Private Military Contractors in Vietnam
Throughout history, military forces have depended on civilian contractors of one sort or another to give their military personnel flexibility, or to fulfill logistical and support functions that soldiers do not need to do.
In ancient and medieval history up until at least the 1600s, it was not unusual to depend on armies made up primarily of mercenaries and civilian support. George Washington’s Continental Army depended on civilians for a variety of support roles: transportation, carpentry, engineering, food and medicine. These were logistical functions, considered either menial or too specialized to expect soldiers to do them. Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette was one of the first Military Contractors in the US. In 1777, he purchased a ship, and with a crew of adventurers set sail for America to fight in the American Revolution against British colonial rule.
The Marquis de Lafayette joined the Revolutionary Army as a major general and was assigned to the staff of George Washington. He served with distinction, leading American forces to several victories. Upon his return home to France, he worked closely with US Ambassadors Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Even after technically leaving the service of the United States, he continued to work in its interests.
Logistical, combat and diplomatic functions like this have been the domain of civilian contractors ever since, up through the Vietnam Conflict and today. Often, the contractors hired were locals, people who could be counted upon to know the area, the local foodstuffs, and to be able to find the proper resources for military needs. Other times, they were brought in from the United States, just as the soldiers were.
THE VIETNAM WAR: A CHANGE OF PHILOSOPHY
In Vietnam, there was a significant and basic change in the way the military treated civilian contractors. Business Week, in March 1965, called it a “war by contract.” This was largely because standard military equipment was suddenly technologically advanced, while the average soldier had little technical training besides basic combat skills. There was suddenly a serious need for civilian contractors with specialized skills to work side by side with the troops. Field maintenance crews with companies like General Electric or Johnson, Drake, and Piper dodged bullets at DaNang and Pleiku to maintain and repair field equipment and infrastructure for troops, who desperately needed them. Instead of being kept safely behind military lines, civilian Contractors were in the same danger as the soldiers they were supporting. This was not the only reason that civilian contractors were active in the Vietnam Theater.
Before the war even started, Air America was field-lifting supplies behind enemy lines to covert US Special Forces operatives who were training the CIA formed South Vietnamese’s, Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Food, supplies, weapons, intelligence and transportation would have been impossible to access without Air America pilots and Civilian Contractor ground crews who were maintaining Air America’s airplanes and helicopters. The U.S. was still not yet officially involved in the Vietnam conflict, and to commit American military planes and soldiers would have caused the international incident that the U.S. was trying to avoid at the time.
The men and women working behind enemy lines out of uniform were a unique breed. Some were ex-military, or ex-CIA, with the training necessary to perform covert operations. They did not have the same status, however, of an American soldier, who soon learned how faithless the enemy was, as the number of tortured POWs started to mount. Others were young men (few women) who were moved by high salaries, or by a taste for adventure, and even by patriotism or idealism.
When the war ended, some ex civilian contractors entered the CIA or other US military or paramilitary service afterward; others went on into private life, often finding successful careers. One ex-civilian contractor went on to run a large branch of Goodwill Industries International on the Pacific Rim, successfully transforming his experience with Asian culture into an executive job after he made millions starting and running a 400-employee company in San Francisco. There were numerous other civilian contractors at this time, almost all working for the same companies that built U.S. army electronics or field equipment. These companies and contractors included General Electric, branches of AT&T, Johnson, Drake and Piper, and even Michigan State University.
WHAT IT WAS LIKE?
Serving in this manner was extremely hazardous. Many were shot down; others were captured and remain missing today. Air America lost 87 people during the conflict; it is unknown how many men and women serving with other civilian contractors were also killed or captured by the VietCong, largely because these statistics were not maintained by the military. There were also a few French mercenary- class security contractors working in Vietnam at the time, but they were mostly doing cleanup and protecting French citizens and expats who were still in Vietnam despite the war. R&R was a real problem for these contractors, particularly after the Vietnam War started in full force. A few went to Saigon, like US soldiers, but this was an unsafe and often times uncomfortable position for US personnel, and especially for US contractors. A trip to Tokyo, Bangkok or anywhere outside the theater was a prize to strive for.
Civilian contractors who were working side by side with the military maintaining and upgrading their equipment (and getting shot at with them!) were usually the best accepted by US soldiers. Those Contractors who worked independently from the US Military were generally shunned as outsiders or rogues who were only in the war for the money. R&R could be a little surprising.
The men working for US Contractors sometimes got a little stir crazy, and being shot at every day tends to numb your sense of danger. In 1967 in Laos, some civilian Contractors decided to spend their day off, not sitting around the nice safe hostel they were assigned, but searching through jungles infested with enemy personnel for wild orchids, rare and valuable flowers, to beautify their temporary homes. Miraculously, they were not caught doing this, and returned to their home base with a load of beautiful living flowers.
Others found a different kind of R&R. With so few American women in the area, there were few options for romance. A number of civilian Contractors married Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian women, bringing them back to the United States with them when the war was over, or even remaining in Asia to start their families.
One of the main reasons these young men put their lives on the line was for money. Civilian Contractors working with US companies were taking the same risks as US soldiers, but getting significantly higher pay, much to the dismay of the US soldiers they were working with. Salaries varied, of course; but some came back to the United States with the seed capital to start their own businesses, while others went on to high-paying jobs in the military- industrial complex or in private industry. A number stayed in Southeast Asia with their hard-earned cash to live the easy expat life.
PRIVATE CONTRACTORS TODAY
The temptation of a high-paying overseas job today and the poor job market for former military personnel often outweighs the risks involved. It’s currently estimated by the Brookings Institute that for every ten military personnel involved in the Iraq war, a contractor is there to maintain equipment or work for the military in some other capacity; because of security concerns, almost every single one is American or from a European Union or NATO member country.
There are dozens of small private military companies and security contractors that provide PSD (Personal Security Detail) teams to high ranking US, European and Iraqi officials, or escort supply convoys through the dangerous “Mad Max” highways of Iraq; these are most frequently the men who die at the hands of insurgents.
Today, the U.S. military relies on Contractors to maintain 28% of its weapon systems. Ideally, they would like to use contractors to maintain 50%. Military contracting today appears to be a real growth industry, particularly for those with the skills necessary to work with the US Military. R&R is more likely to be in Dubai or Bangkok (like their Vietnam Contractor predecessors) and salaries are sky-high. Special-forces-trained Security Operators make over a thousand dollars a day; more than ten times the wage of enlisted equivalents; even a bus driver makes eighty thousand dollars a year tax-free, and companies are starting to offer juicy incentives like profit sharing.
Whatever else can be said, this much is true: as long as the US military has bases overseas, are involved in peacekeeping with the UN, or involved in some sort of conflict, Contractors will always be hungry for qualified workers, and the workers will always be hungry for the high paying jobs and adventure that can only be found working as a Civilian Contractor in a theater of conflict.