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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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(p.149) 9 Relations
Empire's Labor

Adam Moore

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter 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. It examines two social fields that significantly influence the experiences of the military's third country nations (TCN) workforce, which in their most basic form can be referred to as company and identity. Perhaps the most important influence on life on a military base in a warzone concerns the type of company that one works for. The chapter further emphasizes how important employment with a prime contractor or subcontractor is in determining pay and privileges, as well as relations among workers, and between workers and service members. It also discusses in further detail the introduction of tiered contracts by Fluor and DynCorp in Afghanistan, which has blurred the distinction between prime contractors and subcontractors in recent years.

Keywords:   prime contractors, subcontractors, third country nations, military base, warzone, Fluor, DynCorp, Afghanistan

I saw it as a caste system. It was Americans on top, then the Europeans underneath, then Filipinos, then Indians. … B​ut that kind of dividing of people is just wrong for everybody. What’s the difference between me and the black American guy, or me and that TCN? What’s the difference? We all did the same jobs. We were all in the same base.


It is difficult to decide where to start, or how to organize, a chapter that aims to describe social relations on military bases in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa, given the diversity of experiences and settings. Any account, as noted in the introduction, will be partial and incomplete. That said, there are certain themes that stand out based on interviews. This chapter examines two social fields that significantly influence the experiences of the military’s TCN workforce, which in their most basic form can be referred to as company and identity, respectively. To be certain, these are inextricably entangled. Thus this is a somewhat artificial distinction that I am making, as will be clear in the analysis below, which also emphasizes intersections and connections among them.

Perhaps the most important influence on life on a military base in a warzone concerns the type of company that one works for. The key distinction is that between prime contractors—especially U.S. firms—and their subcontractors. It is hard to overstate just how important employment with a prime contractor or subcontractor is in determining pay and privileges, as well as relations among workers, and between workers and service members. Bosnians employed by prime contractors, for instance, have typically lived in housing with American workers, enjoying similar base privileges and competing for jobs and promotions. Their lives are a world apart from other TCNs working for subcontractors. Another way to illustrate the prime contractor-subcontractor distinction is to examine accounts of individuals from the Philippines who have managed to jump from a subcontractor like PPI to a prime contracting company. I also discuss in further detail below the introduction of tiered contracts by Fluor and DynCorp (p.150) in Afghanistan, which has blurred the distinction between prime contractors and subcontractors in recent years.

The second sphere, identity, is multifaceted. For instance, patterns of recruitment by prime contractors and subcontractors—with the former primarily hiring workers from the U.S. or Southeast European countries and the latter sourcing labor predominately from South and Southeast Asia—highlight the role that differential pay and privileges play in contributing to racial disparities within the military’s workforce. Indeed, several researchers have argued that the extensive recruitment of workers from countries in the Global South reinforces racialized hierarchies in warzones. The above observation from Lena, who worked for multiple companies in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, points to another significant aspect of relations on bases: one’s citizenship or nationality. As her quote indicates, this also intersects with race, both within—such as American—and across national categories. Possibly the least explored aspect of base life concerns the experiences of female workers like Lena, as with few exceptions news accounts and academic articles overlook the fact that a not insignificant number of contractors are women. Race, citizenship, and gender often intersect in complex and unexpected ways, which I discuss in the second section of this chapter, following an examination of the divergent experiences of prime contractor and subcontractor employees.


Most accounts of foreign labor on bases in the Middle East and Afghanistan highlight the exploitation of this workforce by military contractors, from low pay and poor living conditions to trafficking. In nearly every instance the offending companies have been subcontractors, predominately from the Gulf states and Turkey. Often unseen in these accounts is the experience of those who work for prime contractors. The differences are stark. Consider the following exchange with Fedja, who was employed as a labor foreman by KBR at Tallil Air Base in Iraq in 2007:


  • You know in Iraq I had a CAC card from the U.S. government—a white CAC card—I had every rights of an American citizen [on the base].
  • ME:

  • Is that because you had previous experience working with American forces here [in Bosnia]?
  • FEDJA:

  • No. It was the KBR contract in 2007. And in those days we had the white CAC cards
  • .


  • What is a white CAC card?
  • (p.151) FEDJA:

  • It is like this. You had a couple of cards. CAC card is your chip card, you had everything in it—with the CAC card you go on R & R [vacation], you sign in to your outpost—everything is on your CAC card. And we had a white CAC card like American citizens [contractors].
  • ME:

  • So these are electronic?
  • FEDJA:

  • And visual. Because in every base you have inside security. It was visual security for inside the post because you had limitations. For my base, for example, you had people from Turkey, from India, from all around the world. And they could go to work, and then back into their outpost [mancamp]. Because inside a base you had ten other bases [company-run mancamps]. I, with a white CAC card, I could go to PX, to a gym. I could shop and buy everything I want. I could go to pizzeria. But people who didn’t have a white card couldn’t go. They could only go to their base [mancamp]. They had their own mess hall and everything.
  • ME:

  • So you had a segregated mess hall then? What different cards were there? Or what different levels—let’s say for different workers—were there?
  • FEDJA:

  • It was like two types of levels. Minor jobs like cleaning the toilets, those really, really low jobs were being done by people from India, and they had major restrictions. They could only go supervised to work their job. I picked them up from their base [mancamp], inside this base they are quarantined, a small base for them only.
  • ME:

  • And they couldn’t leave it unless you came and supervised them?
  • FEDJA:

  • I would come and pick them up, do my eight hour shift, drive them back and that’s it. They can’t go to mess hall with U.S. troops. They can’t go anywhere without supervision.
  • ME:

  • And your job was?
  • FEDJA:

  • I was a labor foreman. I supervised people who worked for me.
  • ME:

  • How many people would you have, then, as a foreman?
  • FEDJA:

  • From three to eight guys.
  • ME:

  • And they would be Indian or Pakistani?
  • FEDJA:

  • Yeah
  • .


  • And what were they doing?
  • FEDJA:

  • Most of the time they were doing the cleaning jobs. Latrines, showers, and stuff like that. That’s all the jobs they could do because the contract—KBR had a lot of jobs—and all the important jobs were you needed experienced people, like air conditioners, electricity, (p.152) power generators, stuff like that, they were hiring Bosnians for an excellent salary. And third country nationals they were doing the lowest jobs, cleaning, nothing else.
  • Fedja’s comments highlight several of the most important contrasts created by the prime contractor-subcontractor system. First, as a KBR employee he had many of the same privileges accorded to U.S. contractors and soldiers at Tallil. He could eat in military DFACs, use MWR facilities, buy sundries at PX stores, and move around the base with few restrictions. This status was exemplified by his white CAC card. These identification cards are issued to all active duty uniformed personnel, DoD civilian employees, and select military contractors. At Tallil KBR employees like Fedja received CAC cards, which provided visual indication of their privileged status. In contrast, employees of subcontracting companies at the base, the largest of which in 2007 were Kulak, GCC, and Iraq Projects Business Development, received color-coded “badges.” Though these badges have varied across bases and the period when they are issued, they typically provide an employee’s name, company, and an identification or passport number. Badge colors indicate degrees of mobility and access to facilities at a base. The Indian and Pakistani workers that Fedja escorted wore red badges, which meant that they were forbidden from moving anywhere on the base—except inside their company-run mancamp—without an authorized escort. In Iraq badges usually ranged from red, orange, and yellow to green or blue, with the latter colors indicating that the wearer was allowed to move around a base without escorts, and even had access to certain facilities like PX stores.

    A second difference between prime contractor and subcontractor employees that this conversation raises revolves around work, pay, and contracts. The men Fedja oversaw were tasked with “minor jobs”—cleaning latrines and showers—in his view. For the most part subcontracted labor at bases in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa is used to perform similar low-skilled or poorly paid work such as DFAC operations, laundry services, cleaning, construction, and basic warehouse tasks. Most Bosnians who have worked for KBR, Fluor, or DynCorp, in contrast, have been hired for skilled labor positions such as electricians, mechanics, or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning installers, have performed administrative tasks like property management or payroll, or have held supervisory positions like QA/QC inspectors and labor foremen. These jobs tend to pay extremely well, especially compared to salaries earned by subcontractor employees. As a labor foreman, for example, Fedja earned $5,300 a month, more than ten times the salary of his Indian and Pakistani charges. This despite the fact that his job actually had few particular skill requirements.

    (p.153) Typically, even for similar jobs there are considerable differences in pay depending on whether one works for a prime contractor or subcontractor. Several Bosnians I interviewed had worked in material management and supply operations, which involves moving, sorting, and tracking military and contractor materials in warehouses. These are well-paid jobs, ranging from the high $30,000s to $70,000 a year for those who worked for KBR in Iraq or on European contracts with Fluor and DynCorp in Afghanistan. Filipinos who perform similar tasks at bases in those countries but are employed by subcontractors like PPI are paid but a fraction of this amount. In addition to the pay differential, as a KBR employee Fedja was given three paid leaves (“R & R”) a year, while the men he supervised received no leave during their two-year contracts.

    A third point concerns differential relations between American employees and foreign labor depending on whether one works for a prime contractor or not. In the above passage Fedja refers twice to the fact that his “white CAC card” was the same as those issued to Americans, and carried with it the same privileges. In contrast, the subcontractor employees he supervised were confined to their camps when not performing the menial jobs that were reserved for them. Moreover, his characterization of them as a category apart (“third country nationals”) is remarkable because, as a Bosnian national, Fedja was of course himself classified as a TCN by the military. Yet, as discussed in chapter 4, he and other Bosnians who worked for KBR under the LOGCAP III contract did not see themselves as such, in large part because the company treated all of its employees (American and foreign citizens alike) as part of a “KBR family” that stood apart from and above those working for its subcontractors. The following exchange about base housing arrangements is illustrative.


  • Were you mixed in with soldiers?
  • FEDJA:

  • No. We had different [housing]. We called them hooches. The Army was separated. KBR was separated. Third country nationals were separated.
  • ME:

  • So you weren’t called a third country national?
  • FEDJA:

  • That’s the line that I picked up from the Americans [KBR employees], third country nationals. Because they were looking at them [Asian workers employed by subcontractors] as third country nationals.
  • ME:

  • But they weren’t looking at you as one?
  • FEDJA:

  • No, because they worked with me and we had the same CAC card and the same paycheck.
  • As I discuss below, this does not mean that there were no tensions between KBR’s Bosnian and American workers, just that for the former, such as Fedja, the relevant “comparables” or “comps”—to borrow a term from the real estate industry— (p.154) were American contractors, not other foreign workers on the bases. I should also note here that KBR is somewhat of an outlier in the efforts to which it goes to inculcate a distinct corporate identity with its employees. This said, when it comes to the chasm separating its employees and other prime contractor workers from subcontracted labor concerning pay, privileges, and status, the difference is a matter of degree not kind.

    This is perhaps best illustrated by describing the experiences of Filipinos who successfully jumped from subcontracting companies to jobs with prime contractors. Take Rowel, whom we met in chapter 8, who worked as electrician for PPI for two years in Iraq before jumping to Card Industries, which “rented” him to the giant U.S. engineering firm Parsons. After this contract ended in 2009, he worked for another U.S. engineering company, Louis Berger, in Afghanistan. Like all Filipinos I talked with who jumped, his primary motivation was money, in his case an increase in salary from $700/month with PPI to $2,300/month with Card. But in our conversation he also emphasized the difference in privileges, such as use of cell phones and computers to keep in touch with his family:

    In PPI you don’t have computer. You don’t have cell phone. You got only like five minutes a week. In a week only five minutes privilege on a [company] cell phone. Sometimes they are busy. There’s always [a] low bat[tery]. Your five-minute free time [you] keep calling them, they are busy. The phone is busy. After that one you cannot talk to them. You have to wait a week again to talk to them. Not like in Card and Louis Berger, [where] you got access. Every day you got phone. … ​Every day we talk because I got [my] own computer on my job because I work in a power plant. We got [our] own office … ​After [work], I go to the computer. If they are online, [I] talk to them.

    A second difference Rowel stressed was living conditions. At the PPI mancamp in Victory Base Complex there were ten men living in a forty-foot shipping container. The company’s camp also had only ten showers for hundreds of people, so you had to get up early in the morning, because “if you’re getting up late, no hot water.” In contrast, at Card he shared a twenty-foot container, which had its own bathroom, with one coworker. While with Card he also received a $300/month cash allowance—nearly half his previous salary—which could either be saved, or “if you don’t want to eat in military DFAC, go to Popeyes [Chicken], go to the coffee shop [Green Bean], drink coffee with those muffins.”

    I then asked Rowel if his American managers or coworkers at Parsons or Louis Berger used the term TCN when referring to his status. He said, “Yes,” which was followed by this exchange:

    (p.155) ME:

  • What does that mean? What do you think about that?
  • ROWEL:

  • I’m not thinking hard about that one because we are Filipino. The meaning of TCN for me is third country nations. It’s OK for me. Because when I work in Louis Berger, like I said they gave me full of access that’s why I’m not thinking about I am a TCN. The military guy go to MWR, doing gym, I can go there also, same what they did. See what they’re doing, I can go [on] R & R. I can watch [TV] on the MWR. Whatever they eat, I can eat also.
  • Like Fedja, this term had little meaning for Rowel as a prime contractor employee because it did not reflect the privileges, pay, and status he was afforded compared to his previous experience with PPI.

    Rowel’s perspective is echoed by others who jumped. After years with PPI in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fidel landed a position with KBR in Africa, along with several other workers from the Philippines. He described the difference this way: “In Iraq and Afghanistan we [he and his fellow Filipinos] are TCN. In Africa we are expats. They treat us as expat. Our accommodation is good. We have one [an individual] room, air conditioning, one bed. We have cable TV. … ​Every morning there’s a local [that] pick[s] up our laundry. Then in afternoon return[s] it.” Susi, who jumped to Arkel in Iraq, worked on DoD-funded civil power generation reconstruction projects. As this job required travel to various sites across the country he was given a CAC card granting him access to amenities on all bases in Iraq, and permission to carry a service pistol, radio, and telephone. Compared to PPI, with its “limited” privileges, as an Arkel employee he was afforded, in his words, “full access.” When asked if this meant he was considered a TCN when working for Arkel he replied, “No,” and then, “That’s why I’m telling you we are not all the same experience.”

    “I’m telling you we are not all the same experience.” Susi’s admonition is worth keeping in mind when discussing the military’s foreign workforce. It even applies to the prime contractor-subcontractor divide, perhaps the single most determinative factor shaping work and life on overseas bases in warzones. The best example of this is the introduction of tiered contracts by Fluor and DynCorp in Afghanistan in 2010, which has led to a relative blurring of lines. As discussed in chapter 4, these contracts divide the companies’ employees into multiple tiers based on nationality and geography. DynCorp’s categories are Expats (Americans), Foreign National United Kingdom (FNUK), Foreign National European (FNE), and Foreign National Asian (FNA). Fluor has set up a five-level classification system that distinguishes between company staff, Americans hired on contract, West European employees, East Europeans, and workers from Asia. The primary impetus for the introduction of these tiers appears to have come from (p.156) the Pentagon, which directed LOGCAP IV prime contractors to bring salaries for foreign direct hires more in line with prevailing wages in their home countries. Thus, starting in late 2008, KBR also lowered its pay scale for new Bosnian recruits to Iraq and Kuwait. But due to the drawdown of forces in those countries, this change has primarily affected those recruited by Fluor and DynCorp, who took over LOGCAP operations in Afghanistan. At the peak of operations in 2011 the two companies and their subcontractors provided support for 133 bases and nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in the country.1

    Fluor’s and DynCorp’s foreign employees—particularly those from the Balkans—experienced a reduction in both pay and status under this tiered system. Bosnians hired by Fluor, for example, are paid 45 percent of what Americans and West Europeans earn for the same jobs, with a similar gap in pay between DynCorp’s workers from the Balkans hired on a European contract and American labor. Those who have an Asian contract with DynCorp are paid even less, typically earning $12,000 to $18,000 a year—roughly one-third the amount paid to those doing similar jobs under a European contract. A commensurate shift has occurred when it comes to status. Whereas KBR developed a culture that treated its employees (both American and TCNs) as a company family positioned above its subcontractor workforce—and continued to do so under LOG-CAP IV according to Bosnians who have worked for the company during this period—those working for Fluor and DynCorp report that they are frequently reminded of their lower status. This ranges from the common use of terms like TCN or OCN in conversations with American coworkers to little details like Damir’s example in chapter 4 of the use of separate buses for American and foreign workers upon arrival in Bagram.

    Interviews in Bosnia and the Philippines suggest that the introduction of tiers has had the greatest impact on those who work for DynCorp, due to the fact that the company has direct hired significantly more workers under Asian contracts than Fluor, which has followed KBR’s practice of relying primarily on subcontractors for low-skilled and low-paid labor. One reason for this difference is that DynCorp found itself shorthanded in late 2009 when one of its two primary first-tier subcontractors, Agility (formerly known as PWC), was barred from receiving government contracting money following a lawsuit accusing it of overcharging the military billions of dollars under its DLA contract to provide food for troops in Iraq and Kuwait.2 Short subcontracting support, and behind on several projects, which invited criticism from the military and government auditors, it appears DynCorp executives in Afghanistan decided to turn the company into its own body shop by direct hiring thousands of workers from Asia, Southeast Europe, and Africa (primarily Kenya) under “Asian” contracts that offered pay and benefits similar to its subcontractors. According to Diana—who states she (p.157) “didn’t speak no English at all” at the time—DynCorp’s recruiting process for Asian contracts in late 2010 more resembled PPI’s early scramble to hire workers from the Philippines than KBR’s and Fluor’s more exacting standards: “We went over there in Hotel Tuzla and they did some kind of interview but … ​they didn’t ask us a lot of questions. Of course we already know what they will ask us, let’s say, ‘What is your first name, last name?’ Because we will work in laundry. We don’t need that much English. We will wash, clean and that’s it. … After five, ten days, they call us that they will hire us and next month that we will have a flight to Dubai.” Her salary was a $1,000 a month. Sead, a young bartender from Tuzla who was hired as warehouseman under an Asian contract around the same time as Diana, recalls that his group had “guys from Kenya, from India, most of them. And you had Filipino guys, and Bosnian guys.” Grace, a Filipina who worked for Dyn-Corp for two years in Afghanistan on an Asian contract that paid $1,400 a month, remembers sharing a large Alaska tent with other female DynCorp direct hires at Camp Dwyer: “We had Americans there. Kenyans, Macedonians, Bosnians.”


    Fluor’s and DynCorp’s introduction of a tiered pay scale highlights the degree to which the military’s logistics workforce is stratified along racial and national lines. Though the number of tiers and labels differs across the two companies, they both essentially divide their workers into four hierarchically ordered categories: Americans, West Europeans/UK citizens, Southeast Europeans, and Asians. The greatest difference in pay is that between those with Asian contracts and the rest. In this the companies’ internal tiers mirror a broader racial hierarchy on military bases in warzones. Painting with a broad brush—and stressing that this is an oversimplification with numerous exceptions—the primary distinction is between relatively high status and well-paid American and European workers, and a poor, often exploited, Asian workforce.

    Nearly every journalist and scholar who writes about foreign labor in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has highlighted these disparities, both in the fields of logistics and security. Indeed, the racialization of labor may be even more prevalent in the private security industry, where discourses extolling former colonized peoples from the Global South as “martial races”—such as Gurkhas and Fijians—abound.3 None of this is new. Indeed, when it comes to the experiences of logistics workers there exists a remarkable parallel from a century earlier: the “silver and gold” system set up by the U.S. during the construction of the Panama Canal.

    The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel, celebrated as the “eighth wonder of the world” upon its completion in 1914. But it is also as much a feat of (p.158) labor as it is engineering. In fact, in 1906 the project’s chief engineer, John Stevens, claimed that “the greatest problem in building a canal of any type on the isthmus … is ​the one of labor. The engineering and constructional difficulties melt into insignificance compared to labor.”4 To surmount labor challenges U.S. administrators recruited widely, bringing in tens of thousands of workers from across the Caribbean, Central America, the U.S., and Europe. They even proposed recruiting Chinese laborers, but this scheme was rejected by then-U.S. attorney general William Moody, who argued that the importing of “Oriental aliens” under contracts to perform labor “is not necessarily one of involuntary servitude, but it may be and, in fact, usually is a condition of involuntary servitude.”5 A century later the U.S. now looks the other way as tens of thousands of South Asians on its bases in the Middle East often work under contracts and conditions of debt bondage that also constitute involuntary servitude.

    To manage its massive and diverse workforce in the Canal Zone, U.S. administrators established a segregated silver and gold system. Under this system, “the government paid silver employees far less, fed them unappetizing food, and housed them in substandard shacks. Gold workers earned very high wages and terrific benefits, including six weeks of paid vacation leave every year, one month of paid sick leave every year, and a free pass for travel within the [Canal] Zone once each month.”6 Like the prime contractor-subcontractor system today, the silver and gold system was largely, but not exclusively, organized around racial distinctions, though it began as a more fluid way to reward productive employees regardless of race or nationality. In 1906 Stevens issued an order requiring “colored employees” from places such as the West Indies to be placed on silver rolls while white Americans were placed on gold. All but a handful of African American workers who had been explicitly hired on gold roll contracts were also shifted to the silver roll. Somewhat paradoxically, the silver and gold system also revolved around citizenship, especially following an executive order by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 that stated that gold roll employment should be limited to U.S. citizens. This resulted in the shift of a number of European laborers from gold to silver rolls. At the same time the U.S. decided that Puerto Rican and Panamanian workers should be eligible for gold roll employment due to the former’s status as colonized “wards of the nation” and the latter’s position as citizens of the country in which the canal was being built.7

    There are other parallels between the silver and gold system and present-day military labor practices produced by the prime contractor-subcontractor system. In addition to pay, both formed the basis of the distinction between supervisory and supervised work. For example, in Panama “one gold carpenter (typically a white U.S. citizen) might oversee eight to twelve silver carpenters (West Indians); one gold plumber might manage an area with a few silver plumbers under him.”8 (p.159) And in both contexts a divide and conquer strategy was used as a means of facilitating a more docile workforce. In 1906 the chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the body originally charged with overseeing construction of the canal, claimed that “a labor force composed of different races and nationalities would minimize, if it did not positively prevent, any possible combination of the entire labor force.”9 Despite this, strikes over food and wages in Panama were not uncommon. So too was the strategy of moving from lower-to higher-paying jobs by silver roll workers, though the more rigid delineation of these categories along racial and national lines limited the ability to substantially improve one’s station through this strategy compared to Filipinos and other subcontractor employees who jump to positions with prime contractors.

    One difference between the two systems, as detailed in the previous two parts of the book, is that the racialized hierarchy of labor at bases in the Middle East and Afghanistan is less a product of intentional policy by the U.S. government—as it was in Panama—than the intersection of historical circumstances with contrasting recruiting patterns and labor practices by prime contractors and subcontractors. That KBR’s direct hire TCN workforce in Iraq was overwhelmingly from Southeast Europe was directly related, for instance, to the fact that in the late 1990s and early 2000s it hired tens of thousands of people from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia as LN labor when it provided LOGCAP support for the peacebuilding missions in the Balkans. At the same time that these missions were beginning to wind down in the mid-2000s, U.S. military activities in the Middle East were ramping up, thus many were subsequently employed by KBR when it found itself shorthanded in the early years of the occupation of Iraq. Once this recruiting pattern was established, it was logical for Fluor and DynCorp to also turn to the region to fulfill direct hire labor needs, especially considering that they took on much of KBR’s workforce in Afghanistan following the transfer of LOG-CAP support for that country to their hands in 2009. Similarly, the prevalence of workers from South and Southeast Asian countries is connected to the provenance of military subcontractors in CENTCOM, most of whom hail from the Persian Gulf or Turkey. When these firms utilize recruiting agencies in countries like India, the Philippines, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to amass the pool of labor needed to fulfill their contractual obligations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East, they are drawing on well-worn pathways that constitute a massive labor import-export regime between wealthy Gulf petro-states and poor Asian labor-exporting countries. At the same time they have brought with them exploitative labor practices that characterize operations in home countries.

    The racial disparities that exist on U.S. bases in CENTCOM, in other words, are more a product of contingency than intentional design by military officials. Nonetheless, through its actions the military has been complicit in perpetuating (p.160) and even deepening inequalities, from its refusal to substantively combat trafficking by subcontractors to instructions to prime contractors to introduce steeper pay differentials for direct hires from Asia and Southeast Europe compared to American and West European employees under LOGCAP IV.

    Compared to race, relatively less attention has been given to the role that citizenship and nationality play in structuring experiences on military bases in warzones, and the ways that the latter intersect with the former. Yet as with the silver and gold system in Panama a century ago, present-day disparities in pay, privileges, and risk cannot simply be reduced to race. When it comes to categorizing its workforce, for instance, the fundamental distinction made by the military is the line dividing American citizens on one hand, and foreign workers, both TCNs and LNs, on the other. As discussed above, on a daily basis this distinction carries greater weight for subcontractor employees than those who work for prime contractors and thus have privileges that are more comparable to Americans. But the distinction is still ever present—and it can crystallize at a moment’s notice, to significant effect.

    One example that illustrates this point was the military’s response to the Chelsea Manning leaks in 2010. Srdjan, who was working as a logistics coordinator for KBR at Balad at the time, remembers that following the leaks every non-American worker on the base was immediately viewed as a security threat, despite the fact that the information had been leaked by an American soldier.


  • After the Bradley Manning case and shit we started to be treated like fucking spies. I still have all those emails. No electronic devices whatsoever. No laptops. No freaking cell phones. Nothing.
  • ME:

  • Did they do that with soldiers as well?

  • No, no, no, just foreigners. We were so pissed off. It came to the point that we had a meeting, an all hands meeting [of KBR employees]. “Guys, your Motorolas? Go back to your rooms and turn them in.” How the fuck are we supposed to work without a radio? It was so fucked up. I had to literally—my only lifeline back home was Skype. I had bought a laptop, external antenna, got Wi-Fi from local provider that was an arm and a leg per month.
  • ME:

  • From an Iraqi provider?

  • Yes. And if you don’t get rid of that stuff yesterday you can lose your job, get prosecuted, blah, blah, blah. I literally had to say, “Here’s my laptop” [give it up]. I was pissed! Right after that meeting expats [American KBR employees] had their [own] meeting and they were told not to help us, because they could lose their jobs. So I couldn’t go to my buddy, Alan and say, “Alan, please help me and hold onto (p.161) my laptop until I’m on R & R and can take it home.” No. if he’s found with two laptops in his quarters he would get in trouble. Our friends were pissed about it, U.S. guys and the military too. So there was an officer who said, “Srdjan, use my computer.” It was fucked up.
  • ME:

  • So was it all foreign nationals or TCNs?

  • Everybody. British—non-U.S. citizens. Period. Ridiculous. And then you figure out that’s the world of the military, you know? This might sound ugly, but there is no military intelligence … ​it was hard at that time. I know a guy from my hometown got fired because of a memory stick in his cargo pants. It was used for training new employees on how to load up cargo planes, it had pictures on it. Our [KBR] managers, U.S. guys, confirmed to the military, “Yes this our employee, he is an instructor. He needs this for training.”
  • It is necessary to note that any contract laborer—American and foreign alike—can be immediately fired and removed from a base for breaking military rules. But as this example shows, citizenship is central to the military’s calculations of security risk, and thus when it comes to surveillance, job security, and the extension and removal of privileges such as possession of computers and cell phones, non-Americans’ positions are always more precarious and contingent.

    Another issue raised by several Bosnians who have worked for KBR, Fluor, or DynCorp concerns slights by American coworkers, especially African Americans. This is alluded to in Lena’s comment that begins this chapter, when she asks, “What’s the difference between me and the black American guy, or me and that TCN?” Asim provides an example from his time working for Fluor in Afghanistan, involving his supervisor, Alonzo:

    One day [he] approached us … ​and he said, “Hey guys I don’t want to hear Bosnian any more over here.” I told him. “It’s my right, my human right, to speak my language with my people. Do you understand how stupid it is to speak English with this guy? Of course you do not speak my language, so I will speak English with you. But that man is Bosnian, I cannot express myself with English as well as I can with Bosnian.” And he was reported to the site manager [who] said, “Stop doing that shit to people. You don’t have the right to do that. I will report you next time to HR [human resources, which deals with discrimination claims].” And from that date he [Alonzo] hated everyone that come from Bosnia. Small, big, he hated Bosnians.

    When I asked Goran about tensions between American and Bosnian workers at KBR, he admitted they existed but suggested this was to be expected, and that in (p.162) some cases the problem lay with his Bosnian compatriots, especially when it came to interactions with African Americans.

    That’s normal. It’s not just Americans … ​First, we’re different cultures. We see things differently, 10,000 kilometers between [the] two of us. We are Westernized, but we’re different cultures. … ​I had my share of issues with some of the people, but nothing really much. I mean, that’s a normal thing. Because after all, we were the outsiders. We were outsiders, and if you cannot deal with that, I mean, what the fuck? Most of the people from here, they didn’t see a black guy before. This is a country where black people, they don’t live here. And it was cultural shock for some of our guys to go over there and interact with different races if they didn’t work here [in Bosnia] for Brown & Root.10

    Most Bosnians, however, suggested that tensions with American coworkers were rooted in their subordinate status as TCNs. Faruk, for instance, explicitly linked what he saw as mistreatment by African Americans to racial inequality in America. “It’s a power trip. It’s the only time in their life when they are being above somebody else. Just because of the nationality. And so they were abusing it in the worst possible way.” While this claim is impossible to substantiate, given the broad pattern of racialized labor inequality on military bases in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it is understandable that African American contractors might be especially concerned with policing status hierarchies based on citizenship.

    It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that tensions between American and non-American employees working for prime contractors revolve primarily along racial lines, even if in interviews several Bosnians highlighted such cases. For example, if one peruses English-language internet job boards where LOG-CAP opportunities are discussed (such as indeed.com), along with other prominent online fora for military contracting information and conversations like blogs and Facebook groups, it is not difficult to discern a persistent line of Trumpian “America First” resentment among American workers that prime contractor jobs are being given to non-Americans, especially people from the Balkans. One site where this viewpoint was often expressed was mssparky.com, a blog run by former KBR electrician Debbie Crawford (a white woman from Oregon) from 2008 to 2013. Crawford’s posts about financial malfeasance and shoddy construction work by contractors like KBR—peppered with leaked documents from a network of sympathizers working for contractors in the Middle East and Afghanistan—as well as discussions about job opportunities quickly made her blog a must-read for those concerned with military contracting. By early 2010 her site was receiving nearly 2 million page hits a month.11

    (p.163) Comments on an October 2009 post discussing Fluor’s plans for transitioning over KBR employees in Northern Afghanistan under the new LOGCAP IV contract give a sense of the anger and resentment directed toward Bosnians and other TCNs. I highlight here just two comment threads from that post—which received more than 300 comments in total (all posts have been copied as in original thread).12 The first, raised by someone that went by the moniker “Speicher Dude” (suggesting he worked at Camp Speicher in Iraq), highlighted recruiting efforts by Fluor in the Balkans, prompting a critique by Crawford of the U.S. government’s refusal to prioritize hiring Americans for these jobs, and a response by another U.S. commenter who went by the name “Gijane,” who suggested that maybe he should pretend to be from the Balkans.


  • February 13th 2010 at 6:07 A.M.
  • Fluor is currently holding job fairs in the Balkans for future Afghaniland employees … ​Soooo, if you’re thinking about how many TCN’s are currently on LCIII [LOGCAP III]; wait till you see whats in store for LCIV [LOGCAP IV].

  • February 27th 2010 at 7:18 P.M.
  • I understand that it is cost efficient for Fluor to hire Balkan personnel (no offense) but what about the people who have more credentials and experience than those people?

  • February 27th 2010 at 7:21 P.M.
  • That is a valid point. But regardless of whether they are more or less qualified. The DoD should hire the people who will be filling their budgets with US tax dollars. The Bosnians or any other TCN won’t! HIRE AMERICANS FIRST!

  • February 27th 2010 at 7:34 P.M.
  • MsSparky, I know me and among hundreds of other Americans are trying to wait for “the call” while recruiters goes to other country and give away positions like candies. I think it is far double standards. So what does it takes for people like me, other than a great resume with not just “bullets” of duties performed but with “achievements” to get noticed by recruiters? Perhaps, changing my name into Balkan would kick it up a notch.
  • Later that year there was a much more vitriolic exchange between a commenter who went by the name “FN” (for “foreign national”), Crawford, and “Eric,” another reader from the U.S. It began when FN defended the hiring of foreign workers and asked people to “keep politics out” of the discussion. The following comments ensued:

    (p.164) ERIC SAYS:

  • November 19th 2010 at 6:08 P.M.
  • FN
  • The only good FN’s are the Brits other then that they are trash taking are taxpayer dollars. You do not see any Philipino soldiers fighting this war, you do not see any Bosnians fighting this war, You do not see any Indian soldiers fighting this war, I will come out very clearly they are worthless bloodsucking leaches living off the American tax system and these companys along with the US governement should be ashamed of themselves.
  • FN SAYS:

  • November 21st 2010 at 5:43 A.M.
  • Eric
  • Well man, I’m sorry you feel that way because just the same as you everybody else is trying to make a living.
  • And I’m not talking about who is fighting the war, look hats off to the soldiers doing their job man, they are heroes. I’m talking about the people who is actually working for companies as a contractor such as KBR, FLUOR, DYNCORP. And just to notify you, mostly all of the FN’s does have taxes to pay when they get back home it’s just not as much as the American tax system. Maybe some of the FN’s you’ve met or came accross are trash well let me tell you not all of them are the same and believe me I’ve met some of those FN’s even from my own country. I’ve been givin more recommendation letters by the US companies than I have certificates so never judge people in quantity because
  • you don’t know all of them.

  • November 21st 2010 at 6:41 A.M.
  • You must be from the Balkans Im guessing FN, some of these guys are great people but I am still paying for there salarys with my taxes. Your taxes do not go back to the United States the country who is paying for this war. Your taxes go back to your country that has not sent a dime over here. Besides I have not found one Balkan who can bend a piece of Conduit or even make job look half way presentable. YOU ARE NOT A QUALIFIED ELECTRICIAN IF YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE A FREAKING PIPE BENDER
  • .


  • November 21st 2010 at 3:29 P.M.
  • I agree. Americans are paying for this war and should have the first shot at the jobs. I don’t even want to hear about how much cheaper FN’s are to hire. The DoD has proven time and time again they could care less about cost savings. Allowing the contractors to hire FN’s especially when they use labor brokers ehuman trafficking and abuses. (p.165) And … ​from an electricians point of view, unless you have been trained to the National Electrical Code and certified or licensed in the States then you are not equal to an American electrician to work on a US military facility that requires work to be done to the National Electrical Code.
  • These exchanges present remarkably ugly and resentful comments directed toward a foreign worker for taking an “American” job—following the dubious logic that as taxpayers Americans should have priority for this type of overseas military work. Bosnians and other workers from Southeast Europe bore the brunt of these remarks, which makes sense since unlike South and Southeast Asians working for subcontractors they were frequently in direct competition for jobs and promotions with American coworkers at prime contractors. It is also not inconsequential that the Great Recession in America hit industries like construction and manufacturing especially hard, thus for some blue collar Americans military work in Afghanistan and the Middle East represented—as it did for people from the Tuzla region—an answer to economic precarity. Undoubtedly, similar sentiments to those expressed by Crawford, “Eric,” and “Gijane” were held by Americans working on bases across CENTCOM, though they likely would not have been expressed as openly due to the fact that this could lead to warnings and even sanctions from supervisors and human resources administrators.

    The experiences of Filipino workers also illustrate the ways in which nationality complicates narratives that emphasize a rigid racialized hierarchy of military labor in overseas warzones. Most Filipinos I talked with argued that they occupied a relatively privileged place on bases—at least compared to other subcontractor employees. One reason for this is the presence of Filipino-American personnel in the armed forces. Several workers brought up their connection with Filipino-American “brothers” in the military during interviews. For some this was primarily a social relationship, such as attending church together on Sunday, or playing pickup basketball at the MWR during off hours. But Filipino-American soldiers also served as sounding boards and even conduits for addressing peoples’ concerns about working conditions and pay. Recall Daniel’s claim in chapter 8 that discussions with Filipino-American troops—who told him and other Filipinos that they were “getting screwed” by Serka—were the catalyst for the successful series of strikes against the company in 2004. Another example cited by former PPI employees at Balad is Brigadier General Oscar Hilman, who was in charge of base security from April 2004 to March 2005. Domingo, for instance, told me that Hilman would regularly come to PPI’s mancamp, asking to eat adobo with workers, and speaking with them in Tagalog. He also played a central role in (p.166) convincing Filipinos at Balad to continue working after a 2004 mortar attack on PPI’s mancamp killed Raymond Natividad and wounded four other Filipino laborers.

    A second factor behind Filipinos’ relatively high status on bases, at least in the first year of the occupation of Iraq, was the Philippines’ initial membership in the troop contributing “coalition of the willing.” Manny remembers that Filipinos had badges with more privileges, such as the ability to shop at PX stores, than Indian and Bangladeshi coworkers due to the Philippines’ coalition status. This is echoed by Angel and Domingo, who were part of the first batch of PPI employees to arrive in Iraq in October 2003. Angel, who worked in Baghdad, recalls, “We were not TCN … ​we were part of the coalition” and therefore “entitled to everything that the military was entitled to: DFAC, MWR, PX.” According to Angel, Filipino workers in Baghdad lost these privileges “right after Arroyo left [the coalition].” When I asked if he knew why this happened he replied, “Yes,”—they were told that it was Arroyo’s fault. Domingo remembers that the word “coalition” was written on his first badge, consequently he and other Filipinos on the base were given “full access, because we are allowed to go to DFAC, MWR.” General Hilman even sustained these privileges after Arroyo’s withdrawal of troops in 2004, making him a “hero of Filipino contract workers” at Balad.13 According to Domingo, these privileges were only rescinded when Hilman left in spring 2005 and his successor forced PPI to rebadge all of its Filipino workers. Carlos, who jumped to a job with the private security firm Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group (SOC-SMG) almost immediately after arriving in Iraq in early 2004, told me: “When I went to work for SOC they told me you can get your own CAC card because you are coalition. Then I got it and all the privileges … ​ see, it says valid 2004 to 2006. After that we were not allowed to get a CAC card. With this there was much privilege. They treated you like a soldier when you wore that. Like an American.” When the CAC card expired in 2006 he had to be rebadged and in the process experienced a loss of privileges, which in his humorous recounting was the first time he felt like a TCN with similar status to workers from South Asian counties. “I heard the term TCN when I renewed … ​Not before that. Then I asked, ‘We are third country national? We belong like Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans? Oh shit, we belong with those guys!?’ [laughs] Damn!”

    Hidden behind Carlos’s joking concern that he “belonged” with “those guys” are nationally essentialist stereotypes circulating among Filipinos that discursively construct them as better workers than their South Asian counterparts. Moreover, as was frequently claimed in interviews, this superiority is recognized by both U.S. personnel and military contractors. Several factors make Filipinos ideal workers, I was told, the most important being the ability to speak English. Christian, for instance, claimed that soldiers preferred working with Filipinos in (p.167) Serka due to the language barrier with other nationalities, including their Turkish supervisors.


  • Filipinos are much different from Turkish [workers]. They can’t speak English and understand. Only, “Yes/no. Yes/no.”
  • ME:

  • So your Turkish supervisors would have to turn to Filipinos to translate?

  • Yeah, yeah! He would need help to translate from us. That’s why Filipinos on U.S. bases are a priority. They [the military] want Filipinos.
  • ME:

  • And you were aware of this?

  • Yeah. They know that when speaking we can understand them. Not [like] other nationals, like Indians that [he pantomimes an Indian yes/no head shake].
  • In addition to language, several people cited Filipinos’ supposed natural industriousness and flexibility. Gina, who spent nearly a decade in Afghanistan working in administrative positions for several different contractors, told me, “If you talk to some Americans … ​they like a Filipino, because [a] Filipino is hardworking, [a] Filipino, when you give instructions, only one time, they get it, they do [it]. What you want them to do, they will do it perfectly.” Manny also discussed the superiority of Filipino workers in U.S. soldiers’ eyes.


  • They [U.S. soldiers] would tell us about other job openings. And usually [it] would be [an] increase in pay. But it was up to you if you accepted or not. And if you don’t accept no problem. They always offered the first opportunity to Filipinos. If no Filipinos then Bangladesh, Indians.
  • ME:

  • Why in your view did they offer to Filipinos first?
  • MANNY:

  • Filipinos are good workers. They take their jobs seriously. You do it your best. But other countries …
  • Most remarked upon was Filipinos’ supposed cleanliness compared to South Asians. One recruiting agency owner, Gloria, focused on this quality when explaining to me why her company preferred Filipinos as workers. “They can communicate. Then, no smell. Very clean, take a bath … ​When they’re in the dining facility, Americans want it clean. The KBR guys, they will check the dining facility. Our workers there, they say they will do like this [wipes top of her desk with finger] on the table and if it’s dirty, they will really get mad. How can these Nepalese, Indian, Fiji guys do that?” Different standards of cleanliness also extended to conversations about life in company-run mancamps. This is especially the case (p.168) for those who work in Afghanistan, where housing often consists of large Alaska tents filled with people from around the world, rather than segregated container units as was more common in Iraq. Consider the following exchange with Isko, who worked in both countries.


  • How many people [were] sleeping in a tent?
  • ISKO:

  • Fifty persons. All [from] around the world.
  • ME:

  • Did that cause problems?
  • ISKO:

  • It depends on how sloppy your roommates are.
  • ME:

  • Who were the sloppiest?
  • ISKO:

  • Indians. If you are tidy we will be fine. Kenyans are tidy. Kenyans are nice, and very industrious
  • .

    Following Anna Guevarra, I think it is useful to situate these comments—especially concerning Filipinos’ supposedly inherent industry and cleanliness—within broader culturally essentialist and racialized discourses that “promote the Philippines as a natural source of ideal labor.”14 Such discourses are pushed by the Philippine state as part of its strategy of marketing labor for export. But their apparent resonance, among workers, troops, and contractors, also reflects more than a century of entanglement between Filipino labor migrants and U.S. military projects around the world.15

    In contrast to the attention given to racial—and to a lesser extent, national—relations within the military’s contractor workforce, when one reads news stories or academic analyses about those who support U.S. overseas wars it is hard not to notice the striking absence of female laborers. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that no women work for military contractors in warzones as, with the notable exceptions of Sarah Stillman’s 2011 long-form article “The Invisible Army” in the New Yorker and Lee Wang’s 2006 documentary film Someone Else’s War, women’s experiences—especially those from other countries—are almost nonexistent. Yet a considerable number of women have also worked on military bases in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The military’s contracting censuses do not provide information on the gender breakdown of its workforce in CENTCOM so it is not possible to calculate their presence with any precision. But my research suggests that it is more significant than has been acknowledged to date. For instance, nearly 20 percent of the workers I interviewed were women—and this with no attempt at oversampling along gender lines on my part. Moreover, when queried about the presence of female workers on bases, Bosnian and Filipino interviewees provided estimates ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent of the TCN workforce. My sense is that the lower bound is probably more accurate as interviews and news accounts suggest that it is much less common (p.169) for women from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan to work for military contractors than those from labor-exporting countries in other regions of the world like Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, the Philippines, Fiji, and Kenya.16

    Irrespective of the actual numbers there is an evident disconnect between foreign female workers’ not insubstantial participation in the military labor market and their near total erasure in reporting on the subject. This is perhaps not surprising as there is ample research demonstrating that women’s perspectives and voices are consistently marginalized in news reporting, whether traditional print journalism, social media, or online news sites.17 My interviews suggest that this disconnect is also fueled by relative differences in the type of work that women and men perform on bases, with the former more likely to be found doing administrative tasks (such as payroll, property management, and human resources), working in laundry or billeting, or occupying service positions in MWRs, PX stores, and other shops. Most of these jobs—with the exception of service positions—are less visible to journalists than male-dominated work like construction and DFAC operations—the latter perhaps the iconic symbol of TCN labor on military bases.

    So how does the absence of women from accounts of military contracting matter? One way is through the framing of research agendas, especially when it comes to gender and the military. There is a rich body of feminist scholarship, for example, that examines topics such as how contractors perform masculinity, the intersection of masculinity and race in discourses about private military security contractors, the masculinization of military markets and the state, and the role that contracting plays in reinforcing “male dominance in the military and security sphere.”18 As this list of topics suggests, most scholars who focus on questions of gender, contracting, and the military do so through the lens of masculinity. To a certain degree the predominance of masculinity as a conceptual frame reflects the fact that the vast majority of this research deals with private security contracting, which is more obviously gendered than support work.19

    Another way in which female military workers’ absence matters concerns the lack of attention paid to intimate relations on bases. This lack of attention is notable because over the past two decades scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the intimate ties that have shaped U.S and European imperial projects, from sex to domestic work to child rearing. Focusing on relations between colonizer and colonized, this research has examined the ways in which “intimate domains … ​figure in the making of racial categories and in the management of imperial rule.”20 The context of intimate encounters on military bases is different, both in its relative narrowness (primarily sexual relations) and isolation from occupied populations. Nonetheless, these encounters are also revealing in their (p.170) own ways when it comes to relations between and among American service members, contractors, and TCNs.

    Nearly every person I talked with, for instance, indicated that relationships between American troops and foreign contractors are extremely rare. This boundary is policed by military brass, prime contractors, and subcontractors, with punishment for those working with the latter being dismissal. In contrast, two women who spent time on European bases in Iraq and Afghanistan—such as Camp Bastion, which was located adjacent to Marine Corps-run Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province—recalled that it was common for coworkers to date European soldiers. When it comes to relationships among contractors the rules appear to be more varied, depending on the base one works at or the company one works for. Gina, who worked with Supreme and Arkel, among other firms, recalls that there were no rules against dating at these companies “as long as the work wasn’t affected.” In contrast, at Victory Base Complex KBR and PPI were stricter about policing relationships, especially between the companies’ employees. Mary, who worked four years at the base with PPI told me that “they [would] terminate you” if they caught you dating someone from KBR, and that the same punishment also applied to KBR employees. Consequently most people she knew dated other Filipinos working for PPI.

    KBR’s rules against relationships with subcontractor employees appear to have been put in place in part to discourage exploitative solicitations for sex by American contractors. If so, their effectiveness was limited according to Filipina workers in Iraq, who recall that such relationships were not uncommon, especially among those that worked in billeting. The following story told to me by Iris, a single mother who worked for PPI at Balad, is instructive. According to Iris, she and several other women at the base had a profitable “extra business” cleaning rooms outside of regular work time. “If some KBR [worker] wanted you to clean their room they would pay us $20. Once a week, cleaning.” When word got around people began offering them money for sex.


  • You know how many American guys approached me and said, “Be my girlfriend and I will give you money each month?” And I said, “Sir, I came here to work, not to sell myself. You offer me this big amount of money, but I don’t need to.” And they said, “Why don’t you accept this offer rather than cleaning rooms?”
  • ME:

  • Americans would just approach you like that?
  • IRIS:

  • [nods]. Say you are my manager. So one day you come to me, “Iris do you need something extra?” This is their approach. Some ladies they want to flirt so they use it, “OK, sir, I want this, can you buy it and I will pay you later?”. … ​I am talking from my own experience. (p.171) My boss came to me one day and said, “Iris, do you need anything from the PX?” “No sir.” So then next day he approached me, “Iris, do you have something that you need to send to the Philippines?” “No sir.” Third time, he said “Iris, why always when I approach you, you are telling me you don’t need [anything], you don’t like [anything]?” “Sir, I respect you as my boss. But respect me as your admin. I don’t intend to work with you just to get involved with you. If I like you, I love you, I will give myself for free. But no negotiation.” This is the only way that you can take care of yourself, by not letting other people use you.
  • Iris recalls that some of her friends whose “wish was to find money” did have “boyfriends.” Likewise, Flora, who was employed in billeting for PPI at Victory Base Complex, told me, “Sometimes other women had three or four [boyfriends] … ​ doing it for money. They would get into a relationship with a person that would support them financially.”

    The most common reason people develop relationships on military bases, I was told, is to satisfy a need for companionship and connection. Joshua, who was with PPI in Iraq, poignantly explained that “loneliness” was the primary motivation because individuals “just want to have somebody to be loved.” A number of people from Bosnia recall friends or colleagues dating and even marrying men from the U.S. While such relationships were often dismissed as transactional, Diana insisted that in her experience this was rarely the case: “It’s just love. It’s just destiny. Everybody is searching for love, for happiness.” Iris’s experience illustrates Diana’s argument. Eventually she began dating an American working for KBR, the two getting close enough that they began to discuss marriage. But he returned to the U.S. and after a year the long-distance relationship fell apart. “For three weeks,” she tells me, “I was crying.”

    This need for human connection is heightened by the nature of life—isolated, regimented, and dangerous—on military bases in warzones. Several people alluded to prison when trying to describe their experience on bases. Representative is Goran, who told me, “It’s a work camp. It’s like a big prison camp. No one’s going to hit you and shit, but your life is programmed. You eat at this time. You go and see that, that, and that guy at the same time every day. And it’s shitty.” Daniel, who worked for Serka in Iraq, stated, “We were like prisoners … ​just eat, sleep, and work.” Likewise, Adnan, who was employed by KBR in Iraq and by Fluor in Afghanistan, called bases a “voluntary prison” where “you are like a machine. Wake up. Work. Eat. Sleep. That’s it.” In such a context many, whether married or not, desperately sought out companionship on bases. As Mary remarked, “Once you get there, it doesn’t matter if you’re married or not. You’re both single.”

    (p.172) Alen, who worked for KBR and Fluor in Afghanistan, provided an example of this for me. “Something happened that started to shake our family at that time. I got involved with another girl [on the base]. I got madly in love … ​When I came back our marriage was a disaster, I wanted to go away, I wanted to leave and marry that girl.” Eventually he reconsidered, realizing that this relationship was a product of his lonely, pressure-cooker life on the base. “I started to think about what I’m doing. Is this the right choice? Is that really, [the] real girl? What about my wife? What about kids? How would they do growing up without me? I left my son. I left my daughter. I left my wife. OK. I left what we created together. At that time, I recognized the truth. The truth was it wasn’t the right choice. The truth was that all that I created in my head about that girl was just my creation. … ​I really was crazy at that time.”

    Several people I interviewed met their current partner while working on a base, or knew others who had done so. Sam and Anne met while working for Kulak in Balad. Despite company rules against relationships, they began dating. After several months she got pregnant—“That one, he’s Iraq-made,” she joked, pointing to their oldest child—and returned to the Philippines. Their situation was not unique, according to Sam. “A lot of people had a really good opportunity to find a good relationship—it doesn’t really matter [whether] with a Filipino or a foreign national. Most of the people that we know ended up in a relationship.” Tatijana’s brother, Luka, who oversaw property management at several bases in Iraq, met his wife, Katrina, on a short visit to Fallujah. “I just met her [briefly]. I mean with some other friends. We drank coffee. That’s it. … ​Then the questions, ‘Where you work at?’ This and that. We started to email each other and then plan the vacation together and then another one and that’s it. I met her on a camp where I was just two days.” Adrijan, who is from Macedonia, also met his wife, Danica, who is from Tuzla, in Iraq. They were both in unhappy marriages, he remembers: “I was already having problems back home, she was also having problems back home, so it’s probably just … ​it just happened.”

    Intimate relationships on military bases are not without consequences. One is the strain it places on relationships back home, as Alen’s, Adrijan’s, and Danica’s stories illustrate. Another is that some subcontractors instituted changes in hiring practices, limiting opportunities for women. For instance, in response to a number of pregnancies among its workforce, Serka instructed its recruiting agency in the Philippines to quit hiring women.21 PPI, I was told, took a different tack and started to prioritize hiring older women, like Iris, Mary, and Flora, under the assumption that they would be less likely to get pregnant. According to Mary, “They hired old, old. They didn’t want young women because they didn’t want [pregnancies].” In addition to placing the blame for pregnancies on women, (p.173) Serka and PPI also refused to provide access to contraceptives. KBR, in contrast, provided condoms at its camp in Balad, according to Domingo.

    Finally, a darker side to this story concerns sexual harassment and assault on bases. Few I talked with were willing to discuss this topic openly like Iris did, but it was alluded to several times. Here, for example, is how Tatijana responded to a question about sexual harassment and assault during her time at Victory Base Complex:


  • It’s not easy when you think about it. You’re in military base with all those soldiers around and sometimes you have to go back [to your housing] … ​eventually they installed this buddy system [so] that you couldn’t walk by yourself. Initially women had to get escorts. If you were leaving, I don’t know if it was after dark or after hours, or was it all the time. They changed it. It eventually became you can’t walk by yourself pretty much at all. You had to think about that too.
  • ME:

  • Was this [sexual assault] fairly common?

  • I didn’t have issues like that but yeah, there were cases and complaints. I guess it’s all about being careful. Being aware of your surroundings. Nothing different than being around here.
  • ME:

  • Yeah. Except for you’re on a base, so there should be some more sense of security, you would think.

  • Yeah, but when you think about it, the majority is guys, both contractors and military. Then you consider the heat, and people go crazy when it’s hot. Yeah, it’s a little bit maybe more intense when it comes to work [there].
  • As Tatijana points out, severe gender imbalances and a heavily masculinized working environment are two factors that contribute to the cases of sexual harassment and assault on bases.22 Another is the battlefield environment itself, as military-funded research indicates that rates of sexual assault against female military personnel increase in warzones compared to stateside bases.23 Due to a lack of comparable research it is difficult to tell just how pervasive a problem this is for female contractors (foreign or U.S. citizens), but Sarah Stillman’s investigative reporting suggests this is a significantly underreported phenomenon that is also exacerbated by the military’s unwillingness to police the behavior of its contractor workforce—whether the matter concerns trafficking, labor abuses, or sexual assault.24


    (3.) See, for example, Higate 2012b; Chisholm 2014a, 2014b. Coburn (2018) provides a fascinating account of the recruitment, training, marketing, and afterlives of Gurkhas in Nepal (see, especially chaps. 6–8).

    (4.) Quoted in Greene 2009, 47.

    (5.) Quoted in Greene 2009, 49.

    (9.) Quoted in Greene 2009, 48.

    (10.) Goran frames the issue as a lack of encounters with racial “others.” But as Catherine Baker (2018) argues, it is a mistake to assume that the centrality of ethnic categories in Bosnia and other countries that constituted the former Yugoslavia means the region has existed “outside” of the politics of race and racialized imaginations, which are also deeply embedded in popular consciousness.

    (12.) Crawford’s website went dark in 2017, four years after she quit posting regularly, but her posts can still be found through the Wayback Machine. See p. 3 of the comments at https://web.archive.org/web/20111010084733/ http://mssparky.com/2009/10/fluors-locap-iv-offer-for-kbr-employees-in-afghanistan/comment-page-3/#comments.

    (14.) Guevarra 2009, 4; italics in original.

    (15.) For a detailed analysis of this phenomenon in the cruise industry, see Terry 2014.

    (16.) Coburn’s (2018, 296) research on contractors in Afghanistan also suggests this is the case.

    (18.) Eichler 2013, 312. For more on military contracting and masculinity, see Higate 2012a, 2012b; Stachowitsch 2013; Chisholm 2014a, 2014b, 2017; Stachowitsch 2015; Joachim and Schneiker 2015; Chisholm and Stachowitsch 2017.

    (19.) Chisholm and Stachowitsch 2017, 378. Even the rare exceptions that examine logistics labor utilize the frame of masculinity and assume the absence of female workers. Isabelle Barker (2009), for instance, claims that the performance of “effeminately” coded “reproductive labor”—such as dining, billeting and laundry services—by poor migrant men from South and Southeast Asian countries reinforces an aggressive, masculine image of military service among American troops. While Barker’s argument contains a kernel of truth, she was apparently unaware of the fact that women from Asia, Africa, and Southeast Europe are also involved in reproductive work, especially jobs related to laundry and billeting (this is likely due to the fact that Barker did not actually interview any TCN workers, but relied on news reportage and other secondary sources to construct her argument). Moreover, reproductive labor is but a small slice of the broad range of logistics work performed by both male and female TCNs.

    (20.) Stoler 2001, 829. Stoler’s work has been particularly influential in the growth of such studies. See, especially, Stoler 2002.

    (21.) According to Ailyn, a Serka employee interviewed by Lee Wang for her documentary Someone Else’s War (2006), this policy change occurred in 2006. Those I interviewed suggested this happened in 2008.

    (22.) For more on this, see Vine 2015, chap. 10.

    (24.) Stillman 2011. For a legal analysis of the problem, see Snell 2011.