A recent story in the New Yorker entitled “The Invisible Army” chronicled problems with a phenomenon most of us have not heard about: third-country nationals who serve our armed forces overseas. According to Sarah Stillman, workers from economically weak countries are recruited to serve in high-paying jobs in global cities like Dubai. They enthusiastically sign up, fly to Dubai (at great personal cost), and are then–to their shock–flown to U. S. military bases in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where they work for low wages in great danger.
Lydia and Vinnie were unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Filipinos launder soldiers’ uniforms, Kenyans truck frozen steaks and inflatable tents, Bosnians repair electrical grids, and Indians provide iced mocha lattes. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (aafes) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops filled with carved camels and Taliban chess sets, beauty salons where soldiers can receive massages and pedicures, and fast-food courts featuring Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon. (aafes’s motto: “We go where you go.”)
The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases, eat at meagre chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.
Stories like this remind us of 1) injustice in this world, 2) how difficult and uncertain life is for many people worldwide, and 3) how important it is that Christians seek to be light in dark places. We may not be able to overturn evil in this life–only Jesus can–but we can stand against inhumane practices and minister the gospel to those who suffer, whether in our own towns or cities or on military bases. The people profiled in this essay are far from home, with little legal recourse and even less voice. The gospel animates our natural-born instinct to seek justice and mercy on behalf of those who suffer.
(Image: Peter Van Agtmael for TNY)