Firmin on Coburn, 'Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War'

Noah Coburn
Titus Firmin

Noah Coburn. Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. 408 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0536-7.

Reviewed by Titus Firmin (University of Kansas) Published on H-War (November, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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To date, the human and economic toll of the Global War on Terrorism is 6.4 trillion dollars and over 801,000 people killed.[1] Still, little is known about where that money has gone and who has provided the labor for war. The US-led war in Afghanistan created labor and employment opportunities for eager “third country nationals,” or TCNs, as contracted workers. In Afghanistan TCNs provide security, support, and other military services as subcontractors hired by primary firms contracted by the US government and military. Professor of anthropology at Bennington College Noah Coburn examines the identities of some of these TCNs and explores their dissimilar experiences in support of this long-running war.

Under Contract’s primary objective is to survey the plight of Nepali contractors in Afghanistan. Nepali workers had to provide Nepalese authorities kickbacks to migrate for work, negotiate unscrupulous human traffickers in India who lied about employment opportunities, only to be subject to threats of imprisonment and demands for bribes by Afghan officials. Still, despite this gauntlet, some of these workers prospered from the American war and sent remittances home.

The book is a hybrid memoir-travel diary-historical account of the war in Afghanistan and relies on personal interviews and US State Department documents as primary sources. Coburn’s research on Nepalese contractors in Afghanistan takes him on an international journey to various US military bases in Afghanistan, a British military recruiting camp in Nepal, a café in Tbilisi, business offices in Ankara and human trafficking hideouts in Delhi. Coburn’s ethnographical account focuses primarily on Nepalis, though he examines how the lucrativeness of the conflict also attracted Georgian, Turkish, and Indian TCN contractors. His concluding argument is that “war is not experienced evenly. Country of origin, class, religion, and race all shaped what a contractor might experience in Afghanistan and the extent of the support the contractor could expect” (p. 247).

Always present, yet often invisible in Afghanistan, TCNs employed under US military contracts usually outnumbered US troops at least three to one. TCNs in the Global War on Terror labor as guard tower security, engineers, and financial accountants. However, most Nepali contractors are primarily employed in dining facilities or as janitorial staff as menial labor.

Under Contract contributes loosely to the historiographical conversations on US foreign policy, imperialism, and military contracting. Coburn scarcely cites P. W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (2003) nor does he use Singer’s taxonomy of military contractors, which might have assisted him in trying to make sense of the seemingly incongruent wartime experiences of Nepali contractors. Singer notes that in the privatized military industry there are three types of firms: military provider firms that implement active security, consultant firms that advise and train, and support firms that provide non-lethal aid and assistance. Coburn contextualizes the employment of Nepali contractors in the history of British colonial recruitment of Gurkha warriors, though that misses the point according to Singer’s taxonomy.

Coburn does not explain why more Nepalis worked for the US military support firms, such as Supreme, as cafeteria workers and janitors, rather than for active security or training firms, like DynCorp or Blackwater—especially given Nepalis association to Gurkha warriors. In addition, Coburn presumes that the US military’s use of TCNs as military contractors is a recent trend. However, Jana Lipman’s Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution (2008) describes how the deterioration of US-Cuban relations from 1958 to 1962 and security concerns contributed to the employment of Jamaican contract laborers instead of local Cubans to work on the US base in Cuba.[2] While not a historian, Coburn would have profited from meaningfully engaging with the historical scholarship related to military bases and contracting.

Coburn’s analysis avoids the topics of masculinity and rarely addresses the role of women in the nearly all-male world of military contracting. It likely would have strengthened Coburn’s ethnography to explore in detail how gendered Gurkha warrior identity shaped Nepali conceptions of masculinity and labor. Also, he acknowledges that Nepali contractors solicit female prostitutes in Afghanistan. Still, it is surprising that given Coburn’s years of extensive research in Afghanistan he did not explore or even mention whether Nepali contractors engage in the notorious practice of bacha bazi—boy play or dancing boy.[3] Coburn’s recurrent ethnographic focus on Nepalis, coupled with his travel accounts to Georgia, Turkey, and India, is fascinating yet also distracting at times. It may have been more prudent to solely focus on the experiences of Nepalis in Afghanistan or concentrate on the diverse array of military contractors in Afghanistan and their interactions.

Overall, Under Contract is an ethnographic account of Nepali and their interactions with other TCN contractors who undergird the war in Afghanistan. Coburn demonstrates that the inequitable costs of war are obscured by the outsourced yet essential support provided by Nepalis and other TCNs who share the risks and rewards of war. Scholars interested in the experiences of Nepali contractors in Afghanistan will find a detailed account. Military historians focused on the Global War on Terror may also find this book useful in understanding how war and the regional businesses support the war while also directing human migration flows.


[1]. “Costs of War,” Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs, Brown University, (accessed October 6, 2020).

[2]. Scholars may also be interested in Jennifer Mittelstadt’s examination of how the US military outsourced family support services in The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3]. Bacha bazi is a longstanding, coercive sexual practice in Afghan culture between older, more powerful men and younger, usually poor boys. Ernesto Londono, “Afghanistan Sees Rise in ‘Dancing Boys’ Exploitation,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2012.

Citation: Titus Firmin. Review of Coburn, Noah, Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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