The first time most Americans were made to consider the implications of private military contractors at all, not to mention those working in a war zone alongside American and allied forces, was after 31 March 2004. That was the date four employees of Blackwater USA were killed by a crowd of Iraqis in Fallujah. The four men’s charred and mutilated bodies were hung from a bridge in a grisly sign of defiance that spurred the US military, even though the men were not soldiers and Blackwater never copped to what they were doing there, to launch a punitive assault in retaliation.
In the months that followed, there was a steady stream of reports and articles detailing not only the extent to which Blackwater’s armed guards had found profitable employment in the shattered nation (guarding procounsul Paul Bremer, for one) but how other contractors, like Dick Cheney’s old buddies at Halliburton and Brown & Root, were providing non-combat support to the war effort (often for ridiculously inflated sums).
Afterward, there was a lot of surprise from average citizens at how much of the war effort was dependent on hired civilian labor instead of soldiers (who were usually paid less, much less), and some shock at the corruption uncovered. But almost as quickly as the White House backed off the Marine assault on Fallujah, the public and media turned their attention elsewhere, consigning the issue of contractors and privatized soldiers to just one more element of the epic snafu that is the Iraq War.
P.W. Singer came across the issue differently. Working with a U.N.-backed project researching the postwar situation in Bosnia, circa 1996, he realized that “the entire military balance in the Balkans had become dependent on the activities of one small company based in Virginia, (Military Professional Resources Incorporated)—MPRI.” That realization is what led Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and widely-respected modern military authority, to write Corporate Warriors. After its 2003 publication, Singer’s book became not just the definitive but practically the only guide to the world of private military firms (PMFs), more commonly known today as “military contractors,” “mercenaries” to their critics.
In the years that followed, Singer was feted as one of the only knowledgeable experts on the subject who would speak to the press (PMFs loving their secrecy, almost as a matter of course), but was also threatened with assault, lawsuits, and even death by people who would have preferred he kept everything he learned to himself. Also, Iraq—just a gleam in a neo-con’s eye back when Singer was writing the book—happened.
Five years into the Iraq War, Cornell Press has republished Corporate Warriors, which would have been a welcome thing even if they hadn’t done anything to the book besides fix a few typos. But fortunately, Singer has gone back and added a terse but heavy-hitting afterword on what has transpired since the book’s original publication: “The Lessons of Iraq.” When Singer first wrote Corporate Warriors he was trying partially to start a debate on the good and bad aspects of the PMF phenomenon, but mostly just trying to shed light and analysis on an incredibly secretive field that had been little studied. By the time he revisited the subject for this new edition, the situation appears to have grown to include an even larger part of the American military infrastructure, and with almost just as little reflection as there was before the first missile hit Baghdad.
For all the alarms that Singer raises about this issue, though, he’s no Chicken Little. The idea of hiring mercenaries to fight our wars may rankle many Americans (particularly those of a liberal disposition), but Singer scrupulously explains that the 19th and 20th century tradition of nation-states waging war with vast armies of conscripted or volunteer citizens is actually an aberration in the history of warfare, not the norm. For much of human history, warfare was in fact more likely to be waged by small of units of professionals who hired themselves out to the highest bidder. One of the reasons was that many governments didn’t have the means or ability to maintain large standing armies of men who could take the time to master the intricacies of warfare.
In the Middle Ages, Singer writes, European nobility “feared the power of an armed populace and thus preferred mercenaries.” During that time, warfare was so constant across the European patchwork of fiefdoms and city-states that mercenary units became one of the cornerstones of modern capitalism (giving us the business terms “company” and “freelance” in the process). Fighting was so profitable, in fact, that Machiavelli accused the “free companies” of purposefully fighting “bloodless battles” in order to draw out the length of a money-making conflict.
In fact, it was only during the Napoleonic era that this emphasis on small and highly-trained units began to change. As Europe became dominated by larger nation-states with vast populations that could be drafted and then armed with affordable and easy-to-use firearms, wars were more often fought by large citizen-armies. Mercenary companies went into decline, with their specialized services no longer so necessary or even desired.
The decline of private militaries is well illustrated by Singer’s example of the British East India Company. Since the 17th century, that firm had been granted exclusive trading rights over vast swaths of the Empire and acted as a shadow government unto themselves, even fielding their own personal military to protect assets and trade routes. By the 19th century, the company’s power was fading with its profitability after the Crown broke their trade monopoly in India.
The nail in the coffin for the British East India Company was an incident in 1857 where a rumor spread that the cartridges supplied to the firm’s soldiers were greased with beef fat, a gross violation of Hindu beliefs. Many Indian units then revolted in what came to be called the “Sepoy Mutiny,” claiming thousands of lives before the British Army put an end to it; as payment, the Crown seized the assets of the British East India Company. While the Sepoy Mutiny certainly outshines Blackwater’s Fallujah incident in calamitous stupidity, the two events could be seen as examples of the fundamental incompatibility of government- and private militaries in territories occupied by foreigners.
Although Singer stays mostly agnostic on the larger issue of whether or not those two forces are in fact incompatible on the modern battlefield, he frequently expresses the concern that the issue has not been discussed nearly enough. In fact, it seems that the average person, in America or elsewhere, still views the military as primarily a function of government, when (as Singer shows time and again), that has been less and less the case over the past quarter-century. While what Singer refers to as the “public monopoly” on organized violence stood for a good two centuries or so, that monopoly ended with the Cold War. The demobilization of much of the great powers’ military and intelligence apparatuses then flooded the market with highly trained cold warriors. This happened during a time where fragmenting alliances, increasing religious orthodoxy, and the advent of ever-more complex weapon systems were creating a state of near-constant low-grade warfare best fought by small numbers of specialized experts. It could, in fact, be argued that the modern world bears a disquieting resemblance to Dark Ages Europe, in which the growth market in mercenaries is but one of the most dramatic examples.
By refusing to cast himself as a finger-wagging scold on the subject of military contractors—Jeremy Scahill’s under-researched and overly hyperbolic 2007 book on Blackwater is a typical example—Singer’s concerns, when they are voiced, have all that much more power to them. While Singer discounts the worry of some that PMFs are actually private armies (most firms are mostly shell operations who call up their contractors from well-maintained databases when a contract is signed), he points with some alarm to the probability that PMFs will not always be fighting on the side of First World nations.
Singer notes that Spearhead Limited, a PMF run by a former colonel in the Israeli Army, has been reported to have specialized in working for rebel armies and drug cartels, including the Cali cartel and Columbian right-wing death squads. What is there to stop an al-Qaeda franchise, flush with Saudi private donations, from hiring a PMF, one of the many with US black ops vets (or Russians; supposedly one PMF, Alpha, is comprised of an entire Soviet special forces unit who just went private after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact) on the payroll, to train them in advanced terror tactics? Are we to assume that no amount of cash could persuade any of these firms to work with those they formerly saw as the enemy?
This last concern touches on the most disturbing part of Singer’s conclusion, written in reaction to the diabolic contractor excess of America’s Iraq debacle. While there are certainly some functions of the military that it makes some sense to outsource to private companies (trash pickup, say), Singer is particularly alarmed at the mostly unanalyzed wholesale transfer of whole swaths of military operations to companies with no interest, besides financial, in a nation’s security. This outsourcing can lead to comic mishaps, such as the 2000 incident described by Singer in which a private ship returning a unit of the Canadian Army from Bosnia became a pawn in a subcontractors’ dispute. The ship sailed in circles for two weeks, “holding about one-third of the Canadian army’s entire equipment and soldiers hostage.”
This turning of warfare into a capitalistic shell game is troubling on any number of levels, even in addition to the undermining of a nation’s war-fighting ability as described above (it’s a good thing Canada wasn’t at war when that contract dispute happened). There’s the strictly financial cost of handing over unsupervised chunks of government cash to PMFs with an incestuous relationship with the government (the US has already paid over $20 billion to Halliburton in the new millennia, itself already more than the entire cost of the first Gulf War). Also, we as American citizens have the fantastic opportunity to now watch our government pay that money to companies staffed by ex-soldiers and intelligence specialists who our tax dollars already trained. Lastly, there is the very real and troubling possibility that the increasing use of mercenaries could in effect, as Singer writes, “allow leaders to short-circuit democracy” by not needing public approval to wage war.
These problems are all part of what Singer calls, with unusually acid phrasing, “the travesties that result from treating government responsibilities as an adjunct to commercial operations.” Perhaps there’s a positive side to the corporatization of war, though: if terrorists then start trying to hire the same mercenaries that the US military currently uses, couldn’t our government then simply outbid the enemy? Milo Minderbinder, the gleefully and obscenely entrepreneurial officer from Catch-22 who hired himself out to the Americans and Germans simultaneously (and who Singer caustically takes note of), would certainly approve.