This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Seven in an ongoing series.

Captain Christopher Loftis, commanding officer of C company, 2/25 in Tarmiya, was trying to feel out a group of Iraqi men who hoped to join the Sons of Iraq movement. The men were standing around a checkpoint that flew the yellow flag of the Anbar Awakening movement at an intersection a few miles outside of town, and he was asking them how things were going.

The response was the same each time: “more weapons” to fight the insurgents. Loftis would smile, shake the man’s hand, and move on. It was the usual request, always denied, but given that these men weren’t even under contract to provide security, the plea was a little premature. The captain had come out to this checkpoint in front of a former Saddam-era uranium processing plant not just to meet these men, but the men who organized them, along with about six hundred others who wanted a contract with the American Army to provide security.

The Sons of Iraq program, begun in the spring of 2007 and funded by U.S. taxpayers to the tune thus far of $123 million and counting, is basically a private militia—80,000 strong at this point—hired by the American military to help fight the insurgency. Not surprisingly, the success of the SOI has produced conflict with the Iraqi government. At a meeting the day before with the local Iraqi police commander, the police complained that two people had been kidnapped and released by an “illegal checkpoint” manned by the SOI the night before, and that some of the men at these new checkpoints were wearing masks. The police commander wanted to make some arrests, which brought the American civil affairs officer assigned to Tarmiya, Major Guidry, to the edge of his seat. “Just get their names and give them to us,” Guidry warned. “We don’t want to put you in a position where you’re in conflict with Abna al-Iraq [Arabic for Sons of Iraq],” The police colonel frowned, but agreed not to do anything drastic.

This is how easily things can turn in Iraq. If the police commander had rolled up on the checkpoint and tried to arrest the men staffing it, the situation could easily devolve into a gun battle between Iraqi government forces and the irregular forces being paid by, and deriving their legitimacy from, the Americans. It’s not a situation that anyone, for obvious reasons, wants. For starters, it would spotlight the fact that the American military is paying citizens to do the work that the Iraqi government security forces have been unable to do, therefore calling into question the effectiveness of the government itself. Also, in Iraq’s tribal society, such a confrontation would likely start a bloody cycle of revenge with U.S. forces caught in the middle.

In a piece about the increasing use military contractors by the American military, Michael Walzer wrote recently in The New Republic that:

the state is constituted by its monopoly on the use of force…This is what states are for; this is what they have to do before anything else—shut down the private wars, disarm the private armies, lock up the warlords. It is a very dangerous business to loosen the state’s grip on the use of violence…

But this loosening of the state’s grip on the monopoly of violence is the only way that the American military has found to pull Iraq back from the unrestrained chaos of 2007, which set records for American and Iraqi deaths. And for now it’s working, at least when it comes to keeping the American death toll lower than it had been for much of the past several years.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.