Atlantic Monthly

Useful Anarchy

Someone, somewhere, is hunting for rape statistics right now, to show that nationwide in the U.S., the rate of sexual assault is lower than the rate among contractors in Iraq. I would not be surprised if that is so. There are, for one thing, far fewer women per capita to assault among Iraq contractors than among the American population at large, and it’s far more probable that a female contractor is armed or has easy access to a weapon of vengeance. On the other hand, there does seem to be a connection between gruesome crimes like this one and the climate of lawlessness and license in which military contractors operate.

While on military bases in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, I heard boasts of corruption from contractors — buying cars for officers who awarded them contracts, paying off supply sergeants for use of military property. Some of these ventures would have earned them prosecution, had the military known. But other even more flagrant lapses in ethics and workplace discretion often went overlooked. Workers imperiled themselves and others by operating heavy machinery on which they never pretended to have any training. In one case, the owner of a building company ran his business (staffed entirely by young Asian men) as a harem; together, they built structures and installed toilets by day, and by night, it was said, he enjoyed his pick of the staff. Considering the near impossibility of those workers’ leaving his squalid little sexual satrapy, his business model at times resembled slavery.

One could use these appalling examples to talk loosely about the “costs of empire,” as if contempt for law and justice were ancillary effects of military adventures abroad. Certainly they don’t make the occupation of Iraq seem like a a morally flawless enterprise. What’s disconcerting, though, is that the lawlessness that allowed graft and sex crimes to flourish did often seem to have a kinship with the enterprising spirit that allowed things to get done, when they did get done. It might have taken days of waiting, at a cost of lives and treasure, to find a licensed operator for a specialized piece of equipment. The sexual satrap and others like him did useful work and probably wouldn’t have wanted to prolong their service in Iraq if they didn’t profit, in a way unavailable in the world of law, from the anarchy in which they operated. Lawless environments draw in people who do not want to live within the law, and may require such people to function.

KBR, who employed the victim and one of her alleged assailants, was not among the companies rumored to be especially corrupt, violent, or libidinous, at least not at the low levels. If anything, it was excessively rule-bound. Employees were, for example, required to beep their car-horns before going into reverse, even for just a couple feet; this rule applied not only to big trucks, but also to the smallest hatchbacks in KBR’s fleet. (And, incredibly, KBR employees actually complied.) The smallest tasks demanded adventures in bureaucracy. But this insistence on playing by the rules, honking timidly and filling out forms, won KBR no friends, and exasperated some who wanted only to fulfill the military’s mission and eschew transactions that involved the words “triplicate” or “work-order.” Bureaucracy can kill too.

All this is not to say that rape is a “price we have to pay” for Iraq’s pacification and reconstruction, or that there is an ideal level of sexual assault. But my own experience does suggest that in Iraq, wickedness and effectiveness are closer concepts that some might like to admit.

Originally appeared at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s