The stories about the out of control behavior of some employees of Blackwater USA in their “security” role in Iraq have highlighted a problem that has been a quiet truth in Iraq: the use of mercenaries by the United States government.
The definition of “mercenary” in Merriam Wesbter is simple: “One that serves merely for wages; especially : a soldier hired into foreign service”. What does Blackwater call theses “soldiers for hire”? “Global stabilization professionals” is how they describe them on their website. That makes it sound so “Ivy League” moving the mercenary trade away from images evoked by “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. This sounds eerily to me like companies redefining their customer service reps as “customer care professionals” or airlines that call their reservation clerks – “travel planning specialists”. OH PLEASE!
Not a real surprise that this has been an open secret. Everyone knows we have been using private security companies- but not until the most recent revelations about the behavior of Blackwater have most Americans equated that to mercenaries. I don’t know why most of my fellow citizens have been unable to see Blackwater as a 21st century mercenary army until the company got completely out of control- but I guess these are the same people that swallowed the Bush administration’s bilge water about Iraq’s ties to 9/11 and its imminent threat to our security.
Mercenaries have had a negative connotation since time immemorial, but American have an historic revulsion of mercenaries that is tied to our very founding. Thousands of German mercenaries- the Hessians- fought on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War.
Blackwater’s website reads like a website of some high-tech, humanitarian, non-governmental organization. One might think that they are on par with “Doctors Without Boarders”. Their slogan sounds tame enough- “When failure is not an option and hope is not enough”.
My mouth was agape as I read their home page:
“Blackwater Worldwide efficiently and effectively integrates a wide range of resources and core competencies to provide unique and timely solutions that exceed our customers’ stated needs and expectations.
We are guided by integrity, innovation, and a desire for a safer world. Blackwater Worldwide professionals leverage state-of-the-art training facilities, professional program management teams, and innovative manufacturing and production capabilities to deliver world-class, customer-driven solutions.”
I didn’t know that mercenaries had mission statements!
Blackwater has rightfully been racked through the coals. Erik D. Prince – the founder of the company has such strong ties with the administration, it rivals Haliburton in it’s access to “no-bid” contracts. Prince’s family has been Republican and Bush supporters and fundraisers. His father was one of the founders of über radical right wing- Family Research Council. This sort of rewarding supporters makes a night in the Lincoln bedroom seem like nothing. Of course the Republicans were all over President Clinton for “selling the Lincoln bedroom” but they say nothing about “selling a war”.
The House of Representatives took the correct step on Thursday when it voted 389 to 30 to pass legislation that would bring all United States government contractors under the jurisdiction of American criminal law. Mercenaries have been acting without any particular legal consequence – either Iraqi or American. Well- Blackwater did fire an employee and sent him back to the United States when he was drunk and killed an un-armed Iraqi. That was a tough sentence! Of course that justice was rivaled by the compassion displayed by Blackwater and the US State Department agreed to pay a whopping $15,000 to the family of the killed Iraqi. No doubt that the Bush administration will try and veto this legislation if it ever gets to his desk.
As heinous are all of the particulars in the Blackwater case, the use of mercenaries has some very fundamental flaws- in any conflict.
In the March 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Peter W. Singer, Senior Fellow and Director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Saban Center for Middle East Policy wrote a fascinating article- Outsourcing War that raises some very troubling issues.
Nowhere has the role of Private Military Firms (PMF) as these “security contractors” are more realistically called been more integral—and more controversial—than in Iraq. Not only is Iraq now the site of the single largest U.S. military commitment in more than a decade; it is also the marketplace for the largest deployment of PMFs and personnel ever. According to Singer, more than 60 firms employ more than 20,000 private personnel there to carry out military functions (these figures do not include the thousands more that provide nonmilitary reconstruction and oil services)—roughly the same number as was provided by all of the United States’ coalition partners combined. President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” might thus be more aptly described as the “coalition of the billing.”
According to Singer these large numbers have incurred large risks. As of March 2005 private military contractors had suffered an estimated 175 deaths and 900 wounded so far in Iraq (precise numbers are unavailable because the Pentagon does not track nonmilitary casualties)—more than any single U.S. Army division and more than the rest of the coalition combined.
More important than these numbers is the wide scope of critical jobs that contractors are now carrying out, far more extensive in Iraq than in past wars. In addition to war-gaming and field training U.S. troops before the invasion, private military personnel handled logistics and support during the war’s buildup. The massive U.S. complex at Camp Doha in Kuwait, which served as the launch pad for the invasion, was not only built by a PMF but also operated and guarded by one. During the invasion, contractors maintained and loaded many of the most sophisticated U.S. weapons systems, such as B-2 stealth bombers and Apache helicopters. They even helped operate combat systems such as the Army’s Patriot missile batteries and the Navy’s Aegis missile-defense system.
According to Singer, as of 2005 an estimated 6,000 non-Iraqi private contractors currently carry out armed tactical functions in the country. These individuals are sometimes described as “security guards,” but they are a far cry from the rent-a-cops who troll the food courts of U.S. shopping malls. In Iraq, their jobs include protecting important installations, such as corporate enclaves, U.S. facilities, and the Green Zone in Baghdad; guarding key individuals (Ambassador Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was protected by a Blackwater team that even had its own armed helicopters); and escorting convoys, a particularly dangerous task thanks to the frequency of roadside ambushes and bombings by the insurgents.
PMFs, in other words, have been essential to the U.S. effort in Iraq, helping Washington make up for its troop shortage. When a country is asked to go to war, its citizens are usually asked to sacrifice for the cause- this would include the draft. Non-coms would do the work that Haliburton would do and PMFs shore up an over-deployed and thread base military. But in this war- we weren’t asked to sacrifice- we were told to go shopping. I guess the administration heeded its own advice and went shopping for contractors to wage their war in Iraq and to reward friends. These contractors pay much more than does the military to its troops and they are providing services that have traditionally been provided by the military and probably would be if we had had a draft. But a draft would have made selling this war to the American people a much more difficult task.
Singer writes that there are five broad policy dilemmas raised by the increasing privatization of the military.
The first involves the question of profit in a military context. He puts it bluntly: “The incentives of a private company do not always align with its clients’ interests—or the public good.”
His article posits that when contractors do military jobs, they remain private businesses and thus fall outside the military chain of command and justice systems. Unlike military units, PMFs retain a choice over which contracts they will take and can abandon or suspend operations for any reason, including if they become too dangerous or unprofitable; their employees, unlike soldiers, can always choose to walk off the job. Such freedom can leave the military in the lurch.
Signer believes that the second general challenge stems from the unregulated nature of what has become a global industry. There are insufficient controls over who can work for these firms and for whom these firms can work. The recruiting, screening, and hiring of individuals for public military roles is left in private hands.
The third concern Singer has is ironically the feature that makes them so popular with governments today. “They can accomplish public ends through private means. In other words, they allow governments to carry out actions that would not otherwise be possible, such as those that would not gain legislative or public approval”, Singer writes.
Fourth are the legal dilemmas that using these mercenary forces raises. One military law analyst noted, “Legally speaking, [military contractors] fall into the same grey area as the unlawful combatants detained at Guantánamo Bay.”
The final dilemma raised by Singer is the extensive use of private contractors involves the future of the military itself. The armed services have long seen themselves as engaged in a unique profession, set apart from the rest of civilian society, which they are entrusted with securing. The introduction of these contractors (mercenaries) and their recruiting from within the military itself, challenges that uniqueness; the military’s professional identity and monopoly on certain activities is being encroached on by the regular civilian marketplace.
The use of mercenaries seems sleazy to me- let alone a colossally dangerous practice. Unlike Military personnel, mercenaries aren’t people who are dedicated to their nation’s cause and serve out of a sense of duty- they serve merely to make money. Blackwater’s track record is troubling and evokes images of men who love guns and killing more than they love their country.
I have visions of the private military firms becoming so powerful that they could eventually be in a position to wage a private coup d’etat.
Congress and the next President must seriously abandon the reliance on mercenaries- our nation’s image, integrity and safety depend on it.