Private Contractors in Iraq on ‘This American Life’

Civilians are participating in the Iraq war in unprecedented numbers, but they’re a part of the conflict that’s been reported on very little. The public radio program “This American Life” will feature a groundbreaking hour-long special on these private contractors, at 3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday on 90.0 FM KRCU.

The companies that employ the civilians in Iraq haven’t given the press much access. Civilian contractors are doing vital security jobs, like maintaining weapons systems and protecting the head of the U.S. operation in Iraq.  They interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.  And many of the private contractors who aren’t carrying guns are at the heart of reconstruction: rebuilding water lines and power plants and schools.

“This American Life” contributing editor Nancy Updike traveled to Baghdad in March and April for three weeks to find out what it’s like to be a contractor working in the middle of a war zone. She was there when four security contractors from Blackwater USA were killed and mutilated in Fallujah. She was in the back seat of a sport utility vehicle when her convoy got shot at by Iraqis just outside Baghdad. And while investigating a Chinese restaurant that has sprung up in the American-occupied Green Zone, she coined a truism: Wherever Americans exist in the world, so too will Kung Pao chicken.

Nancy Updike’s mission was to find out who these contractors are, why they left the comforts and safety of home to take jobs in one of the most dangerous places in the world, and what they see of the new Iraq that we haven’t heard about here at home.

She met Hank, one of an estimated 20,000 private security personnel in Iraq, whose ideal guns-for-hire workers are “steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals.”  Instead he had to revamp a company whose employees mistakenly engaged in an extended firefight at a hotel – against each other.

She spent several days with Jerry, a Boston police officer who is helping Iraqis form a modern police force. In many ways, he has to start from scratch; under Saddam, Jerry learns, police did not conduct investigations, and could be punished harshly if they arrested someone connected to the regime. In between appointments at jails and police stations, Jerry’s also trying to set up his Iraqi translator with his driver, and it’s not going badly.

In dozens of interviews, civilian workers in Iraq told Updike that high salaries are certainly a main reason they came to the country (an $80,000 starting salary is common; for security personnel it’s $100,000), but they were also surprisingly idealistic about their job.  They tell her they want to do good — to help their own country, and help Iraq become a better place. One question they mostly don’t want to think about, though, is whether the United States should have invaded in the first place.

Nancy’s report airs this weekend around the country, and will be available online next week at “This American Life’s” Web site (http://www.thisamericanlife.org).

“This American Life” is produced by WBEZ Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International. The program is heard each week by 1.6 million listeners on more than 480 radio stations.

KRCU 90.9 FM is Cape Girardeau’s local Public Radio International affiliate and a National Public Radio member station, providing national and local programs that are both informative and entertaining. For more information, visit http://www.krcu.org.