On Sept. 16, employees of Blackwater U.S.A. – a private military company working in Baghdad  – allegedly opened fire without provocation on Iraqi citizens, killing 17. The Iraqi government has tried (thus far unsuccessfully) to evict the company and investigations into the deadly incident continue.

The shooting has raised questions about the role of private firms in the military, and that’s put the media spotlight on Deborah Avant, UCI’s new director of international studies and political science professor.

Avant is the author of The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security, a subject she will discuss at a School of Social Sciences Dinner Club event 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, in the University Club Library.

“There’s quite an intense focus in Washington, D.C., right now on analysis of contractors in Iraq as far as the work they are performing, the roles they are playing and the way in which they are being managed,” Avant says. Accordingly, she’s presented her findings and ongoing research in this area at high-level conferences involving government officials, military personnel and others in the D.C. area.

“The private security industry exploded in the 1990s,” she says. “Private companies began providing not only logistical support, but training and operational support.”

More than 1,000 U.S. private security contractors have died in Iraq since 2003, according to Avant. They are not included in official casualty figures, even though they worked for the United States in service of its policy objectives.

“In a recent experiment, a group of Americans felt just as sad and angry when they were told about private security deaths in Iraq as they did about the deaths of regular U.S. soldiers,” she says. “News of private security and military deaths also had nearly identical effects on people’s support for the war. Even though Americans see the motivations of private security personnel as more monetary than patriotic, people feel that they – and their government – are just as responsible for their deaths. One might surmise that Americans also feel responsible when private security personnel kill – as Blackwater employees allegedly did. But with little information, it is very hard for Americans to act on this responsibility.”

“We must ask not only, ‘Are private security personnel accountable?’ We should also ask, ‘To whom are private security personnel accountable?’ Today, there is a clear accountability gap. Private security firms must only answer to the executive branch. Given the enormous burden they are shouldering in Iraq, private security personnel employed by the United States should also be answerable to Congress, and to the American people. Our democracy demands it.”

Avant became interested in the privatization of military force while teaching political science at George Washington University for 12 years. She served as director of the Elliott School’s Security Studies Program at GWU, and in 2004, she developed the Institute for Global and International Studies, serving as director before coming to UCI.

As the new director of international studies, Avant will lead a program that houses one of the most popular majors on campus, with nearly 700 undergraduate students, as well as a minor in conflict resolution and a public forum series.

“There are tremendous faculty members in Social Sciences and across campus who study a variety of international issues,” she says. “I’m looking forward to learning more about their research and interests to draw together their potential within the program and within a vibrant research network.”