Despite beheadings and risk, no slowdown in eager workers
Mainly because of the money, contract employees still want to head to Iraq.
HOUSTON — Every Friday and Saturday, they line up before dawn: people from around the country who, despite recent news reports, still want to work in Iraq.
The beheadings haven't swayed them, they say, as they wait to find out what openings are available with Houston-based KBR, the subsidiary of Halliburton, which won a $4.5 billion government contract to provide support to the US military.
There are spots for cooks, carpenters, truck drivers, even entertainment specialists - and plenty more open up every day as those who thought they could make it come home.
While last week's beheadings of two American contract workers sent shock waves through communities from Hillsdale, Mich., to Marietta, Ga., remarkably it didn't shorten the lines at recruiting fairs.
"We all know that Iraq was a dangerous place before [these acts of terrorism] and will continue to be a dangerous place after them," says Peter Singer, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So while the beheadings are spectacular and horribly disgusting, they don't alter the general number of people wanting to go."
While Halliburton is not the only company providing contract work in Iraq, it is the largest. Company officials say their operation includes more than 30,000 people and job applications continue to come in at a steady pace - despite the terrifying news reports. They say they spend a great deal of time trying to dissuade people from going, sharing accounts of everything from bugs to biological attacks. Regardless, the company has more than 100,000 applications on file.
Psychologists say that's because the people who are interested in such employment - risk takers - tend to cope with trauma by repressing their feelings about it.
"That makes it easier to put it out of their minds, almost like it doesn't exist," says psychologist Roberta Diddel. "In a paradoxical kind of way, seeing the beheading of someone else gives you an objectivity about it, sort of like, 'It's him and not me.'"
Prospective workers also comfort themselves with the knowledge that their odds of being killed are slim. Of the tens of thousands of contract workers in Iraq, only 157 have been killed or are missing since the war began in March 2003 (at least 45 of them Halliburton employees), according to the Iraq Coalition Casualties website.
Some talk of adventure. Others speak of patriotism. But by far, the majority are there for the money. Some of the more dangerous jobs, such as truck driving, mean as much as $100,000 a year plus bonuses. Other jobs command up to 10 times what they pay in the US.
"Some people may see the beheadings and say, 'I'm not gonna do this.' But I think you are going to continue to find that people are willing run the risk because the money is so good," says Richard Stoll, an expert in international conflict and American national security policy at Rice University.
Most experts believe the acts of terror are meant to strike fear and horror into the hearts of Westerners - and while they may do that for people who had some connection the victims, most Americans have had the opposite reaction, they suggest.
"The larger public is saying, 'We are not going to let those so-and-sos manipulate us.' Some [Americans] may not even have been big fans of our going into Iraq, but these beheadings have changed their minds about wanting to leave," says Professor Stoll.
But Westerners are not the only targets for this type of terror as a means of intimidation. Insurgents are reaching out to others in the Muslim world with the message: We are the ones striking out against the hated foreigners. We are the heroes. And that may be having more of an impact than the beheadings have had on Americans, says Mr. Singer at the Brookings Institution. "It's representative of a wider growth in violence from [Islamic militants]."
When Westerners were kidnapped in the past, they were typically kept alive as political pawns. Now, with escalating violence, companies are having to reconsider the risks to their employees.
A sign of changing times: Companies working in Iraq are now spending as much as 20 percent of their budget on insurance.
But while American companies such as Halliburton are reluctant to pull out for fear of being tagged unpatriotic, says Singer, others have been influenced by the terrorists. Recently, the Philippines withdrew its peacekeeping troops from Iraq to save a citizen from a threatened beheading, and two Middle Eastern companies pulled out to save a Turkish truck driver from the same fate.
In the end, the insurgents may owe more to the Internet than to their own threats. Since last week, people have been flooding websites to get a look at the two recent beheadings and, most psychologists say, it's not for educational purposes, but for simple voyeurism - just as people slow down to stare at accidents on the freeway.
"It's a sick thing to say, but I think there is a lot of truth to it," says Dr. Diddel. "A century and a half ago, states held public executions and people would go and bring picnic lunches. There is something in us that is kind of curious for those sorts of grisly details."
Whether or not it will swing public opinion on the war in Iraq is yet to be determined.