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Iraq's mercenary forces

After two charred American corpses were hung from a bridge in Fallujah, the shadowy world of governm

Secrecy still surrounds the thousands of contracted soldiers who protect anything from US Ambassadors to shipments required for the rebuilding effort as they operate outside both Iraqi and US law.

The number of companies and the number of employees being paid by the US government to operate in Iraq are unknown though Steve Fainaru, who wrote Big Boy Rules, a book about the mercenaries, estimates there are currently more than 300.

There is almost no governmental oversight and no record of how many injuries or deaths the companies cause or incur. When hired soldiers are killed on the job, the companies are not required to follow the same procedures the military does; investigations are unofficial and the families are often not informed, Fainaru claims. Nor is financial compensation mandatory.

Some companies are poorly organised and unprepared for defending vulnerable targets. Fainaru called the Crescent Security Group, which he was embedded with, the “Kmart of private security”.

In his book he notes the lack of basic medical supplies like tourniquets and morphine and criticised the sort of vehicles they were deployed in questioning the effectiveness of their armour plating.

The lack of accountability of the contractors, which gained public attention after apparently unprovoked Blackwater employees killed 17 people in Nisoor Square, makes the international community uneasy.

“The public is very suspicious. There is an incredible lack of regulation. There are thousands of people under no legal system. That is problematic at best,” says Fainaru.

But who would volunteer to work for companies that are not limited or protected by any government amid all the dangers of Iraq?

Fainaru found that the contracted soldiers enrolled for quick money and adrenaline rushes. The high pay - between 7,000 to 20,000 US dollars a month - was a motivating factor says Fainaru. “It's incredibly dangerous work so it is market price” he says.

In total, “The US government has spent $6 billion on 300 private companies. Security was Iraq’s growth industry,” explained Fainaru.

Some of the 'mercs' as they call themselves signed up for the excitement. Many had done tours in Iraq with the US army and found civilian life meaningless. Fainaru was able to relate. After being in Iraq, “It's like looking through a weird prism – everything else is boring.”

In the end though, many of the contractors didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Some witnessed incredible brutality. Five of the Crescent Group were kidnapped in November 2006 and their deaths were confirmed 16 months later.

Fainaru sees a parallel between the unexpected chaos that hired soldiers encountered with the experience of the US government. “It’s symbolic. The US government went in without a plan, a sense of history, or the complexity. It was the ultimate tragedy.”

Despite his criticisms of the companies, Fainaru believes that the contractors are essential. The army is not large enough to fight and protect the reconstruction effort, he says. But contractors should only be used in specific circumstances. “We should use them judiciously for security and peacekeeping. We can’t have them running around on the battlefield.”

Rules, especially regarding violence, are hard to enforce in Iraq says Fainaru. “Iraq is what it is – an incredibly dangerous place. The contracted soldiers have every right to return fire.”

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times