Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq
By Steve Fainaru
Hardcover, 288 pages
Da Capo Press
List price: $26.00
Note: The following excerpt contains language that some may find offensive.
Prologue: On The Border
This is a book about original sin.
In the early days of the Iraq war, there weren't enough troops. As the situation deteriorated, a parallel army formed on the margins of the war: tens of thousands of armed men, invisible in plain sight, doing the jobs that couldn't be done because there weren't enough troops. The armed men traveled in convoys of multicolored pickups, modified with armor and stockpiled with belt-fed machine guns, frag grenades, flash-bangs, smoke, even shoulder-fired missiles. They wore bulletproof vests over their uniforms — usually khakis and polo shirts with the company logo — and covered their bodies in mosaics of tattoos. They protected everything from the U.S. ambassador and American generals to shipments of Frappuccino bound for Baghdad's Green Zone. They referred to each other by their radio call signs — Shrek, Craftsman, Tequila, Goat — never bothering to learn each other's names.
The armed men got to kill Iraqis, and the Iraqis got to kill them.
It was U.S. government policy.
"I mean, there's no fuckin' way I'm gonna let them cut my head off on the Internet," said Josh.
He was twenty-three-years old and still looked like a marine, his dirty blond hair sheared down to his pink scalp. A tattoo swirled around his left forearm in meticulous cursive, almost like a Hallmark card: "The unwanted, doing the unforgivable, for the ungrateful." We were sitting on the border in the black Chevy Avalanche, me and the two mercs, blasting the air conditioning, waiting to cross into Iraq. The two of them were telling me about the death pact they had made. As death pacts go, there wasn't much to it. If they were about to be kidnapped, the other merc, whose name was Jon Coté, was to put a bullet in Josh's head with his Glock, then turn the gun on himself.
"Sounds reasonable," I told them, and it did.
Coté, an ex-army paratrooper, hadn't exactly dropped out of the University of Florida, where he had been an unlikely accounting major. It was more like a well-paid sabbatical. He said he was planning to go back to school in the spring, this time as an exercise physiology major. He was clean cut, well built, articulate, relentlessly cheerful; you could easily picture him up on a billboard wearing a milk mustache. "I'm the kind of kid who has to have fun no matter what I'm doing," he would say. One of the fun things that Coté liked to do was drive around Baghdad, where most Americans tried to melt into the floorboards, and blast Led Zeppelin and the Notorius B.I.G. through the open window while rocking back and forth in his seat, fingers splayed. Coté was also something of a
health nut. On the front seat, he carried canned peaches and assorted nuts, along with his locked and loaded AK-47 and a dogeared copy of The Insider's Encyclopedia on How to Build Muscle and Might. His name was pronounced "KOH-tay," and everyone called him that. As in, "Okaaay, Coté."
His friend Josh Munns was serious business; in 2004, he had fought his way into Fallujah with a marine sniper platoon. A year later, he found himself installing swimming pools in Redding, California, bored out of his mind. "I need something to shock my system to remind myself I'm still alive," he explained. That was one of the reasons he came back to Iraq. Another was the three-story fixer-upper he had just bought back in Redding with his fiancé. Her name was Jackie, just like his mom. Once a month, he took his paycheck — $7,000 in Kuwaiti dinars stuffed into a white envelope — to a Kuwait City exchange house, which then transferred the money into his California bank account.
It was about 9:30 a.m., early November 2006, and everything shimmered in the heat. The border was a moonscape of rocks and baked earth, the sun washed out by dust and diesel fumes spewing from the semis moving north. We were on our way to Basra, a once peaceful city that now evoked the same dark imagery as other infamous Iraqi slaughterhouses, like Ramadi and the Triangle of Death. None of us wanted to go. The day before, insurgents had taken out three mercs from another company. The U.S. military, which catalogued troop fatalities by more than thirty potential causes, didn't
count the mercs among the dead. The attack wasn't on the news — they almost never were, like they had never happened. But everyone was talking about it, calculating the new odds. "I hate that place," one of the mercs kept saying. "I hate that fucking place."
Our team leader, John Young, was a forty-four-year-old former carpenter and U.S. Army veteran from Lee's Summit, Missouri. He was small and wiry, maybe five foot seven. He shaved his head where he hadn't already gone bald, making it look like his sky blue eyes were sinking back into his head. Young had been in Iraq for nearly two years. One of his proudest possessions was a black flak jacket, frayed at the collar from where a bullet had come out of nowhere one afternoon, slamming him into the steering wheel and nearly ripping through his neck. The company displayed the tattered vest on a card table in the lobby back at headquarters, like a trophy won by the company softball team. Young knew that he wasn't normal, but he seemed to have come to terms with it. "I may be fucked up, but at least if I'm talking about it I know I'm fucked up, and that justifies my fuckedupedness," he told me, smiling. "And I'm okay with that today." He couldn't bring himself to leave Iraq. "This is me," he would say. "This is me."
Coté rolled down his window.
"Hey," Young said. "Do you guys know the way?"
There was a pause, as full and pregnant as the Mesopotamian sun. Coté and Josh shot glances at one another.
"Nooooo," Coté said, his voice rising. "Don't you?"
Young stammered something about "Harry's route," something about "we'll figure it out" and "MapQuest" and "I thought you guys knew the way."
I wondered if I'd heard that right. Did he say MapQuest?
"We'll talk about it later," Young said finally, turning to walk away.
Josh was fuming.
"Why the fuck am I riding point?" he snapped at Coté. "I don't know where we're going."
"Yeah, it's not the getting hit part that bothers me," said Josh. "It's the getting lost and getting hung from a bridge part that bothers me."
A government launches a preemptive war predicated on a myth. Insurgents rise up to confront the occupiers. Lacking a sufficient fighting force, not to mention political will, the government rents itself a private army, piece by piece. Hundreds of companies form overnight, like mushrooms after a rainstorm, some with boards of directors and glass offices, others that are scarcely more than armed gangs. The companies hire from a vast pool of veterans and ex-cops, adrenaline junkies, escapees from the rat race, the patriotic, the bankrupt, the greedy, the terminally and perpetually bored. They hire Americans and Brits, South Africans and Aussies, Fijians and Gurkhas. Peruvians who fought the Shining Path. Colombians fresh from the drug wars. They give them weapons (although many bring their own) and turn them loose on an arid battlefield the size of California, without rules, without laws, with little to guide them except their conscience.
Soon it's a $100 billion industry, an industry of arms, with unions and lobbyists and its own tortured nomenclature: in newsprint and polite conversation, they are all "private security contractors."
"I am so thankful for this war," one of them said to me one night.
He was a squat former marine who later became a mortgage broker, then traded it all in for The Sandbox. He'd spend three months in Iraq, take his R&Rs in Vegas, laying blackjack for $500 a hand, then return to wage war in a $5,000 Panerai watch.
It was so obscene I asked him to say it again.
"It's true," he told me. "I only came over here for the money, and I didn't even know I could do this job until two years ago. I didn't know it was available to me."
They were mercenaries — I mean, of course they were — fighting America's war for money. Over time, the word became as politically loaded as other Iraq staples, like "mission accomplished" and "WMD." Defenders of the practice, mostly the companies and their surrogates, parsed the meaning endlessly, like etymologists with guns. Critics dropped it like a cluster bomb. But, politics aside, it was fundamentally true: I never met a single one who didn't have his price. Monumental policy decisions that would decide the fate of the Iraqi people, the future of the American presidency — to them it was simply business: risk versus reward. One sweltering afternoon I sat at Burger King in the Green Zone, pondering the implications of an American pullout with a South African merc I knew. He quickly cut to the chase: "If it happened I wouldn't touch a plane ticket to Iraq for anything less than $35,000 a month. Because I'd most probably only have two months to earn it before I got whacked."
But the mercs had a saying, which I heard, in some variation, all over Iraq: "Come for the money, stay for the life." That was their way of summing up the million different reasons why they were there, why they kept coming back, including the reasons they couldn't articulate and probably wouldn't admit to if they could. There was the obvious: the camaraderie and the addictive thrill — Iraq as a reality, not as an abstraction. You were part of it, and it was part of history, and so you were part of history, too, even if you were
dead. But it went much deeper, and it was mostly personal. Whatever your story was, that's why you were there; it didn't much matter whether the story was true, or whether you told it to anyone but yourself, or whether it changed over time, every day even.
I had my own story, of course. We all did — each and every one of us who didn't have to be there, which is to say basically everyone except the military and the poor Iraqis themselves. In many ways, this is a book about that, too: the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves, to explain our lives, and our deaths, and everything in between.
"Don't worry, it 's totally safe," said Coté.
He pitched his flak jacket and his helmet in the backseat of the Avalanche, cranked up the MP3 player, racked his Kalashnikov and headed down Route Tampa. It was after nightfall, the temperature plummeting, headlights devouring the asphalt as we drove. Out in the desert, you could see wood fires glowing, suspicious shadows, cinder-block houses lit by a single bulb. I tried to take notes in the dark but I couldn't see the words. Coté turned on the dome light to help me see.
"No, turn it off," I said.
In hindsight, it seems so incredibly stupid, driving through Iraq in a barely armored pickup, just me and the youngest fatalist I'd ever met. But that's not the way it felt at the time. Coté was twenty-one years younger than me — we shared the same birthday, February 11 — but, all around him, he created the illusion of safety. It was a
liberating illusion. I'd gone on countless missions in Iraq with the military, buttoned up in the back of a five-ton Humvee, driving in circles, waiting to get blown up. Often the purpose eluded me, as it did most everyone else. In Balad I once asked a lieutenant whose
platoon had been decimated if he thought we were winning the war. He just looked at me and laughed: "Fuck, man, I don't even know what winning the war is." Coté had done his time — two tours, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq — so you could easily understand
the attraction: out here there were no orders and no rules, no shifting rationales about "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here," no empty promises about "turning the corner in Iraq." It was just a sleek ride and an envelope full of cash.
When he left the army, as a sergeant, Coté was earning $1,967.70 a month. He came back to Iraq two years later and was pulling down seven grand, same as a one-star general. And, by industry standards, he was underpaid.
We drove for hours in the dark. Coté set his MP3 player to shuffle and turned the volume down low. The only other sounds were the high-pitched whir of tires gliding over the highway, the squawking of the Motorola that kept us connected to the other mercs, and Coté's incessantly cheerful voice. He couldn't stop talking — about his parents' divorce, about his "ghetto" company, about his many girlfriends, and his shifting college major. Looking at his profile as he talked, moonlight pouring into the cabin, you figured
no harm could possibly come to his pretty face, and so nothing could happen to you. I took off my own helmet and tossed it in the backseat, embracing the illusion of safety.
Coté was saying that he looked at his life like a book. "If the book is only twenty-three pages," he said, referring to his age, "I want them to be twenty-three really interesting pages."
When I heard a week later that Coté's death pact had failed, and that he had been sucked into the void, the most terrifying fate I could imagine in a country where any number of terrifying fates were imaginable, I couldn't believe that's all it was: a short, interesting, sort-of-happy life.
Excerpted from Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Fainaru. By permission of Da Capo Press. All rights reserved.