Thursday, September 29, 2005


Because the subject of private security firms came up at the very end of class on Tuesday, this seems an opportune time to fulfill a promise made many weeks ago to say a few things about mercenaries and modern war.


Mercenaries have been around for almost as long as recorded history, but the term "mercenary" is one that the current purveyors of privatized military services would prefer never to see or hear again. They believe it conjures up all sorts of negative images, none of which are applicable to them. It’s not entirely clear, though, why they think the negative images shouldn’t be associated with what they do. The best explanation is that "private security firms" are commercial enterprises and, like other businesses, they understand the importance of public perceptions. Just as the companies that haul your trash are far more likely to say they’re in "waste management" rather than "garbage" or "trash collecting," so hired guns prefer to call hemselves "security consultants" rather than "mercenaries."

The fact of the matter is that "security consultants" go to war zones, engage in many of the same military activities that state-supported armies engage in, take and inflict casualties, and generally do it all with a high degree of expertise. But it is not military service. While those who perform their jobs well may earn bonuses from the corporation, they are not awarded Purple Hearts or Bronze Stars from a grateful nation.

Of course, an All-Volunteer Force, which the United States has had since the end of the Vietnam War, means that most of those in the military services are also there for the money. This is abundantly clear from the distinctly lower-class cast of the ranks of enlisted men and women and the fact that military recruiters do better during a recession. For most people, the military is a job, one that is far better when no war is going on. Glory and honor, the thanks of a grateful nation, the pride that comes with wearing the flag and a military insignia on one’s shoulder--these things, for most people, are secondary to merely having a job.

So, if it is out of the question to return to a draft that would make military service a matter of duty crossing class boundaries--not to mention filling the ranks so that soldiers, rather than Halliburton employees, could once again be expected to cook meals and clean latrines--why shouldn’t the military contract out many of its functions? If members of Special Operations Forces who have retired from active duty are having trouble finding jobs back home that make use of their hard-earned skills doing things like jumping out of helicopters, planting bombs, or entering secure buildings unnoticed, why not encourage them to form "private security companies" and return to war zones in the employ of the United States Government (although in a somewhat different capacity)? Is the idea that soldiers fight for their country rather than for themselves a romantic notion left over from the heyday of the nation-state?

To some extent it is. When the country goes to war for reasons that do not touch on its vital interests, it might as well use mercenaries. Perhaps that’s why private security firms have been more pervasive in America’s war in Iraq than in its war in Afghanistan.

(UN peacekeepers, incidentally, are something of a hybrid of state and private militaries. States essentially "rent" troops and equipment to the UN for peacekeeping missions. Some states--Fiji, for example--have been known to seek out opportunities to rent their military forces to the UN as a means of earning a bit of money for the state.)

One of the problems with "hired guns" is that waging a war of choice (rather than a war of necessity) is easer for a democracy if there are no body counts and flag-draped coffins returning home. Mercenaries don’t get that kind of treatment. We don’t grieve the deaths of Blackwater employees--nor do we even hear about those deaths unless something exceptional happens.

Wars employing mercenaries are the next best thing to covert wars for those concerned about public opinion. And that’s a bad thing in a democracy where we ought to be waging wars of necessity only--wars that, because the defense of the state and its values are truly at stake, will be supported by a majority of the citizenry.

A prediction: As the United States begins its pullout from Iraq--and it’s only a matter of time at this point--Pentagon contracts to private security companies will increase. Many of the troops will come home, but tens of thousands of Americans without uniforms will continue to wage war in Iraq.