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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