Support: We Don't Want Your Kind Here


April 21, 2010: General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wants to cut back on the use of contractors. Late last year, the American troop buildup in Afghanistan was being preceded by a sharp increase in civilian contractors. A year ago, there were 127 civilian contractors for every 100 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That ratio will slowly decline this year, as the troops the contractors are preparing for, arrive. McChrystal has already reduced the number of contractors by closing down many of the fast food establishments and base exchanges (military department stores for troops to get consumer goods) in the larger bases. The smaller bases didn't have these amenities, and McChrystal wanted to keep troops, especially those in larger bases, aware that they were in a combat zone. McChrystal plans to replace thousands of contractors working security and intelligence jobs, with troops. He wants to get contractors down from 50 percent of the force to, well, something smaller.

The presence of so many civilian contactors in the combat zone was first noted in Iraq. A year ago, there was one civilian contractor for each member of the military in Iraq. Thus half the American force were civilians. This is not the first time this has happened. In the 1990s, half the American peacekeeping force in the Balkans was civilian contractors. In past wars, the percentage varied. During the 1991 Gulf war, contractors were only about two percent of the force. That was because the U.S. troops came to liberate Kuwait and leave. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States, had bases they allowed U.S. forces to use for the operation. The American troops basically lived "in the field" as they would in a conventional war.

In the Vietnam war, where U.S. troops were there for a long time, contractors were 16 percent of the force. In the Korean war, civilians were 28 percent of the force. During World War II it was 12 percent, it was 4 percent in World War I, during the U.S. Civil War it was 17 percent, during the Mexican-American War it was 15 percent and during the Revolutionary War, it was 18 percent. It was not just the U.S. that was using contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many other nations around the world have been doing the same thing. It's particularly popular in Europe, but even Russia and China are picking up on this. And this has been going on everywhere for a long time.

This current trend is actually a return to the past, when many of the "non-combat" troops were civilians. Another problem is the shrinking proportion of troops who actually fight. A century ago, most armies comprised over 80 percent fighters and the rest "camp followers (support troops) in uniform." Today the ratio is reversed, and therein resides a major problem. Way back in the day, the support troops were called "camp followers," and they took care of supply, support, medical care, maintenance and "entertainment" (that's where the term "camp follower" got a bad name). The majority of these people were men, and some of them were armed, mainly for defending the camp if the combat troops got beat real bad and needed somewhere to retreat to. The military is using a lot more civilians now. In an age when most troops are highly paid volunteers, it's cheaper to hire additional civilians, on short term contracts, than it is to recruit and train more troops. In some ancient armies, more than fifty percent of the force were camp followers.

The U.S. military has actually been hiring contractors, more and more, since the 1960s, but does not give a lot of publicity to the program. Mainly because some of the contractors, especially those in medical jobs, get paid far more than someone in uniform doing the same job. But many of the civilians, hired to do what was previously done by soldiers, are making as much, or less, than the troops (including benefits.)

McChrystal especially wants to dispense with expensive foreign contractors, because he believes these people are much more expensive than soldiers would be, doing the same work. That is not always possible, as some of these contractors are technical specialists (as in electronics and communications) for which the military has no counterparts. McChrystal also believes that, unlike Iraq (where the locals were much less trustworthy), more Afghans could be hired for contractor jobs.

The military has always had a lot of civilians around, but more of them are doing jobs in combat zones, or out in the field. Many of the civilians are retired military, or have served for a few years. They know the drill, and what they are getting into. Just as all those civilian truck drivers getting shot at daily in Iraq, but doing it for the big payday. There is not as much of this in Afghanistan, but there is widespread use of armed contractors for convoy escort and base security. McChrystal could replace some of these, because not as many troops are needed in Afghanistan as in Iraq. But this would require more American troops to serve overseas, at a time when the military is trying to give the troops more time at home. Most American active duty and reservist troops have served at least one 12 month tour in Iraq.

One of the great revolutions in military operations in this century has been in the enormous increase in support troops. This after a sharp drop in the proportion of camp followers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that it was common for an army on the march to consist of 10-20 percent soldiers and the rest camp followers. There was a reason for this. Armies "in the field" were camping out and living rough could be unhealthy and arduous if you didn't have a lot of servants along to take care of the camping equipment and help out with the chores. Generals usually had to allow a lot of camp followers in order to get the soldiers to go along with the idea of campaigning.

Only the most disciplined armies could do away with all those camp followers and get the troops to do their own housekeeping. The Romans had such an army, with less than half the "troops" being camp followers. But the Romans system was not re-invented until the 18th century, when many European armies trained their troops to do their own chores in the field, just as the Romans had. In the 19th century, steamships and railroads came along and made supplying the troops even less labor intensive, and more dependent on civilian support "troops." The widespread introduction of conscription in the 19th century also made it possible to get your "camp followers" cheap by drafting them and putting them in uniform.

Most of the growing quantities of supplies and equipment for the troops was provided by civilians, in the form of workers who produced the weapons and other supplies back home, and then ran the ships and railroads that carried all this stuff to the troops. Gradually, as one gets closer to the fighting, more and more of the support people are in uniform, often doing the same jobs as others further back. But as a result of this trend, and the increasing use of technology, today's armies are less than 20 percent warriors and the rest "camp followers in uniform." In effect, the uniformed camp followers outnumber the fighters in the armed forces. While the senior commanders still come from the ranks of the fighters, they are vastly outnumbered by non-warrior officers. This has created management problems in that the tail (support troops) has an increasing tendency to wag the dog (the warriors.) While support troops are critical to the effective performance of modern armed forces, it's still the warriors that do the actual fighting. But in peacetime, the warrior generals are increasingly outnumbered by the camp follower generals and this has led to less of a "warrior" mentality and more of a "camp follower" one. Naturally, in pitched battle, an army led by a warrior will trounce one led by a camp follower. But you need a real, live war to prove that, while in peacetime you can believe whatever you want, or can convince the media and your superiors to embrace.

In the last half century, conscription has fallen out of favor, but volunteer troops are too expensive to be used for a lot of support jobs, so more and more of these chores are contracted out to civilians. Even if you're in Iraq or Afghanistan, you often won't even notice a lot of the contractor civilians. They often wear army combat uniforms, without any rank insignia. Some are armed. They work for the army without being in the army. But the truth of the situation is that the military has been going back to the past to find the future.

McChrystal did not give specific numbers, and he will face resistance from subordinate commanders who will point out that more troops assigned to support jobs will mean fewer available for combat. But McChrystal's comments appear to be a call for subordinates to operate with fewer people in general. Having a special operations background, McChrystal is accustomed to doing more, with less.



Article Archive

Support: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close