I’m pretty sure the answer is shortly after September 11, 2001.
As best I can recall, the first time I saw this locution was in the context of how the body of a “contractor” had been hung from a bridge in Fallujah or someplace like that, by Iraqi insurgents, as a warning. I had a brief vision of some guy who had been hired to fix the plumbing. It was so odd at the time to see the word used in that context. Now of course, like so many other things, it’s become a totally standard usage.
Anyway I keep seeing stories about how there are still a lot of American “contractors” to evacuate from Afghanistan, and how a lot more American “contractors” have been killed (about 3,900) over the course of the war than American members of the armed forces (about 2,400).
I’m not saying the US government shouldn’t be doing what it can to evacuate “contractors,” but lets cut out the Orwellian euphemisms and acknowledge that these are people who decided to drop themselves into the middle of raging civil war in order to make a lot of money as quickly as possible, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. (As a number of commenters have pointed out, it would be more than reasonable for the US government to bill the employers of these “contractors” for their emergency extraction).
I understand that most of them are not trigger guys, that is, private soldiers, although a lot of them are. The majority are on the logistical rather than the shooting at the Taliban side of things, but all of them are there to profit as directly as possible off the war.
(Louis CK — I know I know — has a funny bit called “Of course . . . but maybe” that includes a part where he talks about how OF COURSE our citizens who go to fight wars in foreign countries and get killed and injured are heroes who deserve our highest admiration and praise. Of course they are . . . Of course. But MAYBE . . . if you go to another country and shoot at people, it’s really not that weird when they shoot back?)
And I understand that there are a lot of Americans “in country” as they used to say in Vietnam (we really do never learn do we?) who are not mercenaries, but rather aid workers, journalists, and so forth.
Still, a lot of the current evacuation is of people who, as our patron muse once put it, took a little risk.
Something worth remembering when you read the 987th story published in the last week about how the evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan is so chaotic and dangerous etc.