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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.174) 10 Home
Empire's Labor

Adam Moore

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the themes of family, community, and returning home. It encompasses the impact of working on bases in warzones on family life, including divorce and marriage, the economic and social impacts on communities that workers hail from, and difficulties in adjusting to life at home following the end of employment. The chapter focuses on home around three themes. The first concerns specific effects of the United States' overseas wars on communities and families in Bosnia and the Philippines, especially those with high concentrations of military laborers. The second focuses on workers' longing for family and friends while living a secluded life on bases halfway across the world, and how they communicate with those back home. The final theme explores the question of how political, social, and economic contexts at home shape individuals' ability to adjust to life after military work, including retrospective perceptions of the upsides and downsides of such work.

Keywords:   family, community, returning home, warzone, divorce, marriage, overseas wars, Bosnia, Philippines, military laborer

There is a social and economic impact on everybody. You know, it’s like both sides of a coin. It’s good but you pay [for it] in other ways.


The comforts of home and family loomed large in almost every interview I conducted with Bosnian and Filipino military laborers. This makes sense, as amidst divergent experiences working and living on bases, absence from home constitutes one of the few commonalities shared by TCNs. The communities they come from are also important—if overlooked—sites in which the effects of the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan are felt, with the primary conduits being workers themselves. These effects are multiple, from the trauma of returning dead and wounded bodies to the injection of money that alters the lives and trajectories of households and towns, to the toll that this work has on personal relationships. In this book and elsewhere I argue that such space-spanning entanglements are reshaping the geography of war. Due to military labor contracting on a scale and scope unprecedented in U.S. history, numerous communities and states around the world seemingly unconnected to the country’s wars are nonetheless profoundly impacted by them as the effects of violence radiate far beyond the immediate battlefields. I refer to this condition as the “everywhere of war.”1 Perhaps nowhere else is the everywhere of war so deeply felt and intimate as places where recruiting for this type of work is highly concentrated, such the Tuzla valley in Bosnia and the Pampanga region in the Philippines.

I orient this chapter on home around three themes. The first concerns specific effects of the U.S.’s overseas wars on communities and families in Bosnia and the Philippines, especially those with high concentrations of military laborers. The second focuses on workers’ longing for family and friends while living a secluded life on bases halfway across the world, and how they communicate with those back (p.175) home. The final section takes a different tack. In it I explore the question of how political, social, and economic contexts at home shape individuals’ ability to adjust to life after military work, including retrospective perceptions of the upsides and downsides of such work.


Few events illustrate more directly the connection between military contracting and the everywhere of war than deaths of foreign workers and the reverberations they cause back home. This tragedy has struck the small Bosnian town of Lukavac twice. The first time occurred in June 2008 when Nedim Nuhanović, an electrical mechanic for KBR, was killed by a mortar attack on a small base along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Nuhanović had been in Afghanistan for just six months. Nearly two years later, in March 2010, Fluor employee Almir Biković, who had spent three years as a firefighter at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, was killed in a rocket attack on the base. Prior to this he had worked for several years for U.S. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. Both deaths dominated local and national news for several days and left distraught family and friends in their wake. Biković was an only child, while Nuhanović, who worked as a video technician and DJ prior to heading to Afghanistan, had planned to marry his long-term girlfriend while on R & R in July. On the day that Biković died the Bosnian portal bliski-istok.ba temporarily crashed as thousands of people flocked to the site to read the breaking news. Days later hundreds lined the cold, wet streets of Lukavac as his funeral procession passed by, just as much of the town had gathered to bury Nuhanović two years before.2 Years after, their deaths still resonated in Lukavac and nearby Tuzla, with several people mentioning them in interviews. One day an individual I will call Ado, who was chatting with me about my research in Lukavac, informed me that he had also applied to work in Afghanistan for Dyn-Corp, and in fact had been offered an Asian contract. In the end Ado, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in the 1990s, declined. When I asked why, he replied, “Two guys from this city died, Almir and Nedim. One of them was engaged to a girl from my neighborhood. And then my sister and brother told me, ‘Ado, this is not Bosnia, it is not Europe. Afghanistan is a different story.’”

Despite the risk exemplified by the fate of Nuhanović and Biković, thousands from Lukavac and Tuzla have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years, lured by the chance to earn some “bread.” Such lucrative opportunities are few and far between in the local job market, especially for young people given the heavily industrialized region’s postwar economic decline. Shortly (p.176) before his death, for instance, Biković was able to buy his own apartment, which is rare for someone in their early thirties in Bosnia. He was not alone. Indeed, America’s wars since 9/11 have had a noticeable impact on Lukavac’s urban fabric. Driving into the town is like passing through a massive industrial gateway, as the road is flanked by Bosnia’s largest cement plant on the right, and the sprawling Soda Lukavac soda ash production facility on the left. The town itself has a rundown feel to it, with the center dominated by drab, Yugoslav-era apartment complexes. The notable exceptions are several recently built, modern-looking apartment towers surrounded by parking lots at the southeastern edge of the town, which locals colloquially refer to as “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” due to the large number of units purchased by people who have worked for military contractors in those countries. Similar, newly built, apartment towers have also sprouted up around the outskirts of Tuzla.

Though not as visually arresting, neighborhoods and towns in the Philippines have been no less significantly transformed by military contracting. For instance, a handful of former PPI workers I talked with came from a rural barangay in the town of Lubao, in Pampanga. All had relatively new concrete homes with metal or tile roofs, which they were eager to show off. The following exchange with Angel is representative.


  • It was a happy but scary time. I was happy because I was able to build this house and send my kids to school. Most Iraq workers built new houses. This one here [points to house across the road] is my brother’s. He was working in the gasoline pumps, with the Turkish drivers.
  • ME:

  • So many [people] from Lubao worked over there. How has it changed the community?
  • ANGEL:

  • Before the houses were just small houses on stilts and wood. Now they are concrete. These are our peace of mind. And now there are water wells. A lot of children were able to go to school. People bought vehicles.
  • ME:

  • This looks like a prosperous village.
  • ANGEL:

  • That is because most went to Iraq. When we were in Saudi Arabia it was a small salary. It does not compare to Iraq. You cannot build a house like this if you are working in Saudi [Arabia]. You cannot send your children to private school. But we in Iraq sent our daughters and sons to private schooling.
  • Echoing Angel, Christian, who worked for Serka in Iraq, told me: “The earnings from Iraq were so huge. This was not our house, it was just a shanty before. Every time I sent money home so that when the rain comes we will have shelter. And (p.177) when I come home I am so happy even though I have no money. All the money went right here to our house [a beautiful three-story house]. And some education assistance for my children. So when I go home I had nothing other than my last salary.”

    In several cases people insisted I take pictures of them in front of their new homes. Andrew, one of Angel’s neighbors in Lubao, had me take the picture reproduced in figure 10.1. Wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt, he informed me that his house was katas ng Iraq (“fruit of Iraq”), a phrase I heard from others in his barangay.

    As Angel’s and Christian’s comments indicate, another significant area that money from military work has been directed to—especially in the Philippines—is education. Specifically, this entails paying to send one’s children to private schools, which are perceived as superior to poorly funded public education options in the county. Even more than housing, Filipinos I talked with stressed the importance of education opportunities afforded by their military labor. For Fred, who worked for four years with Serka in Iraq, education was his primary motivation for applying.


  • What was the discussion like with your family when you made the decision to go?
  • FRED:

  • I wanted to go because the twins were going to college. I knew there was a war there. But I wanted to sacrifice for the girls.
  • ME:

  • Had you worked abroad before?
  • FRED:

  • No, my first time. My family agreed with me. Because we needed money for college. I am only a high school graduate. That’s why I want my kids to go to college.
  • Like Fred, Angel contrasted his education status—“I was only in high school”—with his three children who will be able to get “good jobs” due to their private college education. “My daughter is a nurse at a hospital. My second finished [her] foreign service degree. My youngest will graduate as a civil engineer.” Angel spent six years without a break working for PPI in Iraq, prompting me to inquire if there was a point during this time that he wanted to go home. He replied, “Oh yeah. But if you go home early you cannot go back [because of the travel ban]. My daughter at the time was in college. And I was worried that she might not be able to graduate.” Similarly, when I asked Flora if she is still happy with her decision to go to Iraq in 2004 she replied, “Yes,” because “I was able to send my children to [private] school, even though I am a single parent.”

    The economic and social effects of military work on communities in Bosnia and the Philippines extend beyond workers’ deaths and investments in housing and education. Michelle, the local recruiter for Serka who was responsible for (p.178)


    Figure 10.1. Andrew in front of his katas ng Iraq (“fruit of Iraq”)

    helping dozens of people from her barangay obtain jobs with the company, highlighted several more subtle effects this has had on her poor community. She claimed, for instance, that “for the first time families were able to celebrate birthdays for their kids [by going out for a meal at Jollibee’s—a popular Filipino fast food chain—or McDonald’s] and invite their friends to the celebrations.” Moreover, (p.179) “With so many families building or expanding their houses with the money they were earning, many construction workers didn’t have to go live in Manila or even farther away in the Philippines to find work. They could work where they lived, in the barangay.” Finally, she told me, many former Serka workers have subsequently found good-paying jobs as chefs, bakers, or kitchen assistants with companies in the Philippines and beyond. When I asked why this was the case she said: “Because they have experience working for a U.S. company [showing me KBR certificates of appreciation and food safety given to her husband]. This is like their passport to the jobs, because the certificates for food safety are valuable, because the U.S. Army is very strict about food safety and preparation.” Michelle’s claims about the value of Filipinos’ experience working for U.S. military contractors and their subcontractors stands in contrast to Bosnians’ complaints about the devaluation of their work experience at home. But her point about remittances having effects that extend beyond immediate families does apply. Indeed, as I argued in chapter 4, for roughly a decade the influx of money from the war economy in Iraq and Afghanistan was able to counteract—to an extent—general economic decline in the Tuzla region by bolstering industries as diverse as real estate, construction, restaurants, auto sales, tourism, and retail.

    Another entanglement is the impact that military work has on families, especially those with children. While money earned from this work can transform families’ material and educational situation, those who stay behind have to bear the load of raising children and managing households on their own. Consider the following exchange with Michelle.


  • What was the hardest thing about this work?

  • He could not come home. He was not with us during vacation times, during Christmas, New Year’s. For me, my children are growing up. And I am raising them as a solitary parent. That was hardest.
  • ME:

  • Did you ever ask him to come home?

  • Yes. When there was the explosion at the DFAC [in Mosul, in 2004]. Most of us here [in the barangay] told them to come home after that bombing.
  • ME:

  • How did that conversation go?

  • They first said, “Yeah, we might come home.” And then later on they said, “No, we are staying.”
  • Rosamie—whose husband worked for Supreme for four years in Afghanistan—told me that she barely had time to be lonely because “I was busy every day, going to the school, the market [and] carry[ing] on by myself with the kids.”

    (p.180) In addition to increasing the burden of reproductive labor on those at home, being apart also causes strains on relationships. Zlatan, who got divorced shortly after returning home, told me this was a common occurrence among other former military contractors he knows, especially those who were gone for years. In his case, he recalls: “We didn’t fight. We didn’t argue. We were just sitting and talking just like you and me now. ‘OK. This is not going anywhere. This is not it. We lost too much time.’ I know lots of people that got divorced in this area here [Lukavac]. I don’t know. I’m looking at it like why? Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Pretty much, you can’t have it both, it looks like. You can’t be on the other side of the world and you have a family here. You’re just losing time.” Rena also blamed her time working in Iraq and Afghanistan for the collapse of her marriage: “It was a phantom distance. It just made us know that we can live without each other. In one moment he told me, ‘We live good without you,’ and that made me so pissed. I didn’t live good. I didn’t live good at all! ‘You live good because I send you [money] and you live exactly how you want because I provide [for] you. You don’t appreciate that’. … ​Those couple of words made me—well, of course to respect myself [she left him]. If nobody else will I am going to.” To add insult to injury, she told me, “When I came back from Afghanistan—I was two years over there—I came back and found $1,200 in my bank. That’s it. He wasted the money … ​like I was going to stay [in Afghanistan] forever.” Echoing Rena, Manny summed up for me the consequences of working with Serka in Iraq in the following way: “I built my house when I was in Iraq. But my family was broken as well … ​Too much trouble. That is my experience. I lost money. I lost family.”

    “Your Life’s Not Complete”

    Losing connection with family back home was a concern for most people I interviewed. This was especially the case for those with children. Representative in this regard is Kenan, who worked for five years with Fluor in Afghanistan. When I asked him what he found to be the biggest challenge related to his work, he immediately replied, “Reconciliation with family … ​especially if you have small kids. I went to Afghanistan when my older boy was three. I came back when my younger boy is three, so basically nobody knows me.” For Rena, being apart from her daughter was an ever-present sorrow that made it difficult to work and sleep.

    If I call her—we do shifts over there, first and second shift. When I do first shift, if I call her after the job, I could not sleep over night. I would stay awake all night long and crying. Then if I call her before [the] shift, (p.181) I will be looking bad when I’m working. I could call her on my days off to be able to cry all day long as much I want. We are really close. When she’s sitting next to me, I always need to touch her. Touch her hands so I always play like this [caresses one hand with the other]. When I do this, it’s so nice. She’s sitting next to me and all, always touching each other and I always play with that part of the hand. In Afghanistan during the night, it happened that I dream I do that. That wake me up and that’s it. It’s no sleeping anymore. You can’t sleep. You[’re] just thinking about sad things.

    In the end, Rena, told me, “It was actually her only that [was] pulling me back home,” not the relationship with her husband, which had slowly dissolved under the strain of years of being apart.

    In the Philippines several people I talked with had parents who had also migrated abroad for work when they were young. Rowel brought this up unprompted while discussing the increase in privileges—particularly R & R every six months and the use of personal cell phones and computers—that occurred when he jumped from PPI to Parsons.


  • What would you do during your R & R’s?
  • ROWEL:

  • We just keep, stay home, and then like Sunday go church. After that one, take a rest a little bit and then go to the mall. Spend my time with my kids. Some relatives is coming because they know you came from abroad, they got start coming, visiting you, then drink, cooking, barbeque, always doing get together. Not like my father, because my father was abroad also. During his time you can contact your families only by writing [letters], and then … ​sending in the post office. But not like now [where] we got computer, we got cell phone. Our communication is easy.
  • ME:

  • When you grew up, you didn’t see your father much because he was abroad?
  • ROWEL:

  • Yeah … ​Since I was like, probably like four years old, [when he] start working in Saudi [Arabia].
  • ME:

  • For most of your childhood? What was that like growing up without your father?
  • ROWEL:

  • You feel like it’s not complete. Your life’s not complete because your father is not here. By the time that you need your father, you need some advice. Not like other people walking on the street, you see they are complete. They are working together with their families, father and mother. Then you saw them. You’re going to miss your dad. You feel incomplete in your life. It’s too hard.
  • (p.182) When I asked Rowel if he was worried that his children would also feel “incomplete” due to his long-term absence, he replied: “I think it’s better than my father because at that time you cannot talk to your father on phone, on a computer. You only talk to your father when in person. Now it’s easy to communicate with your family on a computer, on a cell phone because cell phone they got camera, computer also. When you talk to them it’s like it’s with you, you get together. You feel like they are with you.” As I discuss in the next section, Rowel also justified his choice by asserting that it would lead to a better future for his children, one which would not require the same kind of sacrifices made by him and his father.

    Many people I talked with suggested that one of their central concerns was hiding details of work and life on bases from family. Specifically, this involved minimizing information about attacks, casualties, or dangerous working conditions so their families would not worry about their safety. For instance, when I asked Sead what he would talk about when chatting with his parents over Skype he replied:


  • Most of the time about what’s happening here, that is Bosnia. You know, you cannot tell your mom there was a rocket [attack], you know. And when they hear the siren [signaling an attack] …
  • ME:

  • When you’re calling?
  • SEAD:

  • Yes and they say, “Hey, what is that?” And you say, “They have practice for something. We need to go.” So you just say, “Bye, see you tomorrow.” But sometimes they watch the TV and see in Afghanistan is killed twenty people and they call tomorrow and ask, “What was that?” and you say, “Oh, nothing happened, it’s not here, it’s far from here.” But I remember [one time] … ​the Taliban guys shot our container and there was [a guy] on Skype with family. I remember that. I mean, I mean some pictures are never going to go from your head like that, and he died in that place. … ​So in that time I want to go home, so I go in the office and say, “Hey, please, I want to go home. What do I need to do?” But, you know, there was nothing that happened to you so you think, “Oh, maybe nothing will happen again.” So when you go sleep in your tent, tomorrow morning you’re a different man. Just put that behind you and go forward. So I stayed. And after that I stayed two years.
  • Later in the interview Sead explained that he hid the details of this attack from his parents until he returned home, because he knew that they would have begged him to come home if they found out.

    The most extreme example of hiding information I was told came from Grace, the single mom who was working illegally in Dubai in 2005 when a PPI recruiter convinced her to go to Iraq.

    (p.183) ME:

  • What did your family say when you told them?
  • GRACE:

  • They didn’t know. Actually, they don’t know that I’m going in Iraq a long time. I didn’t tell [anyone] until one of my cousins, it was two years [later], yeah, that we spoke in Messenger. He said, “Hey, I went to your place, your address [in Dubai] that you gave and you’re no longer living there.”
  • ME:

  • Wait, you were working in Balad for two years without telling your family?
  • GRACE:

  • Yes, they don’t know I was in Balad. I was pretending [to be] in Dubai. I get a lot of pictures [of Dubai] to show them. “Oh, this is my picture from that time.” I just made basically … ​I just basically edit [pictures] in a computer and said, “Oh, this is the day that I …”
  • Even after her family found out about her move to Iraq she deflected concerns, responding to questions about life on the bases by saying “It’s OK, it’s easy. All is free … [you] don’t have to worry.”

    Deflecting concerns from family and friends about the dangers of military work in warzones is understandable. But it is not without consequences. In fact, the emotional distance that Zlatan and Rena spoke of in the previous section is fueled in part by such silences. As Srdjan put it to me, “There’s a big gap of say six or seven years” of life separating him and his wife. In an attempt to bridge this gap she eventually bought a copy of The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, which helped him open up about his time in Afghanistan. “I was living in that neighborhood in Kabul. And then she reads the book and comes to me and then I tell her what I saw with my eyes! Stuff like that, simple things … we’ll discuss it from time to time.”3 Srdjan’s case appears to be the exception as most I talked with found it difficult to discuss with family their experiences on military bases, even after returning home.


    What is left after the money is gone? I posed this question to a group of former PPI employees one afternoon in Lubao. “Kids who have [a] better education,” replied Angel. “Yeah, and they get a good job,” followed up Chris. Others pointed to the many new houses and improved infrastructure in the community. With few exceptions, in fact, people I talked with in the Philippines felt that military work elevated their families into a better situation than before they left. This perspective is noticeably divergent from the more equivocal assessments of Bosnians. On its face this constitutes a puzzle. While working for military contractors (p.184) offers Filipinos relatively better pay than similar jobs with civilian firms in the Gulf region, the differential is not enormous. And this work is arguably more precarious and dangerous, especially following the imposition of travel bans. In contrast, Bosnians working for prime contractors have been able to earn wages that are not just substantially greater than Filipino military laborers, but extravagant compared to the few job opportunities available at home. They have also experienced more opportunities to gain promotions and raises. So how are we to understand this discrepancy? The answer, I argue, lies in the different political, social, and economic contexts Filipinos and Bosnians experience upon returning home, which shape their adjustment to life after military work and retrospective perceptions of the upsides and downsides of such work. In this final section I examine these differences by comparing the afterlives of military work in the Philippines and Bosnia.

    One significant difference concerns social expectations and perspectives on transnational labor migration. As discussed in chapter 3, since the 1970s the Philippine state has promoted labor export as a development strategy. In the intervening decades millions of Filipinos have headed overseas for work. According to the POEA there were 2.4 million OFWs in 2015. But registered OFWs are just a fraction of the overall number of Filipino citizens living and working abroad, which the government estimates to be as many as 10 million people—or roughly 10 percent of the country’s population.4 What this means is that labor migration is a relatively common experience for Filipino families. Indeed, several people I spoke with indicated that going abroad to pursue military work represents a continuation of previous labor migration to the region for individuals (as was the case with Angel) or across generations (as was the case with Rowel). Consequently, challenges associated with labor migration—from the burden on those who stay behind to strains on familial relationships—tend not to be suffered in isolation as more often than not relatives and family friends are experiencing similar issues. Michelle, for instance, highlighted one time that she and other spouses in her barangay intervened when the wife of a Serka worker was being profligate with money sent home by her husband. To provide another example, Gina left to work in Afghanistan when her daughter was six months old. When I replied that this must have been difficult she disagreed, replying that her mother was happy to look after her daughter. And shortly before I interviewed her in 2015, her daughter, who is now a teenager, encouraged her to apply for military work again if she wanted, saying, “You want to work again, mama, overseas? It’s OK for me because I can manage … ​my grandma and I can manage.”

    Transnational labor migration is not just a common choice for Filipinos looking to improve the lives of their families, it is also socially and politically valorized. This is perhaps best exemplified by the government’s promotion of migrant (p.185) workers as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes), a phrase first used by President Corazon Aquino in 1988. In the thirty years since Aquino’s invocation of bagong bayani, the Philippine state has diligently labored to “manufacture heroes” out of migrant labor.5 Beginning in 1989, for instance, the POEA began sponsoring an annual Bagong Bayani Award that “seeks to recognize and pay tribute to our OFWs for their significant efforts in fostering goodwill among peoples of the world, enhancing and promoting the image of the Filipino as a competent, responsible and dignified worker, and for greatly contributing to the socioeconomic development of their communities and our country as a whole.”6 Central to bagong bayani discourse is the notion of migrants’ experience of hardship and suffering, which sanctifies them as heroes of their communities and the Philippine nation. As Anna Guevarra observes, this aspect of the bagong bayani discourse is rooted in “Catholic ideals of sacrifice, suffering and martyrdom.” Since these are culturally familiar and important values, “when the state invokes them, Filipinos understand and respond accordingly.”7

    While working abroad is both common and celebrated in the Philippines, the social context of labor migration in Bosnia is rather different. To begin, Bosnians’ choice to work as military migrants is not valorized by either society or their government. The state does not track labor migration, and provides little support to workers or their families when crises arise, leading to a sense of social isolation. According to Srdjan, this isolation is amplified by the effects of working in a warzone—especially after surviving the war in the early 1990s—as illustrated by the following exchange.


  • Believe me, it took a couple of months to wind down, settle. And figure out, there is someone sleeping next to me. My wife. First couple of months I kept continuously waking up at 5:20 in the morning. Where am I? OK, I’m home, nice. Just to get your organism back [to] civilian life, and how should I say it? Socializing. I got together with my boys in this bar, [called] Oscar. We grew up together, went through the war together, everything. So they were so glad I am back, and happy for me. But it was a month after working and one time, “Srdjan, why are you so quiet?” “Guys you just talk your talk, I need time to take in everything.” You know what I am saying? It was just like I was in my world trying to figure out shit. And it took some time, believe me. People changed.
  • ME:

  • This seems to be little difference [psychologically] with soldiers.

  • I would say it is like a 85 percent match. Because practically you were wrung through the same shit. Except for shooting. You were not in direct combat, but for everything else you were like a U.S. soldier. (p.186) You were in the same convoy, on the same chopper. In the same shit day in, day out.
  • ME:

  • Is there anything in Tuzla, Lukavac, [other] local communities, support networks that have been developed?

  • No. None that I know of. But I remember we were joking, just for those PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] guys, or those who miss it, we should build ourselves a camp outside town somewhere.
  • ME:

  • So you can pretend to be locked up [on a military base] again?

  • Exactly! [laughs] Just to have a feeling how it is. And simulate the same situation!
  • ME:

  • That’s some typical Bosnian black humor!

  • So another price for that [work] is being without your family, totally separated, with strangers who come from different place. War going on. And I still don’t know what damage has been done to my brain or my soul, but I am trying to keep my mind straight. And I think I am pretty good with it so far [knocks on wood]. But some people can’t.
  • Srdjan was not the only person I talked with who suggested that the cumulative effect of living through the war in Bosnia and then working in a warzone exacted a psychological toll. Fedja worked as a labor foreman for KBR at Tallil Air Base for only four months before resigning. When I asked why, he replied: “For a lot of reasons. It was the third war in my really short period of life. I had the whole war here, had shit-tons of bad situations in Bosnia. And then I worked for almost six years in something like a SWAT team [a special police force]. And then I went to Iraq and there was a lot of shelling and stuff … ​The day before I went home there was eight guys in my camp [Tallil] killed. We had incoming shells and one of them hit a jeep and killed three MPs instantly on the spot, and five guys from India.” Fedja then told me that when he arrived back home on his first vacation and saw his family he said to himself, “The money is not worth it … ​It’s [working in Iraq is] too much for me,” and decided that he would not return to Iraq.

    A second factor concerns the history of labor migration in Bosnia and the broader “Yugosphere.” While there is a tradition of temporarily migrating abroad in search of better pay and opportunities dating back to the Yugoslav period, the most common pathway for Bosnians has involved traveling to Western Europe, whether as a formal gastarbeiter (guest worker) or finding work in the informal economy, usually through personal connections with earlier migrants who have permanently settled in another country. Compared to these options, working for military contractors is a rare and relatively incommensurable form of labor (p.187) migration. Moreover, while the skills and experience that people accumulate working in Europe often lead to new opportunities upon return, those who have been employed by military contractors report that the opposite is true in their case.

    The primary reason that Bosnians are equivocal about military work, however, has to do with the general condition of precarity in Bosnia, from high unemployment and economic insecurity to corruption and divisive ethnonationalist politics, and struggles to regain a sense normalcy in the aftermath of war and displacement. As we saw in chapter 4, for many this is encapsulated in the expression, “facing the reality of this life here.” This “reality” profoundly colors people’s perspective on the future, fueling pessimism that money, experience, or skills gained through military work will translate into a better life going forward, and placing emphasis on what has been sacrificed in a futile attempt to better one’s life. Here is how Enis articulated this pessimism:

    When U.S. troops pulled out of Bosnia, Bosnians went with U.S. troops [laughs]. So still they were supporting their families back home—buying apartments, resolving existential needs, buying cars, getting a guy to paint my house, whatever. You help the local economy. And now that’s going out too. And now what? You got a bunch of people that got back home and are now scratching their balls and what the fuck are they going to do? Do I invest in the local economy which is ruined, and with a questionable outcome of my investments? Do I try to go back again to some warzone? And for how long can you take it? Especially if you got kids. I know guys who haven’t seen their daughters—just Skype and R & R—and then you lose them, there’s a gap right there. It’s like, “Yeah, my daddy is on a TV, and that’s it.” There is a social and economic impact on everybody. You know, it’s like both sides of a coin. Its good, but you pay [for it] in other ways. You pay for it by being separated from your loved ones, or PTSD. There is a huge impact on the local population here. And meanwhile, unfortunately, things got worse in Bosnia, or our hometown [Tuzla].

    When asked to assess her decision to work in Afghanistan with DynCorp, Rena offered an even more blunt and negative assessment: “You know how I describe my two years in Afghanistan? I wasted two years of my life because I didn’t make it while I’m going over there. OK, I get some experience. What am I going to do with it? Nothing. I went to provide [a] better life for my family and I didn’t.” The primary long-term consequence of this work, she concluded, was the tension it placed on the relationship with her daughter’s father, which eventually led to their separation.

    (p.188) Relations with family and friends, others told me, become even more strained as money drains away after people come back home and struggle to find work. Ivan explained this to me in the following way: “Money gets spent. Money, every day it’s less and less and then you start fight[ing] with your wife on money a lot. Those are the downsides. Lot of marriages getting divorced. When you have a little more money, you start feeling beautiful. People like you all the time if you have money. Then after that, you’re going to feel the real life. Over the night, people are going to start turning their head away like they don’t know you anymore. Like you don’t have money, they don’t need you.” Likewise, Sead argued that adjusting to straightened financial circumstances is the biggest challenge most military workers face when returning to Bosnia: “You know in our country they say najgorije nemate pa imate (it is the worst to not have after you have had). You know, because, you don’t have money and you live with that. But when you live and you don’t have money, you get some money, and then lose that again—don’t have money—it’s very bad. It’s killing you in your head.” Due to the depressed economy and difficulty in finding work—even work that pays Bosnian wages—nearly everyone who returns home, he claimed, wrestles with this decline in status.

    Not all in Bosnia are so pessimistic. Kenan told me that he spent the first three months back “just watching TV” but then “one day you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, ‘Yeah, well this is a different reality, let me swim in this reality now.’” He then decided to invest in a construction company—“two excavators and two trucks”—attributing his optimism to experience working with Fluor.

    Well, I have more confidence in myself. You have to understand I wasn’t in Bosnia for five years, so I kind of forgot how the system works here and how much people are suffering because [of the] economic situation … ​I was in my dream world like Alice in Wonderland. I’m coming from Afghanistan to spend twenty-one days here [every R & R], so my only aim is to have fun with my family and I have money to support that, so I don’t give a heck about the political situation, I don’t give a heck about economic [situation]. Those people, they don’t exist for me because I’m stuck in my world. Now, when you come back, you start to awake. You can see how the real life actually is, but because everything I went through to put myself in this life position and not in some other, I have a choice … ​I don’t see problems where most people see them. I’m above the lethargy, which is in every sphere of living in this country. It’s in people’s heads. It’s on [the] street. It’s everywhere. That’s my benefit from [Afghanistan].

    Like other long-term workers, Kenan is suggesting here that he picked up different habits and ways of thinking after interacting with American contractors and (p.189) uniformed personnel for years. But unlike most—who emphasize the challenge this imposes on readjusting to life back home—he insisted that this has enabled him to stay “above,” mentally, the precarious reality of life in Bosnia. That said, later in the interview he acknowledged that since he had only been home for six months when we talked, his optimism might fade over time.

    Whereas Bosnians are generally pessimistic, Filipinos I spoke with tend to be optimistic that military work will lead to a better life for their families. This is reflected in the ubiquity of references to the future during interviews. Rowel, for instance, explained to me: “You can live [here], but it’s not like—I mean everyday life you can survive over here but the future of your family you cannot reach over here especially if you don’t have a business. Our choice is going out of the country, travel abroad. … ​The only thing I think is if I got to stay home the future of my family and my kids is, I cannot give them a good future. That’s the feeling—that I’m going to be strong, stay outside [working on the base]. Just keep putting in my mind the future of my kids.” When I asked Mary about the conversation she had with her daughters before leaving for Iraq she replied, “I told them that [it’s] for their future. That’s right. ‘If I don’t go there, how you can finish your study?’ I told them, explained to them.” One person I talked with, named Edwin, worked abroad for more than thirty years, twenty with construction companies in Saudi Arabia and eleven with military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. He admitted that he felt homesick many times over the years, “But if you think about your family it will pass” because “this is their future. I am doing this for them.”

    Rowel’s comment about being able to “survive” in the Philippines, but a better future being out of reach for his family if he did not decide to work abroad, reflects two widely held assumptions among Filipino military laborers I interviewed. First, most people who have pursued this line of work come from relatively poor and underprivileged families and communities. Like Rowel, they view working abroad as the most realistic chance to escape life at the economic and social margins. This squares with Amanda Chisholm’s research on Nepalese security contractors who also see military work as a short-term sacrifice that will provide a better future for their families.8 Second, education—specifically their children’s education—is seen as the primary mechanism that will allow families to move from the margins. The “good future” that Rowel believes he has secured for his children is based on their ability to go to a private school. As noted above, private schools are perceived as superior to public ones in the Philippines, both in terms of the education they provide and the opportunity for social advancement that they afford. One useful way to think of this is a process of converting economic capital to cultural capital, as suggested by the following analysis of the link between remittances and private education in the Philippines:

    (p.190) When economic capital is circulated back to the Philippines, it becomes convertible to other forms of capital. A common use of remitted funds is the education of siblings, children or other relatives. In this way, economic capital is converted into cultural capital, which forms an investment in the sense that such cultural capital will, in the future, itself yield economic capital. The ability to keep children in school and, in particular, the ability to send them to prestigious schools or colleges, also constitutes an important conversion of economic capital into social capital as parents develop new networks among a higher status section of society, and children develop friendships, social ties, and alumni networks with a similarly elevated cohort.9

    To return to the question that I began this section with, then, for Filipino military laborers the money earned working on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan is not gone. Instead it has—ideally—been transformed into other forms of capital that will benefit their families for generations to come. This optimism is based upon an understanding of life in the Philippines as socially stratified but also relatively fluid if one can acquire the educational and cultural capital necessary to achieve a middle-class life. No such optimism exists for Bosnians, who have little hope for a better future due to pessimism about the suffocating “reality of this life” in their country.


    (3.) Srdjan was working for an off-base contractor at the time, and living in a private compound (actually a large guarded house) in Kabul, an arrangement that has been more common in Afghanistan than Iraq. For more on the lives of off-base contractors in Afghanistan, see Coburn 2018.

    (5.) Guevarra 2010. For more on the deployment of bagong bayani as a political discourse, see Encinas-Franco 2013.

    (7.) Quoted in Guevarra 2010, 55.