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Steve Fainaru: Big Boy Rules

Having returned to safety from covering the war in Iraq for two years, Washington Post correspondent Steve Fainaru requested to be sent back to do a piece on the private security market there. What he discovered was an arena of double standards: Tasked with both the most mundane and most dangerous assignments, contractors aren't bound by military rules. Security companies allow their employees dangerous leeway, exemplified by a September 2007 incident in which five private guards from Blackwater killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 20 others. Fainaru's book Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting In Iraq, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, notes the Blackwater incident as an exception to his conviction that many similar incidents go unwitnessed and unpunished.

Fainaru's travels in Iraq mirrored those of many of his subjects, who left the military and were enticed into the security market, where they could make $7,000 a month and leave whenever they wanted. Whether delivering Frappuccino mix to the Green Zone or VIPs to Fallujah, contractors are expected to follow Iraqi law, but neither the provisional authority nor the U.S. military has the power to enforce that provision. At the same time, contractors are often exposed to military-level dangers: After Fainaru finished his reporting on the Crescent Security Group, five of its employees were kidnapped when the convoy they were escorting was ambushed at a fake checkpoint. While Crescent blamed the victims, their families sat at home, impotent, as military investigators tried to find the culprits without leaving the Green Zone.

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Engrossing as a mass-market thriller, Big Boy Rules spares none of the frustrations of trying to protect against an unpredictable enemy and make split-second judgments of relative risk out on the road. Fainaru focuses on the kidnapping and two other incidents of civilians being attacked by private contractors to vividly characterize the lack of control either Iraq or America has over these security companies, as well as the danger posed when the safety net they provide has been yanked away. Yet the devastation of his final chapter is tempered with disappointment when he batches his subjects and their employers together, in order to charge them with impure aims: Having begun the book with a condemnation of the early troop levels that first brought contractors into Iraq, he ultimately faults those who rise to the bait in Iraq without further indictment of the bait-setters.

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