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interviews: marine col. thomas x. hammes

Some Highlights From This Interview

… What is the usefulness of contractors in a war zone? When is it appropriate to use them? When is it not?

I think contractors are best used for mundane, repetitive tasks that are clearly defined with a legal structure; for instance, running a training facility in Kuwait. MPRI [formerly called Military Professionals Resources, Inc.] runs a superb training facility with retired NCOs [non-commissioned officers] -- vast experience, but it's not a combat zone. Very clearly defined regulations, rules, very clearly defined product which [it is hired to] deliver.

You get into trouble when you put them in a situation -- for instance, the security forces guarding Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer. Blackwater's an extraordinarily professional organization, and they were doing exactly what they were tasked to do: protect the principal. The problem is in protecting the principal they had to be very aggressive, and each time they went out they had to offend locals, forcing them to the side of the road, being overpowering and intimidating, at times running vehicles off the road, making enemies each time they went out. So they were actually getting our contract exactly as we asked them to and at the same time hurting our counterinsurgency effort.

Their interests are different than --

Their interests are fundamentally different than ours. You may lose an ambassador in an insurgency -- that's a fact; the British did in Malaya -- but you have other ambassadors. You don't get another shot at the insurgency. But if Blackwater loses a principal, they're out of business, aren't they? Can you imagine being Blackwater, trying to sell your next contract, saying, "Well, we did pretty well in Iraq for about four months, and then he got killed." And you're the CEO who's going to hire and protect your guys. You'll say, "I think I'll find somebody else."

photo of hammes

Retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes served in Iraq in early 2004. He interacted with civilian contractors as part of his job managing the bases and facilities for the training of Iraqi armed forces. "I think contractors are best used for mundane, repetitive tasks that are clearly defined with a legal structure," he tells FRONTLINE. Hammes argues that using private contractors for security can be counteractive to the mission's overall goals. He points to Blackwater's contract to protect Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority as an example. "Blackwater's an extraordinarily professional organization and they were doing exactly what they were tasked to do: protect the principal," he says. "The problem is in protecting the principal they had to be very aggressive, and each time they went out they had to offend locals, forcing them to the side of the road, being overpowering and intimidating, at times running vehicles off the road, making enemies each time they went out. So they were actually getting our contract exactly as we asked them to and at the same time hurting our counterinsurgency effort." Hammes is also critical of the construction of the large comfortable bases with big-screen TVs and multiple flavors of ice cream. "Someone's risking their life to deliver that luxury," he says. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 21, 2005.

So it puts Blackwater in an impossible position. They will be as aggressive and as muscular as they need to be to fulfill what we contracted them to do. They did a superb job doing exactly what we told them to do. The problem is what we told them to do hurt the counterinsurgency effort. ...

But what's the alternative?

Well, what you do is you have American military do this, and then they are responding in a way that allows for the fact that there's a counterinsurgency going on, because again, the problem for Blackwater [is] if the primary gets killed, what happens to Blackwater is they're out of business. For the military, if the primary gets killed, that's a very bad thing. There will be after-action reviews, etc., but nobody's going out of business.

And risk is an inherent part of counterinsurgency operations for everybody in the country. You cannot isolate people from any risk, because if you do that, you've created a separate class of people. And remember, counterinsurgency is about governance and making everybody feel like we're on the same side. Well, we're on the same side except "I want you to take all the risks, and I want my guys to be safe all the time. I don't think we're on the same team." And the Iraqis I work for somewhat resented that. ...

Essentially when you're a soldier or Marine, you sign an unlimited contract with the country. You're willing to give your life. A contractor's not saying that.

If these are discussions among those of you in the military that are current, why is the decision made to hire Blackwater to provide security for Ambassador Bremer?

Well, because Blackwater's very good at what it does. I also think we were looking at the Bosnia-Kosovo example, a much less lethal environment. If you look at that, essentially a peacetime environment as opposed to what's fundamentally a wartime environment, remember, when all these arrangements were set up, it was still the summer of 2003, and people were thinking the war is over.

We kept talking about the postwar period, because people refused to accept that in a war, both sides have to agree it's over before it's over. I still hear people referring to the postwar period as if it isn't a war. Well, we may think the war is over, but the Iraqi resistance does not think the war is over. And until we convince them, the war is not over.

But still I come back to the question, why contract Blackwater? Why not have U.S. military protect the ambassador?

I don't know. Perhaps the U.S. military said they were overtapped, that we didn't have the people to do it. I am not sure at all why they decided to do that. It may be because when you go to one of these contractors, they're very fast, and they're good at setting things up quickly and getting them in place. What they ask for is money, essentially, and some coordinating instructions. And they do an extraordinary job.

Is it good value for the taxpayer?

It depends. If you've decided that the sole purpose of the contract is [to] defend the ambassador, then they got their money's worth. If the purpose of the contract is to further the counterinsurgency, then I'm not sure it was that good a payoff.

In other instances -- for instance, training of the Iraqi army -- I think it was a very bad idea. The first battalions were trained by contractors, and contractors are good for the technical aspects. You want to teach a guy how to strip a weapon or repair a vehicle or fill out forms, contractors can do that. You want to teach basic soldier skills, being a soldier, what it means -- the dedication, the sweating, the bonding -- then you need soldiers. They have to have a role model.

Well, I suppose these guys are former soldiers that are --

That's it. They're former soldiers. Essentially when you're a soldier or Marine, you sign an unlimited contract with the country. You're willing to give your life. A contractor's not saying that. And that's a fine definition, but for a soldier he knows it. Also, by the very definition that most of these guys are retirees, we don't use 40- and 50-year-old drill instructors. Why? Because they can't physically keep up.

But contractors do.

Yeah. Contractors use 40- and 50-year-old guys. I saw some guys in their late 40s, 50 pounds overweight, who essentially were fulfilling a drill instructor function. You look at the drill instructors at Army and Marine facilities, and that's not what you get. …

So I zoom back a little bit. I look at the situation. I'm Joe Citizen, and I say: "What's happening? Why are we contracting so many of these functions out?"

I think assumptions. We've had an assumption that contracting is inherently a good thing. That was a going-in position at the Pentagon as near as I could tell, and it is for some things. We get a little carried away, and then we gold-plate. For instance, in the Green Zone, we always had three different main courses, three vegetables, three kinds of ice cream, dessert -- way beyond any necessity, but they could do it, so they did, because it's just money. And in the Green Zone that's not a bad idea. You don't need a soldier to take care of the trailers or to make sure they're cleaned or to refill the water towers for the showers and things like that. But when you start moving him around among the population where decision-making becomes very, very important, and your [interaction] with the Iraqis becomes very important, then I think you don't want contractors.

When the incident occurred in Fallujah March 31, with the four Blackwater contractors, was that a mission that was appropriate for a private contractor?

I've never been able to find out what their mission is, but it highlights a really wonderful point about -- there are four things about contractors I should say. One, whether you like it or not, they represent you -- period, end of sentence. You may think the contractors are a separate entity, but to the local population, they're your hired guns.

Two, you have no quality control. Blackwater's one thing, but there were some other groups. There was an Italian security group there that just by observing them you could tell they weren't professional. They didn't have awareness of where their muzzle was pointed. There was a weapons handling that would have gotten a severe ass chewing from a Marine NCO. These people were simply unsafe, but they represented us and were out there with a license.

Three, are they bound by any kind of law? We're still working that out. But the Iraqis resented very much and knew quite clearly that if one of these people shot an Iraqi, they were not subject to any law. They could simply be extracted from the country.

And four is the inherent tension we talked about earlier, in that the mission we give them is very limited, and insurgency has to be tied together across the board, but the contract is very, very specific. And oftentimes the contract, the terms of the contract, will actually be in tension with what needs to be done, because contracting, you try to be about efficiency.

Wartime is not about efficiency; it's about effectiveness. The American way of war is "We don't care what it costs. Let's get it done right and save lives." Contracting's about the most efficient way rather than the most effective way.

Efficient way for whom, for the company?

… No, for the U.S. government.

But when you have multiple layers of contracts -- for example, the Blackwater security guards that went into Fallujah that day, they were escorting three trucks that were going to pick up some kitchen equipment out at Camp Ridgeway. They were on a subcontract with Regency [Hotels], and then Regency had a subcontract with ESS [Eurest Support Services]. ...

I didn't say it was efficient. I said that was the goal. It's just like we're not always effective in the military, but at least that's the goal we're working toward. And that's the problem. We're working toward efficiency rather than effectiveness. Now, the subcontracting -- I'm not a contracting officer, but it certainly seemed to me there were a lot of layers and a lot of wasted money there.

You saw that?

Yes, but I have no idea what's a legitimate price. I do know that at times it seemed like I was paying more than I ought to, but I have no idea how to price a contractor in a combat zone.

But when you see multiple layers in a contract where you have a subcontractor of a subcontractor, several layers deep, is there any way that that could possibly be efficient?

I have no idea. Again, I don't know what the business model is or how it works. I know it's not effective because I have no control over people. For instance, under our law, the contracting officer's the only guy who can make corrections to the contract if he thinks they're not filling the contract.

I was responsible for operating these bases. When I initially got there, I did not have a copy of the contract I was supposed to be enforcing. I had a copy of the contract that they thought they had let. But it turns out when each contracting officer sat down and negotiated with each independent company for each base, they put in certain things and took out certain things. But I never had a copy of the contract, because everybody rotated home, and I just never had a copy. Why I finally got it is I worked out a relationship with the contractors, and they gave me a copy, all except SATCO [Saudi Arabia Trading and Contracting Company]. SATCO would refuse to give me a copy, so I never knew what I could tell SATCO to do or not do because I never could [get a copy of the contract].

And you're the commander. You're in charge.

Yes. Well, sort of, but not in charge of the contractors, because I'm not allowed to tell them to do things. I have to go to the contracting officer, [who is] frankly overwhelmed and overworked trying to do the other contracts he's working on. So maybe in a week or 10 days he'll get to my problem.

So it's a very rickety system.

Incredibly ineffective and I thought inefficient. If you had a good organization -- there was one outfit, ... a French company. I don't know how they got the contract, but they had an American expat running it. This guy would bend over backwards, like Blackwater will do whatever because they're patriotic Americans. This guy would do whatever needed to be done; you just had to talk to him.

On the other hand, other companies would go strictly by the contract, and they would argue with you every point of the contract knowing that they could string this out, and every day that they don't do what you need them to do, they're saving money. So from their point of view, not providing the service unless they're competing for a new contract, then particularly [when] they're facing the end of a contract, the less service they provide, the better off they are, because they know they're going to get paid unless we go into litigation X number of years from now. And that was the problem I ran into with a couple of contractors.

… Why [do you have] a high opinion of Blackwater?

More in the attitude of the people I work with from Blackwater. They were there to assist to do the right thing. I never had the feeling that Blackwater was about money. Obviously it is about money, because we've got to stay in business. But these guys were people who dedicated their life to America. They've served in our best Special Forces. They're very, very concerned and dedicated Americans. And they'll do anything, including put their life on the line, to do right. ...

They were good guys.

They were good guys who were trying to do the right thing. Now again, the heavy-handed approach out in town I didn't think was right. They couldn't change it. Their contract said, "Protect the principal." There was no wiggle room in that. They were going to protect the principal.

They were doing their job.

On the other hand, there were other security contractors over there that were just cowboys. They clearly had neither the training or the experience. Could I identify them? No. They wore a mixed bag of uniforms. Nobody wore name tags. They didn't have unit logos. You'd run into these people in town; you would see them handling weapons improperly.

You would see them with really kind of a bad attitude, and there's nothing you could do about it. How do you identify them? Well, there's no license plates on their car. They're driving an SUV. Some of them weren't even in any uniform even within the team. Others were good guys but underequipped. ...

But the market takes care and weeds out the bad guys. That's the thought, I guess.

Well, unless you have such a demand that anybody who can start a company is piling into the country. And let's face it: We created a unique situation with a huge demand there. There was not enough capability in the world to fill that demand.

But lots of money flying around.

Yeah. So it began to get guys who just formed a company overnight, threw something together, had no training program, no vetting program, and they showed up in country with these people. ...

How did we get to this situation?

Have no idea. We were there when I got there. I would come into the Green Zone, go to work, and there would be 10, 15, 16 different types of security uniforms with all kinds of weapons. One of the things in a firefight is you listen. If you're with Iraqi forces, they've got AKs. But if you're in this firefight, an AK could be a good guy. So the confusion level was going to be enormous if we actually got hit. ...

… What you're seeing in a lot of these bases, KBR was coming in and running a lot of fairly -- for what one would think was appropriate, was a lot of [excess]. I mean, I had lobster in Mosul.

What you're saying is we created luxury in a war zone, and I would agree.

Well, except that there wasn't armor on the vehicles.

Well, again, this is misguided luxury. You contract out for this because in peacetime in Bosnia, we set up Burger Kings and all of these sorts of things. [There's] some feeling that we have to do this because the troops won't respond otherwise. I don't think that's true.

The five months I was in Somalia with the Marines, we never really had a hot meal. Tray rations were as far as we got for MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. There were no showers built. You just used your solar shower. Nobody seemed to have a problem with that. I mean, you're in a war. Again, if the assumption is you're really at war -- and that's a problem. If your assumption is, is this a peacetime occupation, and then you wanted your base to start to look like Germany -- if you think you're still in a war zone, you build a different structure altogether.

So your sense was -- and as an intelligent observer of this -- that we're spending a lot of money on building inappropriate base facilities?

I think so. I frankly was stunned at the level of care at the Green Zone: the big-screen TVs, the exceptional food -- and it truly was exceptional food. Like I said, three main courses, three or four vegetables. Dessert was three kinds of ice cream with multiple-flavored toppings, and there was also several kinds of pastry.

And this wasn't just for Bremer and his immediate entourage.

No, this was everybody in that.

This was all the soldiers, everybody.

Everybody inside the Green Zone. Now, it wasn't that good at all the various base camps, but it varied from base camp to base camp. Some were better, some were more austere, but all were quite, quite comfortable. And keep in mind that in a peacetime model, that's probably acceptable, but in wartime, all of that has to be trucked up the road.

Somebody's risking their life to deliver that luxury. Maybe you could tone down the luxury, put fewer vehicles on the road. Again, fewer vehicles on the road creates less tension with the locals, because they get tired of these high-speed convoys running them off the road.

That's very interesting. So we actually created this situation where we had to be trucking more food, more equipment --

We did it in Vietnam, too. And we created these huge base isolations in Vietnam where we set ourselves aside from the population to create a great luxury for the forces that live there, and that doesn't really get you anything in the counterinsurgency. It creates a lot of problems.

And resentments.


And it shifts the public attitude against you.

Again, if your going-in assumption is you're in an insurgency and it's all about governance and taking care of the people, you bring a very different package and a different approach than "Hey this is just a peacetime operation; the war is over." ...

In the military, is there a discussion or even debate over the reliance on contractors to supply and to perform duties that were once performed by the military?

I'm not sure [about debate] by the military. Certainly the people I'm talking to, the conferences I've gone to, the guys I'm talking to about insurgency are concerned that some of the things were timed to contract. It's an easy fix. It's politically easy to do. Write a contract, spend some money. It's a lot easier than, "Hey, we've got to have a bigger army." The long-term costs I guess are much higher if you do it with military.


If you want to increase the size of the Army, it's going to take you X number of months, six months, seven months, 10 months even if you're really fast at it, although given how fast you grew in World War II, if you're serious about it, you can do it pretty quickly.

But you had the public behind you.

You had the public behind you because you had told them you're in a war. Well, now you told the public, "The war's over, but I really need to raise an army fast, and we've got to get it done." On the other hand, you go to a contractor and say, "I need this in a month," he'll probably tell you he can do it.

We could not raise that force in a month within the military, but you can there. It's also you don't have to sell the political problem of, "Hey, you need an increase in end-strength in the Army." You don't have to sell the problem of right now we're starting to have recruiting problems, so even though you may want to increase the size of the Army, is it possible, because it's an all-volunteer force? If we're not meeting end-strength goals now, how can we increase the size of the Army?

So what's the downside of that?

The downside of contracting? The problem is you get this crossover of priorities where what the contractor's doing in filling his contract may be having an adverse effect on your war effort. ...

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posted june 21, 2005

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