by Leslie Wayne
With the war on terror already a year old and the possibility of war against Iraq growing by the day, a modern version of an ancient practice — one as old as warfare itself — is reasserting itself at the Pentagon. Mercenaries, as they were once known, are thriving — only this time they are called private military contractors, and some are even subsidiaries of Fortune 500 companies.
The Pentagon cannot go to war without them.
Often run by retired military officers, including three- and four-star generals, private military contractors are the new business face of war. Blurring the line between military and civilian, they provide stand-ins for active soldiers in everything from logistical support to battlefield training and military advice at home and abroad.
Some are helping to conduct training exercises using live ammunition for American troops in Kuwait, under the code name Desert Spring. One has just been hired to guard President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the target of a recent assassination attempt. Another is helping to write the book on airport security. Others have employees who don their old uniforms to work under contract as military recruiters and instructors in R.O.T.C. classes, selecting and training the next generation of soldiers.
In the darker recesses of the world, private contractors go where the Pentagon would prefer not to be seen, carrying out military exercises for the American government, far from Washington's view. In the last few years, they have sent their employees to Bosnia, Nigeria, Macedonia, Colombia and other global hot spots.