Peaslee Hosts Army/Navy Debate on Private Security Contractors

An Army debater makes a point. Picture by Xander Warso.

The rivalry between the Army and Navy service academies has for more than a hundred years been represented by the famous football game. This year, though, there was another event: the Army/Navy debate hosted by the Peaslee Debate Society on Thursday night. A few members of each school’s debating societies argued the appropriateness of the military using private security contractors, both in Iraq and in general. In the end, the Army team — arguing that although security contractors have done some wrong, the idea of contractors in general should not be eliminated — won a narrow victory.

The debate was in the relatively-standard American Parliamentary style, meaning that each side gave two speeches and a short rebuttal. After the debate had concluded, the victorious Army answered the audience’s questions about cadet life. Interestingly enough, several of the debaters opened their comments by complimenting the food they had just eaten in Sharples; one Army cadet so far as to say, “I was considering Swarthmore, and I kind of wish that I had come here, now that I’ve had the food.” (For the sake of full disclosure, however, they were here for Carribean bar.)

The Navy team, who played the role of “the Government” in the debate, opened by arguing that private security contractors, both in Iraq and in future conflicts, should be eliminated. Private security contractors “do not operate under the goals of counter-insurgency,” they do not try to win over the “hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.” Instead, they ride around in “huge SUVs,” “taking potshots” at civilians. Unlike soldiers, with military scruples and a chain of responsibility leading straight to the President, they are motivated only by profit. If Iraq were to become peaceful overnight, argued a Navy debater, “the first to leave would be the contractors” — so why is it in their interest to work for peace? Instead, they are motivated purely by their pay, $275,000 which they would stop seeing the moment Iraq became more peaceful. Soldiers, on the other hand, cannot really leave until the situation has stabilized, so they have a powerful motivation to do their best to promote Iraqi stability. Finally, the Navy team argued that the presence of these security contractors undermines the legitimacy of the fledgling Iraqi government, which cannot control them.

The Army team, who were “the Opposition,” emphasized mainly the differences in focus between the US military and private security contractors. The Army, they said, is good at “allocating targets, closing in, and eliminating them with deadly force.” What they’re not as good at is escorting politicians from Point A to Point B, which is the task for which companies like Blackwater specifically train their employees: using contractors for such missions will simply be more efficient. Another distinction is that when the opposing force is a legitimate army, as opposed to insurgents who do not follow the laws of military conduct, they are not legally allowed to attack contracted guards unprovoked; this makes them useful for, say, guarding a museum, when collateral damage is a major concern. Not having these options in the future, said the opposition team, limits the Army’s ability to do its job. Finally, although contractors might be motivated only by profit, it is “not in their economic interest to kill civilians.” Blackwater has made mistakes and so “will die in the next few months”; other corporations will evolve, become better at their jobs. Yes, they said, the system needs to change — but “don’t scrap a system” because it had some issues. Make the companies more accountable, but be efficient; make sure that soldiers are “out there saving Iraq, not guarding some fat-cat Congressman”; let the contractors trained to do that be the guards.

Ultimately, the opposition’s argument of efficiency proved the more convincing to the audience, who voted about two-to-one in favor of the Army team. This vote proved decisive, as the judges split two and two, leaving the final score four for the opposition, three for the government.

After the debate, the Army cadets fielded questions about cadet life from the floor; they said the Navy academy was essentially the same. In brief, cadets at service academies take a lot of classes and have almost all of their time scheduled out for them. Mandatory breakfast is at seven. Classes run from seven-thirty through the late afternoon; if you miss a class, you have to spend five hours of your weekend “marching around in squares” on an “area tour.” Lights are always out at midnight. Freshmen are allowed to leave campus (besides vacations) only once a semester. Although there is no hazing as such, freshmen have significant amounts of extra duties. Students of the opposite gender are not allowed to sit on the same “horizontal surface” as one another; chairs next to each other are fine, but a couch isn’t. Although dorms are co-ed, when a room has mixed company the door can only be shut when the “ratio is uneven.”

On the other hand, the trip’s chaperone — a major who teaches law at West Point — said that “the cadets challenge me more than anyone challenges their professors” than at Columbia, where he spent last year. “They’re being trained to be leaders,” he said of his students, and leaders “want a full explanation.” Classes are also small: in order to have more than eighteen students in a class, a one-star general needs to give permission.

When asked about their preparedness to go to war — since, after all, they will be in the military after graduation — the students were somewhat evasive, saying only “as a West Point graduate we’re as prepared as anyone.” Their accompanying officer, however, said that “no one is ever prepared to go to war, and no one ever wants to go.” He added that “Right now, these are college students with a little extra military training.” Once they have found out in what branch of the military they will serve, though, they will be put into “intensive training for that branch,” ranging from six months to two years, and then once they have that experience they will be ready for war. Right now, he said, “They’re not being trained to be soldiers, they’re being trained to be generic leaders.”


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    Matthew Tilghman says:

    I am proud of the audience for voting for the side of the house that championed efficiency. It has renewed my confidence in Swarthmore. More seriously, I am very sorry that I missed the event. I hope to be involved next year.

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