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Empire's LaborThe Global Army That Supports U.S. Wars$

Adam Moore

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781501742170

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501742170.001.0001

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Military Contracting, Foreign Workers, and War

Military Contracting, Foreign Workers, and War

(p.1) 1 Military Contracting, Foreign Workers, and War
Empire's Labor

Adam Moore

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the scale and scope of privatized military work in the present day and compares this with earlier practices of contracting by the U.S. military. It explains the rise of large-scale logistics outsourcing since the end of the Cold War. The chapter also introduces U.S. military's overseas operations regarding recognized wars and clandestine campaigns. It also analyzes the labor required to sustain such operations, and the experiences of people from around the world that do it. The present-day U.S. military empire is profoundly dependent upon a global army of labor that comes from countries as diverse as Bosnia, the Philippines, Turkey, India, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, and Fiji.

Keywords:   privatized military, U.S. military, Cold War, global army, military labor, logistics outsourcing

Telling the story of the United States in the world from the perspective of labor … remaps our interpretation of empire building by demonstrating its deep connection to the migratory routes and protean life strategies of the global working class.

—Julie Greene

This book is about the U.S. military’s overseas operations, both recognized wars and clandestine campaigns. Or rather, it is about the labor required to sustain such operations, and the experiences of people from around the world that do it. For the present-day U.S. military empire is profoundly dependent upon a global army of labor that comes from countries as diverse as Bosnia, the Philippines, Turkey, India, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, and Fiji.

Such a state of affairs represents a profound shift in how the U.S. fights its wars, with social, economic, and political implications that extend well beyond the battlefields. Consider the following events that took place a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq. On September 1, 2004, thousands of enraged Nepalese took to the streets of Kathmandu. Their target was the small Muslim community in the country. By the end of the night the city’s largest mosque, along with a number of Muslim-owned businesses and dozens of labor-recruiting agencies, had been set on fire, and the offices of Pakistani and Gulf-based airlines ransacked. Seven people died, including three individuals killed by rioters who mistakenly identified them as Muslims.1

The precipitant of this outburst of violence was the execution the previous day of twelve Nepalese men by the rebel group Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq. The men had left Nepal a month earlier, lured by a local recruiting agency with promises of employment at a luxury hotel in Jordan. Instead, when they reached that country their passports were confiscated and they were told that they were being sent to Iraq to work on a U.S. military base for a Jordanian-based military logistics subcontractor, Daoud & Partners. If they refused to go they would be sent back (p.2) to Nepal, still owing thousands of dollars in brokerage fees to the recruiting agency. On the way to their destination the convoy was attacked and they were kidnapped. Less than two weeks later they were killed, and the execution video posted online.2

The twelve men were in Iraq due to a remarkable change in how the U.S. supports overseas military operations. Since 2001 it has relied on a legion of private military companies (PMCs) that employ workers from around the world. The scale of this phenomenon is extraordinary. According to a November 2008 contracting census conducted by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), for instance, there were more than 266,000 contractors supporting military operations in its area of responsibility (AOR), which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan. This was just short of the number of troops deployed there during the same period. The total included roughly 163,000 people working in Iraq and 68,000 in Afghanistan, with the remainder located at various bases and logistics support hubs elsewhere in the region.3

There are several details from this report that are worth highlighting here. First, the data represented only a partial accounting of the U.S. military’s reliance on contractors to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time as it did not include thousands of private security and support staff working for the Department of State (DoS), or those employed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has also grown more dependent on contractors to carry out its reconstruction and development projects in recent years.4 Second, 2008 was the high-water mark for military contracting in the region due to the “surge” in Iraq that began the previous year.5 But it was in no way anomalous. As figure 1.1 indicates, the number of contractors working in CENT-COM stayed above 200,000 from the beginning of 2008—when AOR-wide censuses were first tabulated—until late 2010.6 At the end of 2013 nearly 100,000 were still at work in the region. The contracting workforce in CENTCOM bottomed out at roughly 42,000 in summer 2015. Since then it has increasing again, to more than 50,000, as the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East drag on.

The third point concerns the composition of the contractor workforce. According to the military’s estimate, only 15 percent of contractor personnel in 2008 were U.S. citizens. Much more numerous—at 47 percent—were what it refers to as Local Nationals (LNs). LNs are citizens of the country in which the work is performed, such as Afghan truck drivers delivering goods to forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan. Occasionally military documents also refer to this class of workers as Host Country Nationals (HCNs), though this is a rather less common term. The remaining contractors—roughly 100,000 people at the time—consisted of what the military calls either Third Country Nationals (TCNs) or Other Country Nationals (OCNs), the latter an alternative nomenclature that has (p.3)

Military Contracting, Foreign Workers, and War

Figure 1.1. CENTCOM contracting statistics, 2008–2019

gained some ground in recent years. This catch-all category refers to any workers that are neither LNs nor U.S. citizens. The prevalence of TCN labor in 2008 was also not anomalous. As figure 1.1 shows, TCNs have represented roughly 30–45 percent of CENTCOM’s contract workforce from 2008 to 2019.

The fourth important detail to consider is that just 8 percent of the military’s contracting workforce was involved in providing security. This may come as a surprise to most readers because to date writing on military contracting has focused on companies that provide armed security for convoys, military bases, and government personnel such as Department of State employees. Private security companies are frequently labeled mercenaries or hired guns by critics, who highlight their role in the perpetuation of human rights abuses and killings of innocent civilians.7 One of the most notorious such incidents was the Nisour Square massacre in 2007, where Blackwater guards providing security for a U.S. embassy convoy shot and killed seventeen civilians in Baghdad. The voluminous academic literature on armed security PMCs tends to be state-centric and focused on policy relevance. Prominent themes include the impact security contracting has upon state sovereignty and the monopoly of violence; analyses of its effectiveness; the ethical and moral implications of its use by states; and concerns about states’ ability to control and hold armed contractors accountable for their actions in war.8

Despite the focus on privatized security in the media and academia, employees of armed security PMCs have constituted but a fraction of the military’s (p.4) contractor contingent in the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In late 2008, for example, over 75 percent of CENTCOM’s contractor workforce performed tasks related to logistics such as transportation, construction, maintenance, and base support. This corresponds with a 2010 military analysis of contracting data from Iraq that estimated that the ratio of contractors to uniformed personnel in the field of logistics was nearly 5:1, leading to the conclusion that “on the whole, the military is most dependent on contracted support for logistics operations.”9 Logistics workers are often employed by massive U.S. corporations like Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), Fluor, and DynCorp—or the multitude of subcontracting firms from around the world that they in turn rely on.

Military Contracting and the Everywhere of War

The growth of military contracting in recent years is an important development because it represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. fights it wars. What is new is not the reliance on private companies and labor to support military campaigns, which has a long history in both the U.S. military and among other armed forces, but rather the scale and scope of the phenomenon. In World War II the ratio of contractors to uniformed personnel was roughly 1:7. In Vietnam it was 1:6. In contrast, in the three largest overseas contingency operations in the past two decades—the peacekeeping missions in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the number of contractors has been roughly equal to or greater than the number of uniformed personnel in the theaters of operation.10 And in Africa, where the military’s presence has grown rapidly over the past decade, contractors play a central role in supporting an expanding network of drone bases, logistics nodes and clandestine Special Operations Forces (SOF). Put simply, the U.S. is now dependent on contracted labor, especially in the realm of logistics, to fight its wars.11

I would argue, in fact, that the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on private companies and foreign labor to provide logistics support for operations around the world is as significant as the various technological innovations toward network-centric warfare over the past two decades that have been dubbed a “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA.12 Especially since, as one military analysis from 2001 notes, “RMA is predicated on a revolution in military logistics” that centers on the increasing use of private contractors.13 Or as former army chief of staff Eric Shinseki put it in 2002, “Without a transformation in logistics there will be no transformation in the Army.”14

(p.5) The transformation of military logistics through contracting is not just operationally linked to RMA. Both have also profoundly impacted the spatiality of war, though in different ways.15 A key claim made by political geographers and other social scientists is that RMA, combined with the U.S. response to 9/11, has led to a blurring of the traditional geographies of warfare: from defined battlefields to multidimensional and fluid urban “battlespaces”; from officially recognized combat zones to shadowy campaigns against nonstate actors in “borderlands,” “ungoverned spaces,” and undisclosed locations; and the development of novel forms of “lawfare” that radically redefine legal jurisdictions, detention policies, and the different classes of people that are considered “lawful targets.”16 In the evocative words of Derek Gregory, we are living in the age of “the everywhere war.”17

Military contracting is also reshaping the geography of war by generating new political and economic entanglements, the effects of which often extend well beyond the immediate spaces of violence. These entanglements profoundly impact livelihoods, politics, and social relations in numerous communities and states around the world that are not directly involved in the various U.S. wars and military operations. Nepal’s deadly violence in 2004 dramatically illustrates these distance-spanning entanglements. Put another way, the expansion of military contracting is producing what may be called the “everywhere of war.”18

The following examples illustrate this claim. According to the Department of Labor, more than 3,380 civilians working for the U.S. military or various PMCs supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan died between September 2001 and June 2018. This compares with roughly 6,950 U.S. military casualties in those wars.19 While contractor deaths and injuries—especially foreign ones—barely register in the U.S., the same is not true of the countries that they are from. Following the deaths of the twelve workers from Nepal, the Nepalese government declared a national day of mourning. In the Philippines incidents involving workers, such as the deaths of ten men whose helicopter crashed in Afghanistan in 2009, are regularly given prominent coverage by national TV networks and newspapers.20 Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the plight of workers in Iraq and Afghanistan has also impacted domestic and international politics around the world. In 2004, for instance, insurgents began targeting truck convoys carrying food, fuel, and materials from Kuwait and Turkey to U.S. bases in Iraq. As deadly attacks and hostage taking of drivers mounted, India and the Philippines declared travel bans to Iraq for their citizens. They were joined by Nepal immediately following the execution of its trafficked citizens.

In each case the countries’ decision to impose a ban on travel to Iraq for work was driven by domestic political considerations. Nepalese diplomats stated that the government felt “very vulnerable” following the anti-Muslim riots in the (p.6) country, owing to fears about both further domestic unrest and potential reprisals against the hundreds of thousands of Nepalese working in Muslim countries in the Middle East.21 For the Philippines the tipping point was the kidnapping of a truck driver, Angelo de la Cruz, in July. His hostage takers threatened to kill him if the Philippines did not remove its small contingent of troops from the country. Initially defiant, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had just won a controversial election dogged by allegations of vote rigging, eventually acquiesced to this demand following massive protests across the country. Shortly afterward de la Cruz was released, followed by the imposition of a travel ban.

The travel bans immediately set off alarm bells within the U.S. military due to its dependence on workers from these labor-exporting states. It also prompted a flurry of urgent behind the scenes diplomacy by the DoS. To give a sense of just how dependent on TCN labor for logistical support the military was at the time, one DoS analysis written shortly after the India and Philippines bans were announced stated:

Coalition forces are heavily dependent on Filipino and Indian drivers and other logistical support personnel for the humanitarian fuels, military food supply and mission critical programs in Iraq. Contractors and U.S. military report that a fully enforced ban would cripple these operations. There are no readily implemented short-term workarounds to ameliorate the effect of a travel ban. … ​For example, Public Warehouse Company (PWC), the prime vendor for the supply of water and food to U.S. forces in Iraq, confirmed on 3 August that fully 48 percent of the firm’s 1,500 drivers are Indian and that at least 10 percent more are Filipino.22

Three days later the U.S. embassy in Kuwait reported that over 1,000 trucks were stuck at the Kuwait-Iraq border, through which roughly 75 percent of goods entered Iraq at the time. It also noted that the military estimated that less than a week’s supply of food and water for troops remained in the country.23

Initially the U.S. tried to convince India, the Philippines, and Nepal to reverse their travel bans, or at least exempt from them citizens that worked for military contractors. It also promised to improve security measures for convoys, including an increase in military escort vehicles. When this approach gained little traction—and facing an “ever-dwindling” supply of workers as other countries imposed and pondered travel bans in the fall—it changed course and pressed Kuwait not to enforce the bans at its border crossings, which would “allow distressed contractors to move towards more normal work schedules and alleviate the mounting logistical problems created by the travel bans.”24 At first the Kuwaiti government was resistant to this plan, especially without diplomatic cover from countries that had imposed the travel bans, but it eventually agreed following (p.7) continued pressure from the U.S. government and Kuwaiti trucking firms that held the majority of military transport contracts for Iraq.

For the Philippines the decision to also withdraw its small contingent of troops from Iraq was even more geopolitically fraught than the imposition of a travel ban. Presenting itself as a close ally of the U.S. following 9/11, it had sent troops to Iraq as a member of the “coalition of the willing,” a decision motivated in part by the lure of potential contracts and jobs that it envisioned would accompany postwar reconstruction. The decision to pull out its military contingent to secure the release of de la Cruz met with angry condemnation from other members of the coalition. Australia’s foreign minister called the decision “marshmellowlike” and an “extreme disappointment,” while U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that “weakness is provocative.”25 In response the U.S. withdrew its ambassador to the Philippines for consultations. It also, according to interviews with Filipino officials and workers in Iraq at the time, imposed retaliatory measures including restrictions on diplomatic personnel visiting the Green Zone and reductions in the privileges of Filipino workers on certain U.S. military bases, such as restrictions on mobility and the use of recreational facilities.

In response to criticisms from other coalition members Philippine Senate majority leader Francis Pangilinan wrote an open letter that highlighted the distinctive geopolitical situation his country faced due to its position as a major exporter of labor to the Middle East. He noted that over a million Filipino citizens were working in the region, any of which he claimed might become “targets of retaliation” if the Philippines did not withdraw from the coalition. He also observed that if other coalition partners had such a large civilian presence in the region their views about continued participation would be “starkly different.”26 As Pangilinan’s comments illustrate, the position of labor-exporting states was shaped by domestic political protests in the aftermath of kidnappings and attacks on their workers in Iraq, and the fear that being seen as too closely linked to the U.S. occupation could potentially put hundreds of thousands of their citizens working elsewhere in the Middle East at risk. Therefore these states decided to distance themselves by imposing travel bans. These decisions, and the desperate attempt by the U.S. to circumvent the bans by inducing Kuwait not to enforce them at its border with Iraq, also illustrate the degree of dependency the military has on foreign labor, and the need for support—or at least indifference—from labor-exporting states in acquiring it.

The global entanglements of military contracting are also manifest in more mundane ways. Over the past two decades, for example, the economic fortunes of a number of communities in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have been intimately linked to the growth of this phenomenon, first through employment related to peacekeeping missions in the region, later as thousands of men and women (p.8) from those countries were recruited to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently when a contingent traveled to West Africa to provide support for Operation United Assistance, the 2014–15 military mission to fight the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

In fact, it was while conducting PhD research on postwar peacebuilding in Bosnia that I first became aware of the impact that military contracting has had in the region and beyond. The initial encounter took place in 2005 at the University of Sarajevo’s computer center, which was then located near the city’s main bus terminal. One day, while checking email, I heard six students huddled around a computer talking excitedly about jobs on military bases in Iraq. Peeking over I noticed that they were looking at KBR’s recruiting page. A few days later I asked two friends from the town of Brčko in northeast Bosnia about this. They had both served as interpreters for U.S. peacekeeping forces in the 1990s and said that they knew of several former interpreters who had been recruited by KBR to work in Iraq. At the time I just filed this away as a curious detail.

During further research in summer 2011, my attention was again drawn to the import of military contracting in Bosnia when several friends in Brčko discussed preparing résumés to send to recruiters in the nearby town of Tuzla, who were actively looking for workers to support Fluor’s and DynCorp’s expanding operations in Afghanistan. That summer residents of Brčko also mourned the death of Nenad Antić, a contractor who was killed in Afghanistan. Interest piqued, the following year I arranged to talk with a handful of individuals in Tuzla who previously worked for KBR in Iraq. My thinking at the time was to write a short article about Bosnians working on military bases in the Middle East. However, as I talked with people and delved deeper into the topic I began to realize that the significance of these dynamics extend well beyond Bosnia.

The Labor of Empire

Since the early 2000s the status of the U.S. as a modern-day empire has gone from a highly contested claim to commonplace observation among both critics and proponents. As Robert Kaplan proclaimed in 2003, “It is a cliché these days to observe that the United States now possesses a global empire. … ​It is time to move beyond a statement of the obvious.”27 To be certain, this empire looks different from earlier European examples with their vast colonial holdings. Instead of colonies, a global network of military bases provides evidence of imperial might, with one recent analysis concluding, “Although few U.S. citizens realize it, we probably have more bases in other people’s lands than any other people, nation, or empire in world history.”28 Some might argue that an absence of colonies disqualifies (p.9) the U.S. as an empire. But reliance on a vast network of bases in client states and allies rather than territorial colonies simply constitutes a different modality of imperial power, one based on informal rather than formal measures to exert influence on other countries.29

While this worldwide network of bases is considered one of the most prominent examples of U.S. imperial ambitions and military might, less attention has been paid to the global army of labor that supports overseas operations at these bases, or the political and economic entanglements that this entails. Logistics labor in particular has been overlooked in the literature dedicated to its various wars. One reason for this lack of attention is that this work seems mundane and less “mercenary.”30 Filipinos driving trucks, Kosovar Albanians cleaning latrines, and Indians cooking pancakes are not what we picture when we think of the PMC industry. Yet it is precisely these kinds of workers, these types of labor, that animate the U.S. military’s overseas interventions. Consequently, it is worth asking what the world looks like when we “gaze through the looking glass at the working people and labor systems” that make U.S. empire work.31

Adopting a more historical perspective makes apparent that for all its unique qualities, present-day military contracting echoes earlier U.S. labor dynamics. As Julie Greene observes, “the U.S. imperial project” has “always and everywhere involved the recruitment, managing and disciplining of labor.”32 In recent years a vibrant body of research premised on the argument that “empire has a labor history” that is just beginning to be written has explored the labor that facilitated expansionary political projects following the Civil War, especially the early years of the twentieth, or “American,” century, from a global workforce mobilized to build the Panama Canal; to Filipino and Puerto Rican field hands brought in to work the sugar plantations in the territory of Hawaii; to Cuban laborers who constructed and maintained the military base at Guantanamo.33 Like today’s global army of military labor, these earlier examples depended heavily on the recruitment and exploitation of foreign, nonwhite workforces. The persistence of these dynamics exemplifies what Ann Laura Stoler refers to as “imperial durabilities.”34 Thus while the following pages provide an analysis of military logistics labor in the U.S. imperial present, it is necessary to recognize that this present is also inextricably connected to its past.


This book is the product of a multiyear descent down the rabbit hole of military contracting and logistics labor. It has multiple aims. One is to outline the history of logistics outsourcing by the U.S. military, including the rapid upshift in the (p.10) practice over the past two decades. Doing this necessitates situating this phenomenon within the wider context of government privatization trends in the fields of defense and intelligence, as well as the downsizing and transformation of the military following the Cold War. It also involves outlining how present-day contracting compares with logistics support supplied by camp followers, sutlers, and corporations in earlier eras.

A second goal is to illuminate the immense work involved in sustaining the U.S. overseas military empire. Over the past two decades U.S. forces have been continuously deployed fighting wars, hunting terrorists, and conducting peacekeeping and humanitarian missions across the globe. These operations, especially the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, are logistically intensive. Conducting them has involved the movement of a tremendous amount of goods and people along lengthy and complex supply chains, the construction and maintenance of hundreds of bases—many the size of small cities—in remote and challenging environments, and the provision of a panoply of life support services like food, laundry, showers, and billeting for uniformed personnel. All of this logistical support depends upon an army of labor drawn from around the world.

Third, this book endeavors to trace the routes and labor supply chains traversed by the military’s global workforce, as well as the specific histories and present-day politics that shape them. Taken together, such pathways “represent a kind of imperial geography, tracing boundaries of an empire of mobility.”35 Given the number of countries that serve as sources of labor, these routes are varied. In some cases, as with many workers from the Balkans, one’s journey began as a local hire, or LN, before following employers to military operations in the Middle East or Africa. In other instances company websites or online forums have served as an introduction to the world of military contracting. For most workers from countries like India, Nepal, and the Philippines, the recruiting process—from the role of local agents, to fees and terms of contracts, to experiences of labor trafficking—has shared characteristics with the broader recruiting assemblage that facilitates a massive labor import-export regime between wealthy Gulf petro-states and poor, Asian, labor-exporting countries. This should not be a surprise as the largest military subcontractors in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be firms from the Middle East. But the result is that the military has in effect “imported” a host of exploitative labor practices that parallel conditions experienced by labor migrants elsewhere in the region, while at the same time deliberately exercising minimal oversight responsibility.

The fourth, and primary, goal of this book is to give voice to the agency, aspirations, and experiences of those who labor for the military—focusing specifically on foreign logistics workers whose experiences have been occluded by the overweening focus on private military security contractors. What, for example, (p.11) is life and work like on a military base in a warzone? News reporting and documentaries to date—mainly by a handful of dogged journalists such as Pratap Chatterjee, Anjali Kamat, T. Christian Miller, David Phinney, Cam Simpson, Sarah Stillman, and Lee Wang—have produced a portrait of exploited laborers from South and Southeast Asia employed by subcontracting firms. This book is indebted to their work. However, while difficult and exploitative working conditions have certainly been the experience of many, life on military bases in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa is rather more complex than existing accounts suggest. My research indicates that workers’ experiences vary considerably and are shaped by a range of factors including nationality, gender (a not insignificant portion of workers are women), language, type of base or camp, the work one does, and what company one works for. Moreover, there is a hidden history of labor activism and worker agency on bases that has not been adequately examined to date. In addition to base life, I also examine the social, political, and economic impacts that this work has on families, and on the communities and countries that laborers come from.

Sites and Sources

The geography and scale of U.S. military contracting over the past two decades is vast. Workers from dozens of countries around the world have labored in a panoply of states across Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Obviously it is not possible to capture the full extent and diversity of this phenomenon. Any account will be partial and incomplete.

This book focuses on laborers from two countries: Bosnia and the Philippines. There are several reasons behind this choice, three of which are worth noting here. First, both countries have been significant sources of military labor over the past two decades—and even longer in the case of the Philippines, with the U.S. military continuously utilizing Filipino labor from 1898 to the present. Second, Bosnia and the Philippines are also useful for revealing the complexity and diversity of workers’ experiences on military bases, while also identifying commonalities. For example, whereas most Filipinos have worked for subcontracting companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bosnians have by and large been employed by prime contractors like KBR, Fluor, and DynCorp. This is significant because the distinction between employment with a prime contractor or subcontractor is the most important determinant of one’s pay and privileges on a base, with vast disparities between the two categories. Moreover, a focus on Bosnian and Filipino workers also offers insight into the ways in which race and nationality shape work and life on bases. Third, these countries’ specific histories, including the (p.12) Philippines’ decades-old labor-export economic development strategy, the colonial and client-state relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines throughout the 1900s, and the U.S. military’s peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, are useful for tracing the history and development of military contracting in relation to U.S. empire and geopolitics in the twentieth century, and broader currents of transnational labor migration in recent decades.

Between 2012 and 2016 I conducted in-depth interviews with more than eighty current and former workers from Bosnia and the Philippines, interviews that in many cases included family members and multiple sessions—sessions that extended across multiple years in the case of several Bosnian workers. I also interviewed a number of recruiters and government officials in these countries. Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of interviewees throughout the book. This is not just a matter of research ethics. Nearly every PMC employee I talked with signed a confidentiality agreement as a stipulation of employment. Therefore revealing people’s identities could not just have negative effects on their future employment opportunities, but also potentially open them up to legal repercussions. This is an unlikely but not completely hypothetical risk. As I discuss in chapter 8, recruiting agencies and military subcontractors have initiated legal cases in the Philippines against former workers in Iraq who jumped to new companies prior to the completion of their original contracts, a violation of the terms of the contracts they signed.

In addition to interviews this project draws on a range of textual sources. Several Filipino workers generously shared copies of employment contracts with me, and friends in Bosnia introduced me to online forums from the region that have served as key sources of information on employment opportunities, the hiring process, and working conditions with different companies. I have also extensively mined a variety of U.S. government documents, including Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, DoS cables, congressional testimony, and numerous military reports, websites, and investigations. A number of these documents have been obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.


Thematically I divide this book into three parts. The first concerns histories. This section begins with a chapter that outlines the scale and scope of privatized military work in the present day, compares this with earlier practices of contracting by the U.S. military, and explains the rise of large-scale logistics outsourcing since the end of the Cold War. Following this I provide an overview of colonial and client (p.13) state relations between the U.S. and the Philippines in the twentieth century, as well as the related history of reliance on Filipino labor by the U.S. military that continues to shape the recruitment of Filipinos for military work. Chapter 3 also describes the emergence of labor export as a development strategy by the Philippines starting in the 1970s, the concurrent development of labor flows between Gulf states and South and Southeast Asian countries, and links between these two processes and recruiting pathways, logistics subcontractors, and Filipino employment on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter 4 then examines the duality of prosperity and precarity experienced by Bosnians who have worked for the U.S. military and various contractors over the past two-plus decades. It begins by describing the economic and social significance of participation in the country’s postwar “peacekeeping economy” in the 1990s, with companies providing logistics support for peacekeeping forces, or employment with one of the myriad international organizations involved in peacebuilding projects during this period. I then detail the shift to employment in warzones in the Middle East and Afghanistan as relatively privileged direct hires with Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) prime contractors (i.e., KBR, Fluor, and DynCorp), followed by a discussion of the experience of both prosperity and precarity by those who have done this work.

The theme of the second part is routes. This includes networks, infrastructures, and practices that span and constitute the spaces through which people, information, and goods circulate. I begin in chapter 5 by describing logistics spaces and labor involved in supporting overseas operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, increasingly, Africa. Chapter 6 then contrasts the legal hiring processes and key nodes for recruitment and travel to and from worksites in Afghanistan and the Middle East for Bosnians, who tend to be directly hired by prime contractors, and Filipinos, who have primarily worked for subcontractors. One way I approach this is by tracing the pathways—social networks, recruiting agencies, internet forums, and company-specific application processes—that constitute these respective labor supply chains. Drawing on interviews with workers and labor brokers in the Philippines, chapter 7 examines trafficking of South and Southeast Asian workers, and the “backdoor” or underground recruitment of Filipino labor following the introduction of travel bans to Iraq and Afghanistan. This chapter also discusses the continuing problem of labor abuses—especially trafficking—and legal rationales deployed by the U.S. military to disentangle itself as much as possible from oversight responsibility.

The third part of the book focuses on base life. I approach this topic in a variety of ways, beginning in chapter 8 with an analysis of the hidden dynamics of labor activism on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing in particular on three strategies: protests, strikes, and “jumping” from one company to another.

(p.14) I describe the motivations of workers who engage in these actions, as well as the risks, and the coercive measures employed by companies—especially subcontractors—to suppress them. Following this, chapter 9 examines stark differences in pay, perks, and working conditions between those employed by prime contractors or subcontractors, and ways that race, nationality, and gender shape relations and hierarchies among workers and between workers and service members on bases. Chapter 10 explores the themes of family, community, and returning home. This encompasses the impact of working on bases in warzones on family life, including divorce and marriage, the economic and social impacts on communities workers hail from—which is significant given spatial concentrations of recruitment in both Bosnia and the Philippines—and difficulties in adjusting to life at home following the end of employment.

In the conclusion I step back and ask the following question: How has military contracting and the increasing reliance on foreign labor detailed in this book impacted the “American way of war”? The answer, I suggest, is that the growth of contracting has—in conjunction with technological innovations—transformed both the spatial and temporal registers of war. I have briefly discussed the changing spatial dimensions (the “everywhere war” and the “everywhere of war”) above. Temporally, it has enabled what Dexter Filkins aptly refers to as the “forever war”—a ceaseless parade of military operations around the world over the past two decades in response to 9/11.36 Crucially, military contracting transfers risk and casualties onto foreign bodies, thereby dampening domestic opposition to the pursuit of boundless war elsewhere in the world. Put another way, this global army of labor is an inextricable facet of the present-day U.S. military empire.


(2.) Cam Simpson (2018) has chronicled—in beautiful and evocative detail—the lives and deaths of the Nepalese men, as well as repercussions on families back home and the subsequent decade of lawsuits in U.S. courts. For more contemporaneous reporting on these events, see Dhruba and Rohde 2004; Bell 2004; T. Miller 2006.

(3.) Schwartz 2010. A copy of the November 2008 report, as well as all of the other quarterly censuses, can be downloaded at http://www.acq.osd.mil/log/ps/centcom_reports.html. For a map of CENTCOM’s AOR, see http://www.centcom.mil/images/stories/unified-command_world-map.jpg.

(4.) Roberts 2014. For a detailed analysis of one USAID contractor project in Afghanistan, see Attewell 2017.

(5.) Raw contracting census data from Iraq (see chapter 2), for example, indicates that the number of contractors in that country increased from nearly 137,000 in 3rd quarter 2007 to more than 149,000 in 2nd quarter 2008, and reached its peak at the end of 2008. This corresponds with the peak in the average monthly number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, which also occurred in 2008. For more on this, see Belasco 2009.

(6.) This graph is based on data from all published quarterly censuses beginning in 2008. Reports can be found at http://www.acq.osd.mil/log/ps/centcom_reports.html.

(7.) See, for example, Scahill 2008.

(8.) On sovereignty and the monopoly of violence, see Avant 2005; Verkuil 2007; Krahmann 2013; McFate 2015. On state control and accountability, see Singer 2008; Isenberg 2008; Bruneau 2011. On effectiveness, see Dunigan 2011. On ethical and moral implications, see Pattison 2014; Eckert 2016. One significant exception to this policy-centric focus is an emerging literature that examines the intersection of gender, race, and masculinity with private security contractors. See, for example, Joachim and Schneiker 2012; Higate 2012a; Eichler 2013, 2014, 2015; Stachowitsch 2014; Chisholm 2014a; Chisholm and Stachowitsch 2017.

(10.) Fontaine and Nagl 2010, 9. Fontaine and Nagl derived these figures from an analysis conducted by the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History on behalf of the Commission on Wartime Contracting for Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC), which is the most widely cited analysis of wartime contracting ratios.

(11.) This book focuses on logistics contracting by the U.S. military. Relatively less research has been devoted to logistics contracting by its Western allies, though they too increasingly rely upon contractors to support overseas operations, such as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan. This reliance on contractors is especially true of the United Kingdom, which has moved toward the U.S. model for logistics contracting in recent years, as evidenced by the introduction of its own multiyear Contractor Logistics contract patterned after the LOGCAP program in 2004. See (p.200) Kinsey and Erbel 2011. For more on UK and NATO logistics contracting, see Kinsey 2009; Cusumano 2018.

(14.) Quoted in Farrand 2006, 1.

(15.) For more on the operational link between RMA and logistics outsourcing, see Erbel and Kinsey 2018.

(16.) On urban battlespaces, see Graham 2009. On war in borderlands and ungoverned spaces, see Bachmann 2010; Mitchell 2010; I. Shaw 2013; I. Shaw and Akhter 2012. On lawfare and lawful targets, see Gregory 2006; Khalili 2012; Weizman 2012; Jones 2015, 2016.

(19.) For data on U.S. military casualties, see http://icasualties.org. For information on contractor deaths, see Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Program n.d. The Department of Labor is required by the Defense Base Act to track overseas contractor injuries and deaths for the purposes of providing compensation. It should be noted that the number of contractor casualties—especially injuries—is likely higher than the data indicate as it is incumbent upon companies to report these figures and there is evidence of underreporting by firms, especially subcontractors.

(24.) Embassy Kuwait 2004e, 2004f.

(28.) Vine 2015, 3. See also, Lutz 2008. This said, as Catherine Lutz (2006, 595) points out, it is important not to forget that the U.S. is a settler colonial state that also still maintains a number of overseas island colonies, such as Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

(29.) Go 2011, 9. For more on informal empire, see M. Mann 2012, 18–19.

(33.) Greene 2015, 1. For more on this emerging field of inquiry, see Greene 2016. For prominent examples of this research, see Greene 2009; Poblete 2014; Lipman 2008. Following Neil Smith (2003), I view the American Century as beginning with the events of 1898—including, most pertinently for this story, the beginning of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines—though the phrase was first coined by Henry Luce more than four decades later.