Public Reaction to Military versus Private Security Deaths in Iraq

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Principal investigators:

Deborah Avant

University of Denver



Lee Sigelman

George Washington University

Sample size: 821

Field period: 1/7/2005-1/12/2005


Since the 19th century, the use of force by modern states has generally entailed the mobilization of public military organizations made up largely of citizens. A whole body of literature on democratic restraint and the democratic peace is based on the assumption that when democracies use force, the tool will be a public force of citizens. The last 15 years, however, have witnessed a rapid increase in private companies providing military and security services that used to be provided by the military. Does this trend change the way democracies work in a way that cause adjustments to theories about democratic foreign policy and the democratic peace? Using an experiment this study examines how the use private security affects how people respond to the human costs of war -- a key feature of what the democratic peace literature calls "audience costs."


Hypothesis 1: The deaths of private soldiers (contractors) will elicit less response from the public and be associated with less decline of support for a mission than the deaths of soldiers.
Hypothesis 2: The deaths of soldiers will lead to greater support for a conflict, deaths of contractors to less support.

Experimental Manipulations

We used the TESS Internet instrument to present two groups of 200 respondents with a simulated news story about the deaths Americans in Iraq, identical except for the identification of the Americans as soldiers in one story and private security guards in the other. A third group of 200 read a story about private security guards that more accurately represents reporting on contractors (more detail about the rise of the security industry). A fourth control group of 200 read a story on an unrelated topic. All then answered a series of questions about their emotional state, their support for the war, and their placement of the soldiers/contractors on a continuum ranging from patriotic sacrifice to commercial gain.


Self described emotional state of respondents (happy/sad; angry/calm).
Support for the war in Iraq (Did the US do the right thing when it went to war? How do you think the war is going?)
Respondent evaluation of motivations of private soldiers/soldiers.

Summary of Results

Strong differences emerged in perceptions of the motivations of soldiers and contractors. Only 8% of those who read a story about soldiers dying thought these soldiers had been motivated by material gain; 39% said they had been motivated to do their job; and 53% said their motivation had been to serve their country. This distribution of attributions closely matched that recorded by the control group (those who had read an unrelated story). By contrast, 27% of those who had read about contract soldiers dying ascribed their motivation to material gain and only 23% saw it as a matter of serving their country. In sum, respondents were more likely to see soldiers as motivated by patriotism than private contract employees, and the more information they had about PSCs, the more likely they were to see contractors as motivated by material gain.
The distinction that respondents drew between the motivations of soldiers and those of contractors did not carry over to their emotional reactions to the simulated news stories they read. Substantial differences emerged between those who read about anyone dying and those in the control group who read an unrelated article, but emotional reactions were virtually identical irrespective of whether the casualties were identified as soldiers or contractors. In either case, more than nine out of ten of those who had read about the deaths of Americans claimed to feel sad as a result, and approximately three out of four described themselves as angry. The counterpart percentages were significantly lower for respondents in the control group; reading about waste in the federal bureaucracy saddened and angered many respondents, but not nearly as many who experienced those emotions after reading about American deaths in Iraq.
There was also an absence of any major differences in support for US involvement in Iraq and in evaluations of how well the situation there was going between those who read about soldiers dying and those who read about contractors dying. The very fact that these assessments were not more positive among those who read about deaths among contractors rather than among soldiers should occasion surprise among those who would expect the use of contractors to decrease political costs. Furthermore, to the very modest extent that these groups differed in their responses to these three questions, those who read about the deaths of soldiers tended to be somewhat more likely to say that going to war was a good thing, that it was worth it, and that the war was going well. Thus, our experimental results suggest that rather than exacting political costs, news of soldiers' deaths may, if anything, produce small political benefits that stories of contractors do not.


Although rally around the flag effects are not well understood, studies of how people use inferences to make political judgments suggest ways in which soldiers' deaths might register somewhat differently in the mass public than contractors' deaths. The deaths of soldiers may communicate a message to the public about the importance and legitimacy of a mission -- invoking symbols of sacrifice, patriotism, and national interest -- and about the importance of sticking it out to honor and validate the commitment of those who have fallen. The deaths of private soldiers, though, seem less likely to have the same symbolic potency -- indeed, they may elicit different feelings altogether. Our data provide some initial, albeit very modest, empirical support for this interpretation.
These responses shed some light on the audience costs that could be associated with policy vacillation when using PSCs rather than the US military. If news of the deaths of private security personnel does not prompt the same rally around the flag psychology as news of the deaths of soldiers, it may also be less likely to engender audience costs for vacillation. Thus, PSCs may provide a tool with which the nation can employ force, but without the same degree of commitment. Although our data provide only weak evidence on behalf of this possibility, it remains a possibility that warrants further investigation. Furthermore, our experiment did not test for the impact of foreign private security deaths under contract to the US government. Given that PSCs are increasingly using foreign personnel in Iraq, this is an important question to address in follow on research.
The combination of considerably reduced transparency and a slightly reduced rally effects suggest broader possibilities for the use of PSCs to affect audience costs. Because the use of PSCs garners less attention than the use of troops, this tool has the potential to reduce the political costs of using force -- not because most people care less about private soldiers' deaths, but because people know less about them. Furthermore, given the less transparent process, PSCs provide an additional tool through which decisions to use force can be taken without public commitment. Finally, the deaths of private security personnel do not appear to contribute to national commitment; they are simply seen as an occasion of sadness. The more tenuous link between private soldiers' deaths and national commitment may thus lessen audience costs from vacillation.


Avant, D. & Sigelman, L. (2010). Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies 19(2). 230-265.