By Yves Eudes Le Monde Translated for Truthout 4/4/07

Czech Republic, November 2006. The small town of Jelen’s shooting club, built in a forest an hour from Prague, is closed to the public for a few days. It was rented by the British company, Ronin Concept, which specializes in training armed security guards and “PSD” (personal security detail, bodyguards), who operate in conflict zones. In a cl’aring surrounded by high talus, fifteen men aged 25 to 50 are training in weapons and automobile handling in extreme situations: that is, under enemy fire. The exercises are conducted with live ammunition.

The training, which costs 3,700 pounds (about $7,300) and lasts four weeks, is assured by John Geddes, Ronin Concept’s boss and a former officer of the SAS, the British Army’s elite commandos. Fifty-two-year-old Mr. Geddes left the British Army after twenty-three colorful years and immediately redeployed himself in the expanding sector of private military companies. Before becoming a trainer, he did several tours in Iraq as an armed guard to protect television teams and businessmen.

The theoretical courses take place in Great Britain, but British law prohibits civilians from handling automatic weapons. Therefore, Mr. Geddes has to transport his students to the Czech Republic, where the rules are much more flexible, for the final segment of the training. Today, they are learning how to repel an attack on an unmarked convoy transporting a VIP: a scenario inspired by Iraq, but found in different variations in many countries around the globe. As soon as the fictitious assault begins, the trainees counterattack methodically: the shooters jump from the cars and cut down the cardboard cutout figures around the clearing; the drivers maneuver into a defensive position; the bodyguards extract their client from the vehicle that’s been hit and transfer him to another.

If only one car remains roadworthy, the bodyguards take it to get the client to safety, abandoning the shooters, who will have to get back to base by their own means: “That’s why the jobs are well-paid,” explains Mr. Geddes, laughing. The trainees learn quickly, since almost all are former soldiers or police, hardened and disciplined. If they get a Ronin Concept diploma, they’ll send their CVs to hundreds of security companies present on the Internet. The forty-year-olds dream of contracts that are less risky, but not too much so: protecting oil wells in Nigeria or a mine in Latin America. Their salary will be added to their pension.

But the younger men want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s where they’ll be the best paid: $250-$600 per day according to the type of job and the risk level. Thirty-year-old Garreth Miller is very likely to land a good contract: a former British Army soldier, he did two tours in Iraq, then a mission in Afghanistan as a scout detached to the US Army. He has just left the Army after five years: “The officers did everything to get me to re-enlist, but private companies offer much more money, a more comfortable life, and more freedom.” Garreth will be able to choose the country where he will go to work, and, should he want to quit before the end of his contract, all he has to do is give two weeks’ notice.

This migration towards the private sector is a fundamental tendency: “During my last tour in Iraq, we were forty new recruits in my unit. Since then, we’ve all left the Army, and today 35 work for military companies. On top of that, the government is paying for my training here as a form of reintegration into the job market.” Garreth says he’s ready to leave at any moment: “My fiance would have liked me to stay with her a bit, but if I want to start a family and buy a house, several years in the private sector will suffice.”

He would gladly work for an American company, where salaries are the highest.

His teammate, Paul Palmer, 25, big, strong and tattooed, spent five years in the British military police. He hasn’t been to Iraq, but he really wants to go: “I left the Army and moved to Cardiff, at my fiancée’s. But one fine morning, she left me. I didn’t know what to do: go back to live with my mother in London? The shame. In fact, I realized I need to live an exciting life; I love action too much.” At the end of his training, Paul Palmer was hired by the Control Risk Group (CRG). Today, he works in Baghdad in a team composed of English, Australians and New Zealanders charged with the protection of a British diplomat and earns $7,000 net per month. He corresponds with the outside world via the Internet: “I live in the ‘Green Zone,’ supposed to be the most secure place in Baghdad, but, in fact, there are kidnappings inside the zone and an American soldier was shot here two days ago […] I live in a camp reserved for our company’s personnel in a room with two beds and common bathrooms. It would be horrible for an ordinary civilian, but as a former soldier, I’m used to it. […] The entry to the camp is guarded by Iraqis, but they tell us never to trust them and even to keep them under surveillance. We are always armed; even at night, we sleep with our rifles loaded.”

Paul Palmer’s employer, CRG, is the biggest British security company. Founded thirty years ago by three former SAS commandos to help insurance companies manage kidnapping incidents, today the company offers businesses and governments the world over a complete range of services from personal protection to computer security. It has more than 700 permanent employees – 300 in its London offices, with 18 other offices spread among all the continents. Since 2003, CRG also supplies armed PSD.

General Director Richard Fenning remembers the crazy period after the beginning of the Iraq war: “Just after the invasion, thousands of foreigners arrived to participate in the reconstruction. But the insurrection very quickly gained scope; they understood that they needed protection, and turned to the coalition’s forces. Yet, the officers refused to supply them with bodyguards: they didn’t have enough troops and knew they were not getting any reinforcements. In fact, the soldiers were busy conducting a war that was supposed not to exist. So the companies decided to take care of their own security. An enormous market was created from one day to the next.”

Then, the coalition governments realized that they didn’t even have enough soldiers to assure the security of their own diplomats: “They had to launch discreet appeals to the private sector for bids,” relates Mr. Fenning. “That’s how we got the contract for protecting Foreign Office members in Iraq and Kabul. It’s a real revolution in the administration’s mores that will have long-lasting consequences for the conduct of wars in the future.”

The American State Department alone has allocated a $1 billion budget over five years for protection of its personnel and certain foreign dignitaries. This unheard-of demand immediately elicited vocations. Former military personnel and adventurers started little improvised companies and hired agents at high speed. To reduce salary cost, some went to seek out retired soldiers in Latin America and South-East Asia. Some entrepreneurs made a fortune at top speed: the American company Blackwater alone has received over $570 million in five years from the federal government. Its competitor, Triple Canopy, created by three people in 2003, figured three years later on the list of the 100 biggest companies in the Washington area. For an individual client – a businessman or a journalist – a personal protection team can cost up to $6,500 a day.

Now the United States counts on private security firms to secure airports, infrastructure, Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” and even certain military bases that lack sentinels. The border between the defensive missions of private agents and soldiers’ combat operations is becoming blurred, since, confronted with insurgents, both groups sometimes help one another. Blackwater, which alone counts close to a thousand employees in Iraq, has deployed armored vehicles, airplanes and helicopters.

In fact, these companies accomplish a number of missions essential to the army as subcontractors, ranging from telecoms to prisoner interrogation. The Pentagon has already adapted by inventing the concept of “total force,” which includes active-duty soldiers, reservists, civilian defense officials and, finally, private personnel, the role of whom should grow still further. At the end of 2006, more than 180 security companies employing over 48,000 people – the maj’rity fulfilling paramilitary operations – were active in Iraq. There are several thousand British – almost as many as the soldiers in Her Majesty’s regular army.

Another advantage of using private personnel: everyone seems to be indifferent to their fate. John Geddes, who, reflected on the future of his profession between two training sessions, is without illusion with respect to governments’ attitude to him: “They know exactly what we do, but, if one day one of our operations goes badly, they’ll be able to say that they weren’t aware of what was happening. When soldiers are killed, the media talk about it, public opinion is upset. But when private agents die in battle, that goes more easily unnoticed. And if people hear it talked about, they say they were looking for it; they were only fighting for money.” According to the statistics published by the Labor Department in Washington, at least 770 foreign security agents were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, and close to 7,800 have been wounded.

That said, Iraq is a business opportunity that will not last forever. Paradoxically, the extreme change for the worse in the violence in the country has caused demand for certain missions such as armed escorts to drop: reconstruction has been abandoned; foreign officials reduce their movement to what is strictly necessary only. The contraction of that segment of the market has had unintended social consequences: during the renewal of one of its contracts, CRG had to lower its prices and decided to recover the difference from its employees’ salaries. The latter objected and launched a series of protest actions, threatening to go on strike right in the middle of Baghdad in order to obtain a compromise.

In order to assure their future, military companies are already trying to diversify their clientele and their services by adopting the business model of classic security companies. They are prospecting in all high-risk regions, especially Africa and Latin America – with the most lucrative niche being consulting for governments allied with the United States. For many, the heroic period is now over: through the game of mergers and cross-participations, they’ve been absorbed by industrial groups that have sold weapons, equipment and services to the American Army for decades. Others have passed to the control of financial investors.

Some are currently operating on American territory. In September 2005, after the passage of Hurricane Katrina, Blackwater decided, without consulting anybody, to replace the failing local police by sending armed commandos to chase looters from the streets of New Orleans. That initiative allowed it to subsequently land a cascade of public and private contracts. Moreover, Blackwater owns two training camps in the United States that serve regular Army units.

For the future, John Geddes deems that the next big market will be peacekeeping under the aegis of the United Nations: “Private military companies will replace the Blue Helmets; it’s inevitable because the present system does not work. On the one hand, the contingents sent by democratic countries are stuck in political or ethical considerations that paralyze their action. On the other hand, when underdeveloped countries are asked to supply contingents, they don’t send their best troops, far from it.” He has often served alongside Blue Helmets in his long career and asserts that their behavior is everywhere deplorable: “We will be less expensive and more effective. I’m sure a well-equipped little private army could quickly stop the Darfur massacres.” On the ethical plane, private soldiers are no angels, but they’re no worse than soldiers from many countries: “We will fire the bad ones and keep the good ones – which an army can’t do.” And, as long as salaries remain high, they won’t lack for a workforce.

Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.