The Return of Mercenaries, A Review of Pelton’s Licensed to Kill

In the Asia Times, David Isenberg reviews Robert Young Pelton’s new book about mercenaries military contractors.

Licensed to Kill is divided into three sections, comprising 12 chapters. Some of these have been news stories in their own right. The first is about the exploits of legendary US Special Forces veteran and Central Intelligence Agency contractor Billy Waugh who, after September 11, 2001, was asked by the CIA to recruit contractors to operate in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and his forces. It was here that Blackwater got its first CIA contract, to bolster personal-protection teams for CIA officers.

It is here that one appreciates Pelton’s eye for detail – details that are always generalized about in the mainstream press, but never clearly explained. Such as, what are security contractors actually paid? What is the difference between Tier 1, 2, 3 and 4 operators? What the heck is a tier? All these questions get answered.

It bears remembering, because this is not an academic work with hundreds of endnotes, that this is an extremely well-researched book. Pelton has gained access to an enormous amount of insider information that normally never sees the light of the day. Researchers could undoubtedly spend years happily sifting though all the material he has accumulated.

One gets the answers to these questions only by hanging out with a wide variety of people where they live and work over the years. And while Pelton has spent the past three years sitting down with security contractors on different continents, often while they were on the job, whether doing convoy runs from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the airport or roaming the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it is clear that his prior years touring the world’s killing zones have conferred on him a special sort of street credibility that has given him a special access to a tribe that does not normally talk to outsiders.