Book Review: Making a Killing: The Explosive Story of a Hired Gun In Iraq


by James Ashcroft

London: Virgin Books Ltd, 2006. . Pp. 241. Illus, index. . . ISBN:ISBN 1-8522-7311-9


James Ashcroft served in the British Army, rising to the rank of Captain in the Duke of Wellington?s Regiment. He left the army to take up practicing law. But in 2003, lured by the prospect of money and adventure, he went to work for a private military contractor known as Spartan, which was gearing up to provide protective services in Iraq. Making a Killing is Ashcroft?s account of his eighteen months in Iraq, beginning with his arrival in September of 2003. Ashcroft saw at firsthand some of the early mistakes that would turn America?s occupation of Iraq into a near disaster. He and his co-author Clifford Thurlow have the ability to spin a good yarn. Making a Killing is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable books to come out of the Iraq war, and it also gives a lot of insight into the life of a private military contractor. (Which is the politically correct term for mercenary these days.) It?s also very cinematic, and would make an excellent movie.

When Ashcroft arrived in Iraq, the country was still in a state of borderline chaos from the war to remove Saddam. Ashcroft and his fellow contractors quicky armed themselves with locally available AKs and RPDs , which they wisely checked for functionality and reliability on the firing range, discarding a number of weapons that proved to be useless. (Iraqi ordnance was a contributing factor in their rapid defeat.) Ashcroft manages to convey a good sense of practical professional tradecraft without sounding like he?s writing a men?s adventure novel. He describes in a matter of fact way how he and his fellow contractors handled such matters as convoy security and protecting sometimes uncooperative, or panicky clients. One of the refreshing things about this book is that Ashcroft doesn?t feel the need to drone on and on about what a hardcore professional he is. He simply describes what happened, and what he did, and let?s the reader judge things for himself. He also describes in vivid detail how contractors could suddenly find themselves dealing with the unexpected and possibly lethal. One of his narrow escapes came when a jihadi detonated a car bomb outside an American compound that Ashcroft?s convoy was approaching. The contractors and their principal quickly found themselves under American fire.

As Ashcroft saw it, the Americans were entirely too trigger happy, and too prone to hassle Arabs on the street based on suspicion, thus needlessly making enemies. Part of this probably reflects a difference in British and American military practice and experience. Ashcroft, for example, finds it hard to believe that the Americans use more than two people to clear a room. Apparently they do things differently in the Dukes.

Ashcroft?s duties ranged from protecting reporters to training Iraqi security guards. Much of the guard training came while Ashcroft and his Spartan colleagues were working for Task Force Fountain, and American military reconstruction operation that was trying to get Iraqi waterworks back into working order and protect them from attack. Training the Iraqis was difficult, time consuming, frustrating, and at times could seem futile. Ashcroft describes how, at one waterworks, the contractors had a firm rule that when jihadis fired on the security guards, the Iraqi quick reaction force that Spartan was training had to respond to the incident. The contractors did not want the jihadis to lure them into a trap by shooting at a few guard towers. But the Iraqi QRF would refuse to budge if they felt that the situation was ?too dangerous?. Ashcroft writes that ?In typical Iraqi fashion...each guard had emptied his magazines on automatic fire into the out of bullets in twenty seconds, and then laid down and gibbered with fear. I was seriously considering getting the armourer to modify the AKs so they could fire only single shot, or even issuing SKS rifles, which would not fire on full automatic.?

In fact, Ashcroft often depicts the Iraqis more sympathetically, and introduces us to some memorable and at times genuinely likeable characters. In particular, a former Iraqi fighter pilot, grounded now that Iraqi air force was out of business, is especially memorable. At times, one finds oneself mentally casting the movie that could be made from this book. Though making a Killing is illustrated with photos, Ashcroft and his fellow contractors always appear with their faces blurred out, so one cannot know who would be best suited to portray him. Jason Statham, of the Transporter movies, perhaps. Or maybe Kevin McKidd.

But if Ashcroft is at times sympathetic to the Iraqis, he mostly has no use for the Americans, and American readers may bristle at how their military is at times depicted. One should keep in mind that this book appeared in 2006, when the American effort in Iraq was in deep difficulties, and seemed to be on its way to failure. In fact, Ashcroft?s portrayal of the early days of the occupation is probably more or less spot on. That having been said, Ashcroft?s disdain for the Americans seems a bit hollow now, especially after the wretched performance of the British army in Basra. There the British basically retreated into their compound, abandoning the city and its people to the Sadrists and jihadis, who had to be driven out by American trained and supported Iraqi forces. And the conspiracy theories that Ashcroft entertains when he speculates about America?s ?real? motive for invading Iraq, are ignorant and offensive. This book was published in Britain, presumably for a mostly British audience, and it shows.

Despite these flaws, Making a Killing is almost compulsively readable, fascinating, and at times screamingly funny. Anyone interested in the real life of a private military contractor in one of the world?s most dangerous hot spots will find it impossible to out down.

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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