Gee, with all due apologies to Stephen Ambrose’s famed book, the whole Band of Brothers concept of bonding may have gained new meaning when it comes to private security contractors (PSC).
To understand what I’m referring to travel back in time to 2009 when the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report on the activities of the ArmorGroup guard force, which was charged with protection of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and did an astoundingly lax job of it. Among the more titillating aspects of the whole affair were a series of graphic images portraying homoerotic practice culminating in eating chips and drinking vodka from ‘butt cracks’, as well as dancing naked around a fire in the PSC compound.
Evidently this was just not a case of high-spirited shenanigans by PSC with too much time on their hand and too little supervision by responsible managers. Rather it was the creation of “dense intra-masculine bonds within a wider hierarchy of men through norm-bound, homoerotic practices.” At least, that is an interpretation offered by Paul Higate, a Reader in Gender & Security in the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He has written an article “Drinking Vodka from the ‘Butt-Crack'” that appears in the current issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics.
Higate writes on military and militarized masculinities and argues that “from the view of those involved, these practices may well have neutralized the threat of homosexuality through cementing heteronormative relations among the hegemonic members.” Before going further let me introduce you to a word that you may not be familiar with — fratriarchy. A simple definition is a fusion of ‘patriarchy’ and ‘fraternity’, and involves the rule of brotherhoods or fraternities.
It is important to keep this mind because in recent years scholars in the fields of feminist and critical men’s studies have examined military and militarized masculinity across a range of contexts.
While their scholarship has revealed a great deal about the “sometimes unintended, negative consequences of training men (and rather fewer women) in violence” this work has focused on relatively accountable regular military operations subject to military and civilian law. Obviously, PSC falls outside that category. The consequent gap around the private sector and the impunity it may provide “raises questions of the ways in which some of the industry’s comparably lax organizational-structural features of accountability articulate with gender regimes on the ground.”
Higate argues that “the concept of fratriarchy provides a possible way forward, since it is attuned to many of the gendered, structural and apparent (re)masculinized features of the industry.” He notes that:
“While definition of the concept lacks consensus, in the broadest sense fratriarchal formations are shaped by patriarchal values embedded in systems of individual autonomy, interpersonal power and struggle. Typically, fratriarchies are to be found in those contexts characterized by close relations between men in settings devoid of caring for children, or being with loved ones (Remy 1990). In regard to PMSCs, and in comparison to the national militaries from which the majority of contractors originate, women constitute a barely perceptible proportion of those working on the ground. Provisional evidence from the author’s field research into contractor identity also suggests that while many of these men are in partnerships and/or have children, there could be a sense in which a number of them remain ‘psychologically trapped in fraternal fellowship [with some] thriving on the conflict and aggression characteristic of… male association’.”
Indeed, one might think of PSC operating in war zones as a sort of ultimate men’s hut.
“The term ‘men’s hut’ is apposite to the current discussion since, unlike modern day militaries replete with what some soldiers, veterans and scholars might see as overly politically correct cultures, PMSCs are also physically closed (security compounds behind the wire), and can be seen as unknown or even secretive spaces.”
Perhaps PSC should stand for Phi Sigma Contractors. If undergrads can paddle each other as part of pledging a fraternity then maybe a PSC can engage in its own brand of stylized abuse.
But, given that many industry advocates frequently argue that many of those in the PSC industry are military veterans themselves, accustomed to following detailed rules and regulations and displaying a high degree of self-discipline and professionalism it is worth asking how such men go on to develop cultures where previous norms of responsibility go AWOL.
Higate argues that one need to look at the early days of PSC activity in Iraq to understand.
“While contractors working in Iraq during this time rarely operated with complete freedom, many experienced considerable latitude in their soldiering practice, particularly armed individuals working convoy protection. Many were killed and maimed in the course of their duty. Entering an environment of danger, considerable freedom and for some, potential glamour, helped to perpetuate beliefs, attitudes and allied practice, turning on frontier or cowboy identities, where operations could be conducted by teams of brothers working to their own rules of engagement. Here, the so-called security bubble in Iraq fuelled the migration of tens of thousands of men keen to generate large wages as the industry rapidly burgeoned, with some companies failing to vet their staff. Consequently, a number of Walter Mitty and Lawrence of Arabia fantasists were attracted to military contracting despite having never been trained to use firearms or work in hostile conditions. An unknown but significant pro-portion of these men were employed in ad-hoc companies in receipt of no-bid Pentagon funds and subsequently operated largely beyond formal control. While small in number, they were many layers removed from the principal contracting body and acted with legal/lethal impunity in the unregulated, chaotic and confused context of an Iraq boiling over with a highly effective insurgency. It was not just that companies could be hands-off with their contracting workforce, but more importantly, their unaccountable status was enshrined in Coalition Provisional Authority statute. As such, immunity from prosecution by Iraqi authorities appears to have percolated into the sentiments and practices of some contractors, thereby pro-viding fertile conditions for the emergence of fratriarchal sub-cultures… Here, the appeal of freedom, autonomy and for some — comradeship within the context of a masculinized and militarized sphere — provided for considerable control and power with the brothers. In this sense, opportunities for contractors to do as they wished flowed from organizational autonomy, as well as their loyalty to the market over and above that of the company in question.”
Another of Higate’s points will likely raise some blood pressure levels. He notes that the fratriarchy lens “is also sensitive to the means by which a number of men cement heterosexual bonds through intra-masculine rivalry. Thus, solidarity fostered in the all-male context under scrutiny often relies on homosocial and competitive activities… Of salience here however, and a key theme of the fratriarchy literature, are the homoerotic means by which close male alliances can be fostered where for example, ‘attending male-only nude parties [can] function to defend male-only work spheres'”
His point, par excellence of course, is the actions of ArmorGroup contractors in Afghanistan. It will likely come as little solace to ArmorGroups’s PR department that Higate did not see the drinking of the vodka from the various butt cracks as a lewd and scandalous hazing ritual, but instead, “humour and irony embedded in a parodic interpretation of a world of fraternal ritual.” Gee, it turns out that among all their other skills, the guards were also comedians.
There is more to Higate’s article than space constraints allow me to cover so let’s just say that if “doing the Lyndie” reminds you of certain sad and humiliating moments from the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal you have a good memory.
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