Have Gun, Will Travel

Steve Fainaru's new book gives the mercenary in Iraq a face and a soul.

Soldiers aren’t the only ones with guns in Iraq. Tens of thousands
of security contractors are over there as well, traveling in fortified
pickups, armed with machine guns, grenades, and more. Blackwater is the
most famous of the companies employing these modern-day mercenaries;
others include Crescent and Triple Canopy. Serving as highly paid
protection for politicians, product deliveries, and visiting
celebrities, they’re licensed to kill. Washington Post reporter
and Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru traveled around Iraq
with some obliging “mercs” — members of what he calls “the
other army” — while researching his book Big Boy Rules:
America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq
. Although mercenaries have a
bad rap around the world, “I didn’t really blame most of them,” Fainaru
recalls, “even though a lot of people did, demonizing them and calling
them all kinds of names.”

Many mercenaries are Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans, returning
after completing their tours of duty to familiar terrain to perform
familiar tasks for unfamiliarly huge paychecks. Fainaru finds it
“difficult to disapprove of people who have acquired their skills in
the armed forces, then apply those skills to get jobs that are fully
sanctioned by the US government, and which pay them multiple times more
than they would make in the United States. If they started handing out
$20,000-a-month jobs for elementary-school teachers in Iraq,” posts the
author, then elementary-school teachers “would have flooded into the
country by the thousands.” Among the men featured in his book are
former cop and former US Marine Paul Reuben and young ex-paratrooper
Jon Coté. Having joined the US Army two months before the 9/11
attacks, Coté served with the 82nd Airborne Division in
Afghanistan, rose to the rank of sergeant, and was honorably discharged
in 2005. Then he elected to become a private contractor for Crescent
Security in Iraq. “If I could do it for my country,” he told Fainaru,
“why couldn’t I come over here and make a little money for myself?”

Fainaru — whose brother is fellow author Mark
Fainaru-Wada, whose 2006 book Game of Shadows made
performance-enhancing drugs a hot national issue — remembers
urging Coté to choose another path, telling him: “Dude, you got
to get the fuck out of here. You gotta go back to school.” That was the
same day on which, at an Iraqi bookshop, Fainaru bought Coté a
copy of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel
about life off the rails in New York: “Coté had his whole life
ahead of him,” Fainaru realized, and he wanted the young man to
understand this. On November 16, 2006, Coté and Reuben and
several other American contractors were kidnapped by Islamist militants
while escorting a convoy through southern Iraq. Coté and Reuben
were slain, their bodies recovered by US forces in Iraq in 2008.
Fainaru attended a memorial service in Coté’s hometown in
November. He’ll be at Orinda Books (276 Village Sq., Orinda) on
January 17. 3 p.m. OrindaBooks.com


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