few.

Military professionals understand that the unpredictability and chaos of war make the study of the past mandatory in an effort to try to avoid repeating its disasters. Keeping and preserving detailed records is not just a bureaucratic chore but a vital mission. Militaries have always understood, long before Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said it, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So, now that private military and security contractors are increasingly an integrated part of the U.S. total force, how well are they doing in preserving their histories for study?

Not very well seems to be the answer. If one searches for “Blackwater” at the Center for Army Lessons Learned, one is as likely to come up with references to malarial fever among World War II prisoners of war or the Civil War battle in Virginia as to the contractor working in Iraq. A vital program like LOGCAP gets only eight hits. DynCorp gets 11. Compared with the hundreds of thousands of citations available via any online search engine, such results can only be called pathetic.

Part of the answer must be sheer incompetence. Even if one looked just at material produced by the military itself, such as articles in its professional journals or student papers at the war colleges and their subordinate schools, such as the Army War College or its Strategic Studies Institute or the Naval Postgraduate School, or searched the Defense Technical Information Service, one would find thousands of detailed studies and reports that would greatly aid anyone doing historical research.

But a more disturbing part of the answer lies in the nature of the private sector itself. Last year Frederik Rosen published an article entitled “Off the Record: Outsourcing Security and State Building to Private Firms and the Question of Record Keeping, Archives, and Collective Memory” in Archival Science journal.

Looking at the growing practice of shifting security functions to private firms, he focused on the lack of regulatory frameworks when it comes to developing and retaining records of such work, as well as the funneling of such records into public archives.

Especially compared with nation-states or international organizations such as the United Nations, private firms provide a very limited amount of records — if any — for public archives.

Thus the growing private component in contingency operations and post-conflict stabilization projects leaves far less information about such endeavors in the public archives.

Anyone who has examined reports from the Government Accountability Office on private contractors in Iraq knows that their recordkeeping is abysmal. Currently there are no regulatory bodies for preserving private sector contract paperwork, and it is unclear how records are retained on subcontracted work, which is standard practice in the private military sector. Whether any paperwork survives depends on the contractual parties.

Rosen’s concern is that the use of private firms that do not have proper means for producing and keeping records of their work will lead to memory gaps with regard to certain crucial aspects of today’s security governance. Many tasks provided by private military companies — such as core roles in transnational force deployments as well as essential social engineering in state building projects — are critical to national, regional and global peace and stability. He writes, “(D)ocuments produced by the companies during operation cannot but be of particularly great importance to the collective memory of affected societies, a category that must be considered greatly inclusive in an age when the global security discourse intertwines remote Somali villages with the western metropolis.”

From the raison d’etre of the private sector, one can see that doing history might not be uppermost in their minds. The objective is to keep costs low and profits high. Good recordkeeping is a cost and does not, at least in the short term, bring them any profit. Generally, privatization advocates are not thinking of the long term.

Yet since private military contractors are largely doing government work, they should be subject to government rules.

Rosen notes the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration defines adequate and proper documentation as “a record of the conduct of Government business that is complete and accurate to the extent required to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency.” Paperwork and electronic trails leading to and stemming from government contracts are included in this definition, yet the scope of the regulation is limited to the government branch, while the private sector remains behind the walls of commercial secrecy.

The stock response of PMCs, when asked for records, is either that they would love to do it but their client won’t let them or that they are exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. With regard to the first point, if their client is a government agency, it is subject to NARA rules and should be required to act in accordance with NARA regulations. As for the second, an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2007 that clarifies that in some cases it also applies to private firms working under government contract, although a last-minute change to the amendment made it clear that the act applies only to records that are “maintained for an agency by a Government contract, for the purpose of record management.”

Still, that would allow for the numerous reports that DynCorp, Triple Canopy and Blackwater have filed, per the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract for the State Department, under which many of the private security contractor shootings have occurred, to be released.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.