The war on Iraq has made us all painfully aware of the Pentagon’s growing reliance on private companies. Commercial firms have been hired to do everything from cooking meals to interrogating prisoners to providing security for US proconsul Paul Bremer. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution estimates that for every ten troops on the ground in Iraq, there is one contract employee. That translates to 10,000 to 15,000 contract workers, making them the second-largest contingent (betweenAmerica and Britain) of the “coalition of the willing.”

Military outsourcing is nothing new. The latest wave of military privatization started in the first Bush Administration, when Defense Secretary Cheney asked Halliburton to study what it would cost to have a private company take charge of getting US forces overseas in a hurry. Halliburton was hired to do just that in Somalia, employing 2,500 people. The Clinton Administration picked up where Bush/Cheney left off, hiring Halliburton–then run by Cheney–as the logistics arm for the war in Kosovo. Halliburton’s contract started out as a $180 million deal but soon mushroomed to more than $2.5 billion as the company built Camp Bondsteel and other military facilities on lavish, cost-plus terms.

The 1990s military outsourcing boom was driven by a combination of practicality and ideology. With post-cold war troop strength dropping from 2.1 million to 1.4 million, there was a certain logic to contracting out nonmilitary functions like laundry and meals, to free soldiers for strictly military duties. But the urge to privatize soon expanded to include anything and everything, up to and including hiring former Green Berets and Navy SEALs for serious security and training functions.

The “privatize first, ask questions later” mentality has led to the situation we face now in Iraq, where private companies are performing front-line military functions ranging from providing security to the Coalition Provisional Authority (Blackwater) to training the new Iraqi army (Vinnell) to protecting oil pipelines (Erinys) to interrogating prisoners (CACI).

Before the 1990s privatization push, private firms had periodically been used in lieu of US forces to run covert military policies outside the view of Congress and the public. Examples range from Air America, the CIA’s secret air arm in Vietnam, to the use of Southern Air Transport to run guns to Nicaragua in the Iran/contra scandal. What we are seeing now in Iraq is the overt use of private companies side by side with US forces. But many of the same issues of democratic accountability and military effectiveness (or more often lack thereof) hold true, whether the use of the companies is overt or covert.

There is a reason that governments have historically maintained a monopoly over the use of force. Allowing private companies into the mix interferes with the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable for when and how force is used. The role of CACI in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison is only the latest example of this problem. The Army’s internal investigation of abuses there singled out a CACI employee, alleging that he had been involved in directing some of the incidents for which Army reservists are now facing courts-martial. But this man has neither been brought out of Iraq nor brought up on criminal charges because military contractors are not subject to the code of military justice, and their status under US criminal law is vague.

Other problems of accountability abound. A top Army logistics officer reported last summer that in large parts of Iraq troops were not receiving fresh food and water because contractors were refusing to go into danger zones. When Vinnell was hired for $48 million to train the initial elements of the new Iraqi army, Steven Rosenfeld reported for that the firm botched the job so badly that reinforcements had to be called in from the Jordanian army and other contractors. The contract was not renewed.

The Vinnell case is the exception. More often, private contractors “fail upward.” Take Halliburton. Despite overcharging for gasoline it brought to Iraq from Kuwait, charging for three times as many meals as it was serving to troops and taking millions of dollars in kickbacks, the company continues to get new contracts. (Press reports suggest that Halliburton could take in up to $18 billion from its work in Iraq alone.) So much for accountability.

Key members of Congress have started to press for action on this issue. Representative Jan Schakowsky has called for an end to US funding of private military contractors in Colombia, which have been involved in combat and implicated in civilian massacres in that nation’s decades-long civil war. More recently, Schakowsky has called for the suspension of all contracts with private military firms involved in the supervision, security or interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. In early April, Senator Jack Reed and twelve colleagues wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld questioning the use of private security contractors on the front lines in Iraq, noting that “security in a hostile fire area is a classic military mission.” These are useful first steps toward what must become a thorough, top-to-bottom “policy audit” of Pentagon privatization, with an eye to taking back key functions into the public sphere.

It’s time to roll back the latest wave of military outsourcing and acknowledge that there are certain things that are too important to leave to hired guns.