Camp Followers, Contractors, and Carpetbaggers in Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Miller is author of Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as well as A Carrier at War: Shock and Awe Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (Potomac Books, 2005). He was an embedded journalist in the Gulf during OIF I and more recently, in Baghdad and Fallujah.

Boarding the C-130 for Baghdad at a U.S. base in Kuwait I was surprised to discover that despite the military flight, the majority of my fellow passengers were not soldiers but private contractors. I was thus reminded of one constant in military history that seems to transcend time and place—where armies go private enterprise will surely follow. Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War is replete with privately outfitted vessels, grain merchants supplying distant armies, and friendly city-states welcoming hungry combatants into their agorae. However, the relationship between private enterprise and armies has always been controversial, and it is useful to make some elementary classifications. On a recent embed to Iraq I had an opportunity to see how several of these categories were manifest as well as to make some connections between what some have called a “Contractors’ War” and several larger aspects of the Bush administration’s reconstruction strategy for Iraq.

Camp Followers

There have always been civilians who have quite literally followed armies. Establishing camps just outside the military perimeter, when the army moved, they moved, thus earning the name “camp followers.” While this term usually conjures images of prostitutes and unscrupulous merchants plying contraband to soldiers, the vast majority were likely soldiers’ wives and children, washer women, servants, slaves, photographers, religious ministries, journalists, military equipment contractors and sutlers purveying legitimate merchandise. By the time of the American Civil War, camp followers were sufficiently important to merit special mention in Dr. Francis Lieber’s famed General Orders 100 (1863), an early attempt to codify wartime conduct for Federal troops. It declared that, “[C] itizens who accompany an army for whatever purpose, such as sutlers, editors, or reporters of journals, or contractors, if captured, may be made prisoners of war….”

Today, most of the legal merchandizing functions once served by this semi-regulated swarm of camp followers have been replaced by the PX or post-exchange. A visit to the usually crowded PX at Camp Fallujah stills any doubts about the importance of providing these items. The Fallujah PX fills approximately 4,000 square feet of retail space and somehow manages to blend Wal-Mart-type merchandise with a convenience store’s snappy atmosphere. Located within the camp perimeter, it is strictly regulated as to personnel, hours and goods. Yet the PX does share one important feature with its sutler-predecessors, one that seems laced through the overall U.S. management of the Iraq War—it shifts the cost of many items from the government to private parties, in this case, the soldiery. And not just the cost of junk food—some of the most popular clothing items at the Fallujah PX include cold weather gear, socks, gloves, Under Armor shirts and long johns—items with important field applications. Still, the Iraq War has something like traditional camp followers. One of the unreported stories of the conflict are the large numbers of young people from places like India and Sri Lanka who have come to Iraq specifically to sell food (e.g., Subway franchises), merchandise, and establish custom tailoring shops for the benefit of Coalition forces. As with camp followers from every time and place, they take increased personal risks in exchange for likely profits.

Defense Contractors

Today few Americans raise objections over retail sales to soldiers. However, for a second type of business—the defense contractor—public attitudes have always been ambivalent. Referring to substandard goods produced by some war contractors, the term “shoddy” was already trite by Appomattox. In the aftermath of World War I, accusations of profiteering, especially against arms’ merchants, had become a trope. During World War II, Sen. Harry S. Truman partly earned his 1944 nomination as Roosevelt’s vice-president because he led important hearings that exposed serious wrongdoing by some defense contractors. More recently, the $100 toilet seat has become shorthand for waste, fraud and abuse in military contracting. Curiously, in the Iraq War (and perhaps for the first time in recent American history) few complaints are heard about defense contractors per se. Instead, the focus seems to have shifted to the civilian management of the war effort, especially in procurement—for example, questioning whether U.S. forces are properly armored both on their persons (quantity and quality of Kevlar vests) or in their vehicles (numbers of up-armored Humvees and transports). The questions raised by today’s critics have less to do with providing poorly made or overpriced supplies rather than insufficient quantities of the right supplies, with the fault laid at the Defense Department’s doorstep.

Carpetbaggers and Reconstructions

However, next to the Iraq invasion itself, one of the most controversial aspects of the war concerns another category of private contractor—the reconstruction entrepreneur, or, as some would call them, “carpetbaggers.” The word carpetbagger is deeply rooted in the American experience. While the inexpensive carpetbag—two pieces of carpet sewn together and joined with a handle—was invented in the 1830s, the term “carpetbagger” acquired its connotation after the Civil War. In 1868 a Northerner reported on the “great deal of bitterness” that some Southerners displayed “in regard to the presence, and great prominence of members, of what Louisiana people call ‘carpet-baggers’—men, that is, who are new comers in the country.” A Southerner put the matter more succinctly: “I would sooner trust the Negro than the white scalawag or carpet-bagger.” In Lost Cause historiography, which in the decades following Appomattox, dominated Southern, and eventually Northern memories of the war and reconstruction, carpetbaggers were seen as opportunistic Yankees, as portrayed in the film Gone With The Wind by the character of Northerner Jonas Wilkerson, the former overseer who after the war sought to buy Tara for unpaid taxes. In many respects, carpetbagger rhetoric was an extension of antebellum secessionist ideology, which caricatured Northern society as excessively mercenary, lacking the “higher” ideals.

While this rhetoric probably fit some entrepreneurs, the term was actually applied with the same (or greater) vehemence to Northerners serving the Freedmen’s Bureau such as the likely thousands of Yankee “schoolmarms” educating the newly freed slaves. Moreover, even profit-driven business interests brought with them one commodity that the war-ravaged South desperately needed—capital. But many white natives hated the racial, social and economic changes these “new comers” represented. Reaction was swift, ranging from non-violent ostracism to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In its original usage then, “carpetbagger” was a reactionary’s word, a term of opprobrium most useful to those on the losing side of the Civil War.

It is not surprising then, given the partisan divide over the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, that the word carpetbagger has again resurfaced—invariably used by those who opposed the war, or who see an economic motive in the Bush administration’s management of Iraqi reconstruction. Speaking for these dissenting Americans, one website devoted to exposing what it says are abuses by corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton flatly declares, “ These companies are modern versions of carpetbaggers,” and includes on its homepage a famous 19th century cartoon depicting the species. (Nor is the term applied exclusively to reported profiteers. A Muslim website created a stir by denouncing Christian evangelist Franklin Graham as a “spiritual carpetbagger” after he declared his interest in proselytizing Iraqis.)

Whatever truths eventually surface from these partisan arguments, during my time in Iraq I could not help but notice the ubiquity of one kind of reconstruction entrepreneur—the PSD or Personal Security Detail. President Bush’s broad, international “coalition of the willing” does exist but in the form of mercenaries carrying Irish, French, British, South African, Russian, German, Ukrainian, American and Nepalese (Gurkhas) passports. These (mostly) men were guarding corporate and governmental facilities, training Iraqi police, firefighters and soldiers, as well providing personal protection for Western and Iraqi civilians. It is useful to reflect on the presence of the PSDs because of the light they shed on the Bush administration’s closely entwined military, political and reconstruction policies.

Licensed to carry arms by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the PSDs’ large-scale presence certainly illustrates the previously noted pattern of cost shifting prevalent in military installations. Any corporation whose CPA contracts require an onsite presence had better provide for its own private security. But cost shifting is a consequence of other factors, and in this respect, U.S. Iraq reconstruction policy is different from any other in American history.

Two points emphasized by the presence of PSDs need to be considered sequentially. The first, now obvious to most observers, is that the U.S. lacks sufficient troops to provide meaningful ground security in all but a few key places—and not always there. Less often discussed is a second reason that lurks behind the first. If the goal were to “defeat” the insurgency, the level of ground troops should have been doubled (or more) to provide a safer environment for reconstruction, especially in the Sunni Triangle. But the goal is not (and never was) to militarily defeat the insurgency. Rather, if one ignores political rhetoric and focuses on where boots are actually on what ground—call it a garrison and patrol strategy—a strong inference arises that the overall military and political goals of reconstruction is merely to contain the insurgency until a combination of the ISF and local constabulary can assume the security function.

This is important, because it weakens one of the administration’s rationales used to sustain public support for the war—we fight the terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here. Indeed, as already acknowledged by the Bush administration, a majority of the Iraqi insurgents are a combination of former Ba’athists and assorted nationalists—not those likely to wage a jihad inside the United States. What this also suggests is that even given the most optimistic scenarios for reorganizing the ISF, the insurgency could continue for decades. This is not an insurmountable problem—many countries manage to function even with active, domestic terrorists (e.g., Russia, Israel, Spain, Algeria.)

But a garrison-and-patrol strategy cannot produce safety comparable to the security standards of occupied Germany, Japan or Italy. Whatever the public was led to expect, it is my opinion that even after confronting a larger-than-expected insurgency, U.S. forces in Iraq were never intended to produce post-WWII levels of security; rather, security is maintained at levels sufficient to keep the oil fields and MSRs [Main Routes of Supply] open and commerce flowing. (Perhaps it is an unintended consequence, but in one perverse sense, weaker security also provides the Iraqis with incentives to accelerate domestic security formation, i.e., the U.S. will not “do” it for them.) Nevertheless, because so much reconstruction—of power grids, water and sewer systems, and telecommunications, to name a few—takes place away from the protective wing of U.S./Iraqi forces, private entities are sometimes left to fend for themselves. Thus, in parts of Iraq, private contractors are kidnapped, sometimes for ransom, sometimes for murder; and sometimes, private security services battle insurgents and criminals directly.

Making connections between U.S. corporate and political interests involved Iraqi reconstruction, monitoring for price gouging, rigged and no-bid contracts, and scrutinizing the DoD’s procurement policies is as American as apple pie. But in today’s Iraq, carpetbags are more likely to be filled with Glock 9mm pistols or HK MP5 submachine guns rather than cheap cigars or crooked contracts. Until the security situation improves, reconstruction will continue to be erratic. In fact, given Iraq’s vast oil wealth and its 30% (or higher) unemployment, reconstruction has barely begun.

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Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Thanks Mr. Dresner...

Dear Mr. Miller,

I was living on the outskirts of Fort Bragg at the onset of the war. In a matter of a few weeks Fayetteville, NC was devoid of troops and the bars were filled with the wives of the deployed.

Fayetteville, while not the center of wholesome, family values in times of peace was basically girls gone wild. When the first rotation returned stateside we had a series of domestic violence incidents including a handful of familicide cases.

I then moved to Goldsboro, NC home of USAF Seymour Johnson AB. The Air Force service personnel though just as sexually active seemed more subdued.

The sexual pressures not only have adverse effects on the troops stationed abroad but, the impact on the homefront is equally taxing.

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Mr. Miller,

I did not see Jarhead but, if it is the story as told to me by two different soldier friends... different locations, places and date for each gent's tale... the video was of a spurned wife having sex with her new man... I assumed this was Army lore or urban legend... It probably is very true but may have now taken on a life of its own...

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Mr. Miller,

There was this Atlanta Journal story at the wars outset of two GI's marrying Iraqi women, in country, under the auspices of an Iraq judge but, I have not been able to find any follow-up to these marriages or similar happenings...


There has also been some limited articles recently, such as this, on US troop sex lives or lack thereof...


Richard Dees Funderburke - 1/11/2006

Fascinating. In many cases, the history of homosexuals is best seen or accounted for in the records of the reprisals against them [see Chauncey's "Gay New York"]. Good luck with your next visit to Iraq and I hope you will be writing something I get to read here or elsewhere.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 1/10/2006

Great article. The PX in Fallujah sounds exactly like any ordinary PX on any U.S. military base across the globe, during peace or wartime.


Richard F. Miller - 1/10/2006

Dear Mr. Funderburke: It's true of course, that the simple admission of heterosexualty will not result in discharge. But even here there are limits. If a heterosexual patient were to admit to a (sexual) relationship with a fellow soldier/sailor, or the spouse of same, this would also constitute a violation of the UCMJ, and the doctor would be required to report it. Based on the record of discharges (as far as I can tell) this stuff is enforced--several months before I arrived, the USS Kitty Hawk actually had its resident admiral dismissed for just this reason--an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

There is one side note to this--in the Navy (I haven't checked this for the other armed services) there is one person who does have absolute priest-penitent privilege against disclosure, and those are the chaplains. They are not automatcially required to disclose violations of the UCMJ, and for that reason, one of my "findings" aboard the Kitty Hawk was that sailors were more likely to take sensitive issues to the chaplains. These involve not just issues of sexuality (my guess is not even primarily issues of sexuality) but also questions of substance abuse, the observed behavior of others, criminal activity, as well as a range of problems that sailors might (perhaps erronously) not wish to discuss with the ship's psychologist for fear of being labeled "nuts."

Perhaps because of this confidentiality, the true "shrinks" aboard the boat are the chaplains. (I did spend quite a bit of time with Marine chaplains in Fallujah, but unfortunately for my answers here, delved into areas other than sexuality/confidentiality--however, I am tentatively scheduled to return with the Marines to Iraq in March, and will keep your particular queries in mind.) One Navy chaplain told me that his work was 10% theology, 60% marriage/significant other counseling, and the other 30% he didn't want to talk about!

Richard Dees Funderburke - 1/10/2006

What an intelligent and informed response. Can you imagine the reaction if a heterosexual "patient" was informed that any discussion of his/her personal sexuality was to be reported to superiors and would lead to discharge from the service? Who would be left to man the ship?

Richard F. Miller - 1/9/2006

Dear Mr. Ebbett: Ah, yes, the flip side, no doubt. If you've seen the movie "Jarhead" (if you haven't I won't give too much away) a scene unfolds that exemplifies the very thing you've just noted. After languishing "somewhere" in the Saudi desert for months, a Marine treats his buddies to a video of "Apocalypse Now" that he has just received from home. If you know what follows, you'll feel awfully smart about your last comment...if you don't then far be it from me to blow the entertainment!

Jonathan Dresner - 1/9/2006

ZMag link has been fixed.

Jonathan Dresner
HNN Assistant Editor

Richard F. Miller - 1/9/2006

Mr. Ebbitt: Thank you very much for these links. While I was unable to open the ZMag link, I think the AJC story is the exception that proves the rule--the secret nuptials, the disapproving commanders, the fear of terrorism. Because kidnapping remains a potent threat, most military, when they do venture out, always do so with buddies and usually heavily armed. (In fact, everyone is heavily armed, except journalists, who are technically forbidden from carrying arms--but not prevented from keeping company with heavily armed PSDs!) I suppose one (unintended?) side effect of this policy--which would literally require a conspiracy to seek "unauthorized" sex--is to vastly reduce the number of occasions for sexual tourism.

But there is a huge unknown here: the willingness of Iraqi women to engage in what Westerners might term casual sex. Excluding completely secularized Iraqis for a moment, the structure of society is vastly different there, with an emphasis on the social control of women. There are many more native eyes on the look-out for what they might consider socially inappropriate behavior. Although the facts are not yet known (or at least released) this may have been behind the assassination of journalist Steven Vincent in Basra last year. (Allegations flew that he had such a relationship with his female interpreter, although this was denied by members of his family.)

Richard F. Miller - 1/9/2006

Your question is a good one. In a recent book about my first embed aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk during OIF-I, I raised the same question with the ship's psychologist. She explained that under "Don't Ask/Don't Tell," her only dealings with sexual orientation came about through voluntary disclosure by prospective patients. I use the word "prospective" because each patient was asked to sign a document (before meeting) acknowledging that the psychologist would have to share any information violative of the UCMJ with higher command. Thus, patients were on notice that if they "told" of issues relating to sexual orientation, it was one-way ticket off the ship and out of the Navy. It was her belief that such disclosures were prompted less by "psychological" anguish than by a desire to be discharged.

As for Iraq, it's a fair inference that the percentage of gay men and women in a 130,000 +/- military force would likely reflect broader averages, whatever those are. Of course, gays can be as celibate as straights. But only the naive would imagine no homosexual contacts among such a large body of people--or for that matter, no heterosexual contact. (Remember that there are many uniformed women serving in Iraq.) Of course, nobody--straight, gay, male, female, or pop-goes-the weasel--is going to be discussing this with a journalist, or anyone else--unless they want out.

Thus, as to your last question--"Does the monastic quality of the Iraq occupation inspire what I might call a "Brokeback Mountain" scenerio?--I can only say that while I couldn't testify of my own knowledge in a court of law, it's probably the way to bet.

Richard Dees Funderburke - 1/9/2006

Thanks for the comments but I think they would have been a good part of your article as well -- which was very good in all other aspects. Of course, the concentration of "young men" with no sexual outlets [contracted for or illicit] raises the next question: to what extent are homosexual contacts encountered? As someone interested in gay/Lesbian history, such sexual activities are far from unknown even under conditions in which a local female populace is "ready, willing, and available". Does the monastic quality of the Iraq occupation inspire what I might call a "Brokeback Mountain" scenerio?

Richard F. Miller - 1/9/2006

Mr. Funderburke: This was a question that I raised repeatedly during my various sojourns in-country--given the concentration of young men, what were the opportunities for, to use a Civil War euphemism, "consort"? While no one I spoke with--private contractors, PAOs, or rank and file, were prepared to rule out any such activity (the country is large and only a few areas are extremely hazardous to one's health), all advanced the same reasons for why they knew of few, if any such opportunities--risk. Since our military doesn't countenance "official brothels," men seeking these opportunities would have to venture outside (relatively) protected areas and into the Iraqi maw. Few men were prepared to take that risk. (Nothing would please a Zaraqawi more than to film a snuff video of an American soldier executed for "unlawful fornication.") Moreover, the military, in pre-deployment preparation, strongly emphasizes not only the security risks but also the cultural-political consequences of any American "taking up" with local women, willing or otherwise. It wouldn't be a pretty picture. picture.

Richard Dees Funderburke - 1/9/2006

As a historian more interested in social history than the strictly military, I thoroughly enjoyed this first-hand account of campfollowers in Iraq. Sadly, I missed any mention of the most famous [infamous?] of this group -- sex providers. Is this commercialized too by the Bush administration or are the soldiers too busy creating democracy in Iraq to think about it?