Monday, August 25, 2008


Stephen Armstrong's expose on the new growth industry, private security, is a must read. The author has chosen a worthy subject, researched it thoroughly, and written it up in a very readable manner. Before I go on, let me make a note, however trivial it may seem, about the cover, and give some credit to the artist. So many covers today seem like they are mass produced, but this one stands out from the crowd. On yet another seemingly trivial note, I am disappointed that after all the hard work of the author, the publisher did not spend the time to do an index; several pages at the end are blank, so there would have been no wastage of paper in preparing one. I will therefore give some relevant page numbers as I go along.

Armstrong's prologue sets the tone with the story of Black Hawk Down and how that changed US policy. It then introduces us to some leading players in the field, Tony Buckingham, Simon Mann, Sandline and Blackwater. The latter has earned $1billion from no contest US government contracts, and was responsible for 195 shootings in Iraq, including 16 civilians shot dead in September '07. In the first chapter Armstrong discusses the situation in Yemen in the '60s, putting on stage an array of characters: 'Billy' McLean, Julian Amery, David Stirling, King Hussein of Jordan and Saudi Prince Faisal. Some of these dodgy characters run around the Middle East with press passes from the Daily Telegraph and set themselves up to make money out of misery. David Smiley makes his entrance (p.14), and many African nations find themselves the scene of intrigue, while many Western mercenaries find themselves in jail. From these shadows there emerges the figure of Tim Spicer (p.37), who is the subject of the following chapter, along with Reverend David Cooper. Both are interviewed, and Armstrong gives a history of Sandline (Spicer's), Aegis ( Spicer's/ Cooper's) and Watchguard (Stirling's). Light is shed on darkness, especially in the Cooper interview (pp. 57-62), in which Armstrong asks Cooper about his views on faith and killing. Armstrong's question, I might note, is not quite accurate from a Biblical point of view, but, nitpicking aside, is a good one - how can a Christian go into a field that requires killing when the Bible states "thou shalt not kill?" Cooper puts a realist and human perspective on this, and brings to mind the centurion in Luke, who evoked respect from Christ. The man is no gung ho fanatic; he has seen battle first hand, ministering to wounded and dying soldiers. He takes his soldiering as a necessary evil, and opines that force used to prevent killing is justified; he takes no delight in this, but decries the glee over killing in the press, including the coverage on the sinking of the Belgrano. These bits of light are used to good effect, especially when discussing such a dark theme, and there is no shortage of darkness, including a look (pp. 68-69) at the Pentagon in the next chapter. Donald Rumsfeld's speech of 10 September 2001 is quoted, showing the hand taking tax monies away from the people to give to private security firms. Armstrong does not go into the incestuous relationships between politicians, the Pentagon, and these firms in the US, perhaps that will be the subject of a lengthy sequel? He does point out that after this point there has been no little growth among these entities, noting the development of Booz Allen Hamilton, Vinnel Corp., DynCorp, Halliburton, Brown & Root, etc. (pp. 70-95).

Mark Britten (not his real name) is the subject of Chapter 4; the nice liberal kid from Islington who ends up in Fallujah. Yet again the human side of these characters is portayed, more chairoscuro effect ensues, and we end up liking some guy who lives by the sword. The feel good effect is only spoiled in Chapter 5 by the reality that Armstrong relentlessly sticks to reporting; dead civilians, dead reporters, dead mercenaries, and US companies that refuse to pay out claims to grieving families. Much of this he was only able to get with help from Dahr Jamail, wary as the local population is of talking to Westerners. Chapter 6 brings us back to the West; a convention of security firms in London, which Armstrong attended. The British Association of Private Security Firms holds court with War on Want raining on the parade, but not able to stop the likes of Sir Malcolm Rifkind (p. 179), Tory MP for the Royal Borough. Rifkind's presence adds irony to the event, as he was a noted anti-war MP, but appeared in his capacity as non-executive chairman of Armor Group. Talk at the event was not only on far flung war torn countries, but on the future of security in London and the use of private security firms as de facto police. Armstrong reflects on this with one recent precedent: Katrina, where the likes of Blackwater and Instinctive Shooting International were running around licenced to kill. Are we ready for this?

Personally the most relevant part of the book was the interview with Russell Corn of Diligence, who owned up to the fact (pp. 237-240) that some 25% of 'activists' are actually infiltrators. No surprise that this too is a growth industry, or that many of these hired hands are the ones who incite violent acts in the groups they infiltrate. Earlier this year Ken Tobias, aka Toby Kendall, was outed from Plane Stupid (p. 240) as an operative from C2i.

This book is an essential tool for researchers, activists, journalists and the general public, which needs to be informed.

War PLC: The Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary by Stephen Armstrong is published by Faber and Faber in paperback at £14.99. ISBN 978-0-571-24125-5. 255 pp.

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