- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

BIG BOY RULES: AMERICA’S MERCENARIES FIGHTING IN IRAQBy Steve Fainaru
Da Capo Press, $26, 254 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

When you write books for a living, there are those you write for money. But once in a great while, there is the book, or if you are very lucky, the books, that you write because you have no other choice. They demand to be written. Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru’s compelling, brutal, disturbing “Big Boy Rules” falls into this second, rarer category.

The nucleus of the book, which is largely adapted from Mr. Fainaru’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series about mercenaries in Iraq, deals with the kidnapping and murder of five Crescent Security personnel. Crescent was one of the bottom feeders in Iraq’s $100 billion dollar mercenary industry that hires “Americans and Brits, South Africans and Aussies, Fijians and Gurkhas, Peruvians who fought the Shining Path, Colombians fresh from the drug wars.”

It is, Mr. Fainaru writes, “an industry of arms, with unions and lobbyists and its own tortured nomenclature: in newsprint and polite conversation they are all ‘private security contractors.’”

The Crescent mercs at the center of the book work for a company based in Kuwait and owned by Franco Picco, “a thirty-seven-year-old Italian who grew up in South Africa.” Mr. Picco had “light brown hair, graying at the temples, and favored pressed, open-collar shirts. He projected an air of bemused gentility… [as if] he had walked out of the morally ambiguous universe of a Graham Green novel.”

For Mr. Picco, the economics were good: He charged $4,000 a day to run a security team into southern Iraq; $35,000 to take one to Fallujah or Ramadi. Either way, expat shooters got paid $7,000/$8,000 a month, while Crescent’s Iraqi employees made a mere $600.

The expats included Jon Cote, an ebullient 23-year-old ex-82nd Airborne sergeant, “clean cut, well built, articulate, relentlessly cheerful,” who “looked like a recruiting poster in his desert cammis, all handsome and confident.” Mr. Cote had seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan then left the Army to go to college in Florida. At loose ends, up against a DUI that would have hobbled his freewheeling lifestyle, Mr. Cote cleaned out his apartment, took a leave of absence from school, said goodbye to his friends and went to work for Crescent.

Mr. Cote’s closest friend at Crescent was Josh Munns who as a member of a Marine sniper platoon had fought his way into Fallujah in 2004. “A year later, he found himself installing swimming pools in Redding, California, bored out of his mind.” Why had Mr. Munns returned to Iraq? “I need something to shock my system to remind myself I’m still alive,” is what he told Mr. Fainaru.

Mr. Cote’s team leader was John Young, a small, wiry “forty-four-year-old former carpenter and U.S. Army veteran from Lee’s Summit, Missouri.” The team medic was Paul Johnson Reuben, 39, a former Marine from Buffalo, Minn., who’d “worked almost ten years as a police officer in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb….”

Mr. Fainaru linked up with Crescent in early November of 2006, driven back to Iraq by his own demons. His marriage had disintegrated; his father was dying of cancer; his brother Mark, a sportswriter, was under federal indictment for refusing to name the source who’d divulged grand jury testimony of athletes implicated in the 2006 baseball steroids scandal.

Mr. Fainaru, who’d spent most of 2004 and 2005 covering the war in Iraq, was in 2006 assigned by The Post to cover Major League Baseball’s spring training — especially Barry Bonds. Like Mr. Munns and Mr. Cote, Mr. Fainaru’s transition from battlefield to playing field wasn’t easy.

As he writes: “In my more irrational moments I tried to picture Bonds, geared up and patrolling Ramadi in the 120-degree heat…. By opening day I was in a state… I rarely worked, except to show up at the ballpark and follow Bonds’ desultory chase of [Babe] Ruth, which continued for weeks. I spent a lot of time thinking about Iraq, mainly how to get back.”

By November, he was back. Mr. Fainaru rode with Mr. Young, Mr. Cote, Mr. Reuben and Mr. Munns on Crescent’s milk-run convoys, gathering material for his series. A few days later, in Baghdad, he received word that his father was close to death. Mr. Fainaru rushed home but arrived too late. He was still shaken by his father’s death, when his Post editor called to say a Crescent convoy had been ambushed on Nov. 16. Five employees were missing, including Mr. Young, Mr. Cote, Mr. Reuben and Mr. Munns. It was, Mr. Fainaru writes, “the largest single abduction of Americans since the start of the war.”

The kidnapped Crescent mercs disappear into a void. According to Mr. Fainaru’s interviews with the ambush’s two survivors, the expats were set up by Crescent’s own Iraqi employees.

Here’s where the story gets nasty. Just after Christmas, a Baghdad-based reporter interviewed Ahmad Chalabi, the man many believe manipulated the Bush administration into invading Iraq. Mr. Chalabi asserted Crescent’s hostages were alive. He proved it by playing a video he claimed to have received weeks earlier. But Mr. Chalabi — who ultimately received a second video — refused to cooperate with American authorities.

Time dragged on. U.S. government participation was uneven. The State Department assigned an officer named Jenny Foo to stay in touch with the hostage families. Even so, they “felt powerless, desperate, their lives suspended.” The FBI ran the Crescent case largely out of Baghdad’s Green Zone, even though evidence indicated the kidnappers were from Basra in southern Iraq. The CIA was involved, as were other agencies.

But were they all cooperating? Ms. Foo told the families: “They’re supposed to be… but they don’t always do that.”

Mr. Fainaru writes: “I spoke with an American official I was forbidden to quote or identify. He grimly explained that lives were at stake. He wanted to assure me that the government was doing everything it could to find the Crescent hostages, whose names he mispronounced or entirely forgot…. As he walked me out, the official suggested that I might want to think about turning his fascinating story into a book when he left Iraq.”

More time passed sans results. The bottom line? Not until the spring of 2008 was it finally determined what had happened to the five kidnapped Crescent mercs. The story does not have a happy ending.

Along the way, Mr. Fainaru chronicles the actions of some of the 100-plus private mercenary companies operating in Iraq. He recounts, for example, many of the brazen acts committed by Blackwater, culminating in the September 2007, Nisoor Square incident in which Blackwater employees purportedly killed 17 Iraqis. Because of that incident, Blackwater’s license to operate protective security details for the State Department has been revoked by the Iraqi government

“The words ‘Nisoor Square,’” Mr. Fainaru writes, “entered the war’s lexicon and acquired their own dark meaning, like Abu Ghraib. The massacre came to symbolize the impunity and violence of a largely invisible war that had somehow embedded itself in the Iraqi conflict.”

This “largely invisible war” is still going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Without tectonic policy change, Mr. Fainaru hints ominously, it could become the norm.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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