The Untold War: A British Soldier of Fortune in Iraq
The Untold War: A British Soldier of Fortune in Iraq
Mercenaries. Some of the least understood participants in war. Duncan Kerr reveals why they do it.
There was no march past when I came home from my last tour of duty. No royals to pin a campaign medal on my chest. No TV crews in search of a prince’s first test by combat. No praise for my efforts in parliament by the minister of defence. No mention of my comrades either, even those who died, blown to pieces by roadside bombs. There will be no wreaths on the Cenotaph, nor bugle notes of the Last Post on Remembrance Day for them, ever. And for those who have returned maimed for life, no veteran’s hospital or soldier’s pension either.
But we are all soldiers, British soldiers, dying to save British, American and Iraqi lives in a war Britain helped devise. Yet when we die, since we aren’t wearing British uniforms, nobody bothers keeping track of the body count or mourning our loss, except our mates and our families. We are an invisible army to most of you – and that’s precisely why we’re useful. Privatising war is a corporate business, and is worth billions to those who hire us to do their dirty work: 53 billion pounds a year at the last count. And there’s plenty of work in Iraq providing frontline security, because there aren’t enough regular soldiers to do our jobs in the overstretched Allied armies. There aren’t enough properly trained or sufficiently reliable Iraqi soldiers or policemen either. While conventional armies fight the insurgency, we guard the failed strategy and keep it from collapse – just – so the cracks won’t show up the leaders who led us to Iraq. But our own government doesn’t have to acknowledge us, provide training, equipment or after care.
No international regulations or standards exist, so nobody is held accountable for where or how we’re used.
That only makes us all the more cost-effective and disposable.
Call us mercenaries if you want. It’s a term we all loathe. It suggests individuals of no morality, who will fight for the highest bidder. But if Al Qaida were recruiting at a higher price, we wouldn’t go. We’re true soldiers and a true soldier has a strict moral code and integrity. The British mercenaries who have traditionally formed the officer corps in the Sultan of Oman’s army are still gentlemen. ‘My word is my bond’ still means something, arcane though that may seem. So the current terminology is ‘contractor.’
We work for private military companies,
security firms or risk consultancies, but we’re still just soldiers – more often than not highly experienced ones from elite regiments or corps that we once served proudly. We’d rather be known as quiet professionals, and I am not ashamed of what I have done protecting VIPs and ensuring that convoys have got through safely. I have been a bodyguard to British cabinet ministers and American generals in places where others wanted to kill them. I’ve made sure humanitarian aid reached those that needed it most.
I never fired on anyone indiscriminately and I have saved lives: no dishonour in that.
I do choose to remain anonymous. Duncan Kerr is not my real name, though my ancestry is Scottish. While I wasn’t born here, and emigrated from Australia as a boy, this is my country and my home. I spent a decade in HM’s Forces before going freelance for another ten years.
I won’t say in which regiment I served, nor reveal what companies I worked for in Iraq. Some won’t be happy that I wrote about any of this.
But I write because the lives of private soldiers are not worth less than those serving the colours.
I believe they must be recognised in life and in death for their contribution and sacrifice in what is, in the end, an untenable position.
Although at least 800 have died thus far, it is not known precisely how many of us there are in Iraq.
By one account there are sixty thousand security contractors of a hundred different nationalities on the ground there. A third of them come from Britain, far more troops than the British army itself deploys. Without them, diplomats, news organizations, the UN, NGOs, hospitals, oil facilities, essential supplies from spare parts to food and fuel for Coalition armies and civilians alike, airports, power plants, dams, every possible dimension of infrastructure, no small part of the Iraqi government itself, police and military training facilities would all find themselves defenceless and a big mess would only get bigger.
The problem is that soldiers like me are no substitute for sufficient numbers of Coalition troops if they are to achieve what they have failed to accomplish since the outset of the war: hold and dominate the ground, and control Iraq.
There just aren’t enough troops, and there never were.
Since declaring victory and retreating to Basra’s airport before withdrawing, the British contingent has been in a de facto siege, hoping the Mahdi Army wouldn’t break its truce. I avoided Basra like the plague if I could help it – it was just so dangerous, even in the lethal context of Iraq. Tony Blair helpfully suggested contractors could pick up the slack, as the British army slowly withdrew from Basra and went home. Ludicrous. For all the vital work we do, we’re a stopgap, not a solution.
So what was the worst day I spent in Iraq? Every single day that I stepped outside the portacabin in the fortified compound I called home for four months, in this, my eighth rotation to Iraq since 2003.
I was a team leader, responsible for a squad of six men. My rotations were interspersed with contract duty in Afghanistan, but twenty four hours on the road from Basra to Baghdad is a long time and four months is an eternity.
Contractors die every day in Iraq – I didn’t want to be one of them just because I was broke.
How much is my life worth? How much is any man’s life worth?
Any amount of money would never be compensation for going home in a body bag – if there were enough pieces left to put in it. I had bills to pay, a family in London to feed, crippling debts and no pension plan, like so many soldiers.
And why do I do it? Because it’s my metier, my vocation, what I am good at, I am a soldier whether in uniform or not, its what I always wanted to be and what
I shall always be. I wasn’t cut out to drive a desk, to work in a bank, to hustle kebabs in a chippie and soldiering is the only thing I know how to do and I am too old to retrain when there’s bills to pay. Because civilian society doesn’t rate my skills as marketable, it’s often my only choice to serve as a contractor.
Civvy street is hard for many of us for precisely these reasons.
In fairness some of us never adjust and I will admit that life in mufti can be a severe letdown for many of us.
Our experience as soldiers may not count for much in financial terms in civilian life but then what is valuable, what really counts that has no price is a question of perspective and experience.
Sure some of my mates are adrenalin and danger junkies and only war gives them the fix they need. But the comraderie, the bond one shares with his fellow soldier in harm’s way, knowing you can count on the man next to you to cover you unflinchingly, to give his life if necessary for you and you for him, that brotherhood of the battlefield, it’s what we all miss the most and it is our code.
Perhaps only firemen, ambulancemen and policemen can understand something like it in civilian life.
The absence of it is often what draws one back to soldiering, because it has nothing to do with how much money you earn, what school you went to, what your social rank might be, whether you have a blue blooded name or not… it’s about honour and courage and that when you say ‘I am here for you brother, I’ll stand by you, I will protect you and I won’t leave you behind, you mean it.
Would the stockbroker next to you die for you?
With the US Department of Defence, I hold a civilian contractor’s rank equivalent to Colonel, and have earned nearly 500 pounds a day. Wonderful – if it’s paid on time. Often we don’t get paid at all, and there’s nobody to complain to. I’m still due six months’ back pay. Money still draws the contractors to Iraq who would earn far less in uniformed service, but the salad days are gone. During my last stint I was earning 200 quid a day. Better than a squaddie’s pay, but still.. I’ve endured some of the toughest training the British Army has to offer, yet my military skills do not translate into a top salary in civilian life. I won’t go on the dole as a matter of principle.
I went to Iraq because it was the only job option that would sustain my family. Nobody wants to die, but as a soldier, I accepted the risk. Duty called, not to queen and country, but to those I left behind, to build a viable future for them.
Being a contractor in Iraq is soldiering at its worst.
The higher pay scale means little if you’re dead.
If we get into a firefight, there’s no cavalry riding to the rescue. It’s not the army. We have no reinforcements, there’s no air cover or artillery, no rapid reaction force to call. In a hot contact, where inevitably one is outnumbered, I’d count myself lucky if there was an Allied unit to call for back up. We operate in small groups and can be slaughtered piecemeal.
You recover yourself, you are on your own with your wits, limited manpower, luck and no heavy weapons. I had nothing heavier than assault rifles and pistols in my armoury, while the insurgents drawing from Saddam’s stores
– one of the biggest arsenals ever abandoned and never properly secured –
have belt-fed machine guns, sniping rifles, RPGs, mortars, IEDs and the even more murderous Explosive Formed Penetrators, which cut through armour like butter.
In my experience having sufficient equipment – even the right equipment – and keeping it maintained was a constant, losing battle. It’s the suits, our company directors at headquarters with plush offices in Mayfair and Knightsbridge, cutting corners and maximising their profits, who are to blame.
When doing vehicle-borne security work on Iraq’s kamikaze roads, whether on a CP team (close protection) or convoy escort, a dependable and armoured vehicle is crucial. But not all my vehicles were armoured professionally, much was improvised jerry-rigging, proof against little. An up-armoured civilian SUV is never going to be a substitute for an APC.
I had to drive to Baghdad once to replace two bad vehicles for two supposedly better ones. I traded in two mediocre vehicles for two worse ones that broke down on the way back. So what did I risk my life for, exactly? In a standard vehicle-based close protection detail, if you come under attack, standard procedure is to drive through the fire, push on, stay under armour and get away.
In those moments, a dependable vehicle is a matter of life and death.
But I was driving a second hand bargain-basement special so the books in London could be kept in the black.
There are a myriad risks, not least the American army and American security contractors. In my experience contractors on convoy duty get shot at by the American military more often than by Iraqi fighters. It’s because the Yanks are so trigger happy and jumpy on convoy duty.
When a US military convoy is coming from the other direction, we have to slow down, pull over and make as many overt gestures to them as possible so they know we aren’t hostile, because they’ll open fire if they have even the slightest doubt. So it’s a constant terrible trade-off: draw American fire or pull over to the side of the road where the IED’s are, becoming a stationary target in the process.
British contractors practice subtler tactics. We try to blend in better, restrain ourselves where possible, not to be overt with our weaponry.
The American contractors like to put on a big show,
display their firepower, block roads, draw attention to themselves. That’s how all close protection details are identified and attacked. We prefer less aggressive methods for the sake of survival. But sooner or later you will get hit, it’s just a matter of time. The odds are always against you. Small arms fire is not really a concern any more, though you do get fired on sometimes, but with IEDs and EFPs, the guerrillas don’t have to expose themselves to your fire. There are infrared beams, pressure pads on the road, command wires, many ways to detonate them. You never see your enemy, and no matter how good or experienced you are, if you’re on the road that day, that’s it.
I had made it through most of my tour without incident, although two colleagues died on separate details when I was on duty elsewhere.
With twenty days left I had my wakeup call just as my convoy pulled out of the compound.
An artillery shell had been hastily buried in the ground, directly in my path. We were only thirty seconds past our own security checkpoint when it went off. It blew out all the glass on my SUV, but, as it had been buried poorly, most of the energy of the blast went away from the vehicle and into the desert.
We were saved by the bombers’ ineptitude. At least the incident helped me to improve the driving skills of my locally recruited squad of four. Communication was always difficult with my non-existent Arabic and their equally poor grasp of English. Now when I said ‘accelerate’ they understood I didn’t mean ‘slow down.’ When you drive on the same roads, day in day out, often on a fixed schedule, ambush is easy, even though you try to vary your movements, speed is essential and a fast target is a hard target.
With one week left, I had my closest brush with death. There we were on our usual patrol, our detail of SUV’s travelling at 100 miles per hour, the vehicles spaced 800 to 1,000 yards apart. Then I saw a flash and a puff of smoke near the lead vehicle. At first I thought it was an RPG. I tried communicating by radio, but there was no response. We made up the distance to the lead vehicle in less than minute. An EFP had shredded the SUV: it looked as if it had been hit by a giant shotgun. One of my counterparts was still in the front seat, still in a normal sitting position, intact – save for his head, which had been sheared off, leaving his neck mangled red flesh.
It was time to go. I had signed all my rights away in the company’s liability agreement, the insurance package was terrible, so bad I barely remember it. Who would take care of my family if I died? To leave them alone, grieving and in debt in return for two hundred pounds a day? It just wasn’t worth it. I needed to survive and get home for them. I’d manage somehow – I was trained to overcome all obstacles. Nothing was more joyous than to be leaving Iraq knowing I’d never return. Six more of my mates have been killed and 20 wounded in the three months since I have been home.
Yet I have always wanted to be a soldier. I come from a tribe of soldiers.
I was weaned on stories of daring elders who fought Britain’s colonial bush wars in the twilight of the empire. Now that I have been lucky enough to come home alive from Iraq, after also surviving Ulster, Yugoslavia and other wars that never make the headlines any more, from Africa to the Caucasus, I will soldier no more. My hand is played. I dream of carpet slippers and a pipe, watching my son grow up, instead of being away listening to his tears and my wife’s on a bad phone line. But other men like me will keep going to Iraq, lured by money or by an inexorable adrenalin addiction. Among them some will be undisciplined, dangerous cowboys. Most of them, however, will remain dedicated and brave professionals. And in the wrong war – fought perhaps for the right reasons but in the wrong way – the expedient, expendable, unseen contractor will, for his unaccountable masters, remain a willing pawn, dying to make a living. But not me.[/three_fourth]