Joel Rosenthal Interviews Colonel Thomas X. Hammes: Unexplored Issues Regarding Military Contractors

April 23, 2009

This is one of a series of four interviews that took place at the April 2009 McCain Conference, held at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, U.S. Naval Academy.

These are the other three:

Jeffrey McCausland Interviews James Carafano: The Role of Contractors in Combat

Joel Rosenthal Interviews Thomas Griffith: When Is Military Outsourcing Appropriate?

Jeffrey McCausland Interviews Eric "Rick" Olson: The Role of Military Contractors


JOEL ROSENTHAL: You mentioned that conversations like these seem to be difficult and that we are not having enough of them about this whole issue of private military contractors. Do you have a sense of why that is? Is it a question of just politics or is it a question that hasn't come up on people's radar?

THOMAS HAMMES: I think initially, when I first started discussing this in 2004 when I got back to Iraq, it tended to be a polemic thing. If you were for contractors, you were for the war, and if you were against contractors, you must be an antiwar nut. So there was a certain reluctance to discuss it then.

Since then, there's a general acceptance that they are there, without an understanding of what the impacts are. Again, if you want to have this discussion and drive it to a logical conclusion one way or another, there's a fair amount of political capital that has to be expended for this discussion, if you want to make changes.

If you're against contractors, then you have to decide, do I want to have that conversation? Do I have that much political capital I can expend? Or are there more important things on my agenda? I suspect it's continually more important things.

If you're for contractors, then leave it alone.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. So we're in the uncomfortable middle. It seemed like there was a consensus. We have contractors. The question is, how will we use them, in what roles? So that becomes a more nuanced conversation.

THOMAS HAMMES: Yes. I think the key point is, we're going to have them, because we are not going to expand the force to do what we're asking them to do. We are not going to expand the civilian forces significantly, because, again, the political capital to change the personnel system, I think, would be significant. I'm not an expert on personnel, but I think it would be significant.

So where do you want to take it? Right now we're kind of working around the edges: What can they do? What should they do? But again, if you get too much into what they shouldn't be doing, then the answer is, then who's going to do it?

That means either mobilizing more reserves or growing the service. We've already had this big discussion. We've grown the service 80,000 between the Army and the Marine Corps. Is that big enough?

Then you may also have to get into a discussion of, if you really think you're going to do this in Afghanistan, how many people is it going to take? Nobody seems to be willing to have that discussion.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is going to the basic question, then, of what we, the American people, should do. In other words, we have followed from conscription to an ethos of public service. We now have a professional military. Now we're adding this new element to it.

The question, I suppose, is, are we actually now engaging in certain enterprises or certain projects or certain overseas things that, in other words, we're not willing to commit to as a country?

THOMAS HAMMES: This is one of the interesting things. We always kept a very small army. In fact, the Constitution doesn't even have sustaining an army. It just has raising an army when you need one. So we had very small forces, and we figured the oceans would protect us, and we'd raise forces when we needed them.

It is only after World War II, when Korea comes along, that we suddenly realize that we have to maintain a significant force. You only have to do that if you're reaching outside the continent, if you're trying to sustain the world. So the world changed, but we didn't.

So we went with drafts. The problem is, the draft led us into what many came to feel was an adventure in Vietnam. Many felt it was enabled by the draft, so we had to do away with the draft. The draft went away, not just for that, but for a lot of the hostility to Vietnam.

Now you still have the same problem of the Soviet Union, but you've done away with draft. Again, this is incremental change. Essentially it's a "wicked" problem, an interactively complex problem. One of the things of a wicked problem is that any solution creates new problems. So each time we solve a problem with something we do, we create two new problems. And it's nonlinear, so you never know how it's going to go.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We have some people out there who have taken an oath, and then we have other people out there who have signed a contract. It would seem to me that their loyalties would be different, and perhaps their incentives as well.

THOMAS HAMMES: Clearly the incentives and loyalties will be different, although most of the people out there that are Americans have shown remarkable resilience as contractors for doing it. But also most of the contractors are not Americans.

Can you really expect a Bangladeshi truck driver to push through because there are Americans up there getting killed? The guy from Texas or from Montana or wherever—"Yeah, I'll do it. I'm not getting paid for it, but this is the right thing to do." He may. But for a Bangladeshi, it makes no sense at all.

A lot of them are local contractors. That brings in an interesting question as to where loyalty lies, particularly as you get into complex parts of the world—Iraq, Afghanistan—where there is still a tribal connection, clans, sub-clans.

While someone may be a loyal contractor as long as you're messing in Valley A—because he doesn't know anybody over there—if you move to Valley C—"Hey, that's my valley." Is he on your side now or is he on their side?

So this whole question hasn't really been explored.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Do you think this is just a question now that we have to look at this from a strategic level and then move on down?

THOMAS HAMMES: I think you start with the strategic level. One of the things is, contractors have been used continually as a stopgap measure to overcome immediate shortages. Rather than say, "Why do we have the shortage? What's a strategic way to overcome it?" we use the patch.

Again, it will take a good deal of political capital to change it. Is that what you need your capital for? Right now you're just fighting to keep us in Afghanistan, perhaps. You think it's the right thing to do and you're expending your political capital to keep us there. It's difficult to expand that argument and say, not only should we stay, but we have to go big because we have to get rid of the contractors.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Where do you think this conversation will come from? We have different people around the table at this conference. Clearly we have the uniformed military and all that represents. We have people from NGOs, human rights groups, political-type people.

I guess my question to you is, do you think it will come from the military itself or do you think it's going to come from some other source, in terms of forcing that big strategic discussion?

THOMAS HAMMES: I'm not sure we will be able to force a big strategic discussion. We still haven't had a big strategic discussion on Afghanistan. There really hasn't been a strategic discussion on Iraq. We're on this downward path.

What nobody has had the discussion yet in public on, for instance, is, if it goes unstable, do we go back in? Do we stop the withdrawal and go back in? If the Arabs really go after the Kurds, do we back the Kurds, do we back the Arabs, or do we try to intervene with a peacekeeping force? If so, how big?

So if we're not even having those fundamental discussions, then it's kind of a leap to think we're going to get down to whether we use contractors or not.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So this is a footnote discussion? I guess my question is, should we be trying to raise it?

THOMAS HAMMES: This is the right environment. It's going to have to, I think, start out in an academic and operational environment and work its way up.

Frankly, until there's a disaster—and one of the things about the division of power in the United States is, until you get a disaster, nothing much really happens. The system is designed kind of to maintain the status quo, which is not a bad thing. The government leaping around and going in every direction is not so good.

But when you look at the number of things on this administration's plate, contractors have to be way, way down at the bottom.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is my last question. Do you think this is an issue that should be more present in terms of the teaching and learning that goes on within the professional military education, and also then the management of the issues?

THOMAS HAMMES: Keep in mind that one of the issues—most major changes in large bureaucracies are generational. The old generation moves away with their ideas and the guys whose lives were shaped by dealing with contractors will now be in charge.

If the guy who is now running the Command and Staff College has had a couple run-ins with contractors, either positive or negative, he's going to think this is an important thing to discuss. He's going to remember when he landed, and he goes, "Who are you?" The guy says, "I'm a contractor." He says, "What? How do I even operate?"

That was an emotionally significant event for him. He will make sure that the guys coming up behind him don't face that same problem.

So it will be a generational change.

It's also, frankly, going to be varied in different parts of the world. For instance, nobody's really interested in putting troops in Africa. But there's clearly a crying need for security, for the very selfish reason of extracting minerals and resources. How is that going to be done? Is that a strategic decision? Remember, those aren't U.S. companies. Those are international companies.

What control does the U.S. have? It may be Union Oil or whoever, but they're not really U.S. companies. They're globally owned, as part of global ownership. Can we even tell them they can't use contractors?

It's a wide-open, interesting problem that needs a lot more academic discussion. It's going to become part of the professional discussion as more and more people encounter this issue and deal with it in the field.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Terrific. Thank you very much.

THOMAS HAMMES: My pleasure.

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