Chapter 13 – Looking-Glass House
The public policy debate over private security seems to be taking place in the Looking-Glass House. The world is just as you’d expect … except everything is turned round the other way. Up is down, out is in, and if you do not like the situation, you make up whatever assertion is needed to advance your point—and facts be damned.
Today we examine a classic case of truthiness about security contractors / mercenaries (your choice). It is one of those urban legends that simply will not die. It gets recycled, reworked, rehashed and re-used endlessly … and grows more entrenched with each retelling. It is: The Better Body Armor Story.
We’ll turn the reins over to old Jeremy Scahill, and let him lay out the urban myth on private security contractors’ equipment. Here is what Mr. Scahill had to tell SocialistWorker on the issue in June of 2007:
Those soldiers are running around with Vietnam-era flak jackets—some of their parents are back home, trying to raise money to get them real body armor. And then the Blackwater mercenaries whiz by. They’ve got better armor, better equipment—they’re the rock stars, the super-heroes of
Wow, that sounds really bad. I mean, that sounds like the kind of thing that would sway opinions. The kind of thing that would be endlessly posted and embellished on the internet. Heck, even the kind of thing that would sell lots of books.
Particularly if you make it part of your spiel on radio (“better weapons and body armor”); via podcast (“much better equipment, much better body armor”); at book promos (“The contractors have better body armor and equipment”); and even in testimony before Congress (“They whiz by in better vehicles, better armor, better weapons”).
Mr. Scahill is just an example—he is by no means alone in spreading this tale. If you want to see the online echo of it, just look through a few blogs, on myspace pages, or comment threads (left-wing or right-) discussing armed contractors.
Of more concern, this naked allegation is often trotted out in traditional media as well. The most recent example? The throwaway—yet powerful and persuasive—statement just this past weekend (“they are better equipped than military units”).
Let’s see what facts we can dig up, and see if we don’t find that this undead legend from the beyond should be taken out back and re-buried. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll discover that the truth is: tnempiuqe “retteb” evah ton od srotcartnoC
First let’s briefly review the amorphous “better equipment” claim, and then we can focus on the real hot-button issue of body armor.
Our first thought is that the premise of a one-for-one comparison between a private security contractor and an infantryman is intentionally misleading. Our second thought is that asking which of similar equipment is “better” is so inherently situation-driven (and subjective) that it is somewhat inane.
GPS: To some extent, the
Guns: The mercenary urban legend would have all armed contractors equipped like the dude on the left. Apparently, this hokey stereotype allows those who talk about carbine-equipped contractors being “mercenaries” with “M4 machineguns” to feel justified in preaching on about contractors’ “better equipment.”
The fact is that CPA Order 3 requires government approval of all PSC weapons by the Iraqi MoI, contractors are restricted in what weapons they can carry, and those who are not licensed by the MoI face seizure of their arms. (And yes, seizure does happen.)
For those under contract to the
Also, when we do finally get to the photos of various Blackwater folks (at last something interesting!) in the body armor section of this discussion next week, you might note that they’re all carrying the same M-4/M-16’s issued our troops and, recently, officers.
In the end, while the small arms for the two groups are not identical, neither are the missions or situations encountered. Perhaps more to the point, there is no single small arm in use by any one group that is generally “better” than the others.
If you want more evidence of that, go to any gun forum, post the question, and then run for cover.
If for no other reason than the Aegis video, we know that private security contractors do have some automatic weapons—or “machineguns” if you don’t like the ATF/law enforcement/military terminology—for tasks such as convoy protection.
Presumably no one will even attempt to seriously argue that the machineguns that PSCs do have are somehow better than the various automatic weapons that the uniformed military fields.
Clothing: Similarly, we trust that no one is going to argue with a straight face that military uniforms are somehow meaningfully superior or inferior to the khaki-pants-and-shirt combo favored by contractors. Now, if DARPA had already fielded any of their ultra-nifty Superhero get-ups (e.g., the Spidey suit or Aquaman gear), it might be a whole different story.
Of course, since today’s post has made the possibility of wearable enhancements more public, I’m sure we’ll read about how Blackwater mercenaries are whizzing around Baghdad in their spiffy new Section 8 costumes. (Actually, if you read up on that team of lame superhero rejects, it sounds shockingly like the staff of The Rabbit. Though our leader, editor-in-chief Angus McCreavy, is more like ‘Shakes’ than anything else. And that Dogwelder character … now that’s too weird even for us. Freak.)
Comms: Now we are really into speculation as to what is “better.” The private security teams presumably have whatever comm gear a civilian is allowed to export from the
We do not know, but for sake of argument let’s assume that this equipment is the best available—albeit, in our Looking-Glass House, constructed of pure platinum and liberally encrusted with 10-carat conflict diamonds.
Turning to the military, it is known to have a myriad of comm systems, including VHF gear that is both frequency-hopping and encrypted, encrypted UHF gear that with anti-jamming capability, HF gear for encrypted over-the-horizon capability, microwave gear for data transmission, multi-band gear for everything from command posts to air traffic control, and even satellite ground stations. These are just a few examples.
We could go on and on, but most of this comms crap is intelligible only by the true techno-nerd. The point is this: these scary mercenaries have, what, satphones? The military can be the stinkin’ phone company.
Oh, and all that other commercial stuff that the private security companies can have? The military has it too.
In short, looking at the ‘other’ equipment that our military uses it is, to be kind, difficult to see how the gear used by private contractors is “better.” The body armor story is more complex, so let’s see if maybe that is the basis of the superiority claim.
Our mission here at The Rabbit is not only to (marginally) amuse, but more importantly to educate. Therefore, as a public service before we attack the issue of whose body armor dominates more, let’s conduct an abbreviated review of “modern” body armor, for the benefit of the many highly vocal folks, already engaged in the public debate, whose grasp of the situation somehow involves the guy on the left. (And as a reminder: we have never retouched anything appearing on our pages—every image here is 100% pure, undoctored internet mythos).
The beauty of a massive federal government is that there is an agency, department, or office dedicated to everything from space exploration to lemur empowerment. (We’re noting status, not arguing good or bad.) In the
They also publish the Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor which, conveniently for us, has A History of Body Armor.
The Guide starts its history with early humans wearing animal skins. For once, however, The Rabbit will show some discretion and edit for brevity. (Note, though, that there is some zany trivia in there that will really help you players work it with the liz-adies. E.g., Archduke Francis Ferdinand was wearing body armor when he was popped.)
Anyway, the short version goes like this: Invention of nylon led to “flak jackets” during WWII, which helped stop large munitions fragments but not bullets. In the 1970’s Kevlar was invented to replace steel belts in radials but, whoa, turns out it helps stop bullets. So vests with multiple layers of this Space Age Wonder Fabric were made, and, walla, we have the first modern body armor.
The ‘web’ of Kevlar fibers disperses the impact energy from the bullet, causing it to deform (or ‘mushroom’) and, hopefully, not injure the wearer beyond blunt-force trama. There’s just one catch: You’re wrong to think a bullet is a bullet is a bullet.
Body Armor 202
Higher-energy rounds (e.g., bullets from many rifles, armor-piercing rounds, etc.) can and do penetrate vests of Kevlar (and similar materials). In order to help protect against these threats, hard armor plates are slid into pockets on carrier or a Kevlar vest. These steel, ceramic, or composite-fiber (rigid) plates, coupled with the (flexible) vest, provide additional protection, although the hard plate design inherently leaves gaps.
To help us distinguish these different body armors, our pals at the NIJ are kind enough to classify (and certify) body armor according to the degree of protection it provides, e.g., I, II-A, II, III-A, III, and IV. Level I offers the lowest level of protection, against say .22 or .38 rounds, whereas Level IV provides the highest level of protection.
Level III and Level IV are the standards of interest, as they are intended to provide some protection, in covered areas, against rifle rounds. While Level III nominally resists “regular” rifle rounds (e.g., an AK-47 bullet), Level IV will also protect against higher-energy and armor-piercing rounds (to appear among the cognoscenti, casually respond “ah, yes, it’s certified as to a .30 caliber AP round”).
Now, we here at The Rabbit are naïve, but not stupid. We know that, given the choice between reading all this technical stuff about body armor, or having hideously ugly festering sores covering your naughty parts, well, you would choose the ooze.
But this basic understanding of body armor protection Levels and the hard armor plate gap issue is important to our discussion.
For those few of you twisted enough to think, on the other hand, that The Rabbit did not provide enough detail in our Body Armor degree program, well you can just go straight to here. Or go trade notes with this guy while scheduling your next Dungeons & Dragons meeting.
That’s all we have room for this week, folks. Join us next week for the rest of The Better Body Armor Story, lots of photos of Blackwater ‘operatives’ in action, and more snarky commentary from a bunch of guys who oughta be wearing a paper hat and a nametag to work instead of sitting around the basement admiring each other’s mullets and writing this stuff.
Postscript: This week’s PSC Internet Loon is not just a single post, but the whole flurry of recent cut-and-paste Myspace trainwrecks that look like this. Basically, they advise readers to evacuate Portland because an emergency preparedness drill next week called Noble Resolve is a front for an actual, catastrophic 9/11 part deux “false-flag” attack by a cabal of federal, state and local officials … and Blackwater. Woohoo!!
And this Alex Ansary dude from the video RULES!! Maybe we can get him to do a whole show about PSCs some day. That would rock.
We kept waiting for him to come out of character and say it was all some sort of elaborate parody and we’d been punk’d. Waiting in vain.
Fortunately, old man McCreavy—the robotic lizard handler sent from the future by the Illuminati to control The Rabbit—is not here right now to watch over us and we have secretly posted even more info on the Noble Resolve conspiracy at: I-am-a-Raelian.blogspot.com. Read and learn, read and learn.
Of course, we are The White Rabbit, so maybe The Matrix has us too, Alex.
Warning: Watching the "news" on the Ansary video is the journalistic equivalent of having your head fed into a woodchipper. You will be flushing an hour of your life away, with no recourse, but plenty of remorse. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association found that the average adult can only be exposed to 4 minutes, 23 seconds of that video without suffering irreparable brain damage.