Stop Privatizing War

May 13, 2015

The history of armed conflict from the earliest records to modern times has featured hired soldiers – mercenaries or forces loyal to a patron – that fight for pay or other rewards rather than for the cause of the combat. The United Nations Mercenary Convention (officially known as the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries) was ratified in 1989 and took force in 2001. Unfortunately, only 33 nations have signed the treaty and the United States is not one of them. [1] 

The preponderance of well-trained and experienced contracted forces employed by one side of a conflict, from ancient times to today, can clearly affect the outcome of conflict for those forces with the resources to pay private military contractors (PMCs) or mercenary bands. From Cyrus the Younger, who employed the rough-and-ready Greek “Ten Thousand” to unseat his brother Artaxerxes II from the Persian throne, to the Vatican’s famed Swiss Guard, and the multinational Flying Tigers who aided the Chinese in the early years of the Second World War, paid forces can mean success for those who pay the piper. [2]

Today private companies openly operate various kinds of military and security services to government agencies and organizations around the world. PMCs are typically employed today to train regular military forces or provide guard services to bases, installations, or as bodyguards for key personnel. In theory, providing these security personnel frees up the official military forces for more critical actions.

The United States uses PMCs too. But why are public dollars being spent to pay PMCs to perform roles that should be provided by the Department of Defense (DoD), which already receives $651 billion or 18% of the entire Federal Budget? [3]  

While some contractors may provide transportation, logistics, food service, and the like, others have been deployed to increase effective troop strength or otherwise take an active military role. Contractors are supposedly less expensive to a government agency than employees, because they are hired only to perform a particular task and are let go after that task is completed. Armed services personnel have to be equipped, are paid benefits, and can make use of Veterans Administration services. PMCs lower this overhead for the DoD by providing a workforce that has already been trained, and which supplies its own equipment. In paying less for private contractors then it would for military personnel the Pentagon is supposed to be saving money. But while American soldiers do receive a package of benefits that Americans in the private sector don’t usually receive, PMC employees receive, on average, a taxpayer-supported salary of $150,000 to $250,000, as compared to a miserly $19,000 for a soldier. [4] 

But according to Reuters, in June of 2011 the War on Terror had already cost the government $3.7 trillion. [5]  Up to that same year, at least $31 billion had been lost to contract waste and fraud according to the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC). [6] In the 1980s, during the Cold War, comedians and pundits drew gallows laughter from the public about how much the Pentagon had been spending on ordinary hammers and toilets to deal with the Communist threat. The contractors today selling a variety of military services, including PMCs, are caught up in waste on a scale so vast that the old seem quaint by comparison. In fact the Afghanistan Study Group reported that contractors were ripping off taxpayers to the tune of $12 million per day. [7] More worrisome, perhaps, than simple graft is the fact that contractors and PMCs have now become so ingrained in U.S. military operations that the CWC said that the DoD “cannot conduct large or sustained contingency operations without heavy support from contractors.” Could it be that the oft-quoted comments by former general and President Dwight Eisenhower about the future existence of a “military-industrial complex” have finally been fully realized? [8]
To be fair, life as a PMC on the front-lines is at least as dangerous as it is for the official armed forces. In fact, from January to June of 2010, more contractors than troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. [9]   That might be due to the fact that, according to DoD figures, contractors outnumbered troops from Fiscal Years 2008-2011 at approximately 190,000 contractors per year to about 175,000 military personnel. These numbers can vary, however, depending on who is counted as a contractor. [10] This has lead John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute to quip that George Bush’s original “coalition of the willing” has instead become a “coalition of the billing,” and these conditions have continued throughout the presidency of Barack Obama. [11]
Aside from the huge amounts of graft and the mismanagement of war zone projects, there has been a major cost to international relations and public perception in foreign countries. PMCs have frequently fallen short of military standards or have become embroiled in controversy. When the United States sends its armed forces into foreign conflicts, the American public should be able to trust that weapons are being carried by forces that are trained and accountable. If enemy combatants, and especially non-combatants, are killed, we need to know whether proper rules of engagement were employed. “It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the military commander to ensure contractor compliance,” said William L. Nash, a retired Army general and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If you're trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids; that’s not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren't going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier.” [12]   

Those fears proved to be well-founded when L. Paul Bremer, former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator in Iraq, specifically included PMCs among the forces that would receive immunity from that country’s laws if broken. [13]  As late as 2009 Amnesty International was calling upon then Attorney General Eric Holder to hold PMCs to several U.S. and international laws related to accountability, and suggested possible prosecution for war crimes committed by PMCs. [14]  Although PMCs have not been responsible for all of the misdeeds of American forces in the Middle East, they have been at the center of two of the most unpleasant incidents.

Employees of the now re-organized private security firm Blackwater Worldwide engaged in a wild mass shooting against unarmed Iraqi citizens in 2007 in which 17 were killed and nearly twice as many were injured. Last month, after a long legal fight, one contractor was sentenced to life in prison and three of his colleagues were given sentences of 30 years. [15] The Blackwater agents claimed their convoy had come under attack, but an investigation by the FBI found 14 of the 17 deaths unjustified and in violation of the rules of engagement. According to eyewitness testimony the PMCs unleashed sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers, killing women and children. Blackwater lost a contract worth $1 billion in the aftermath of the bloodbath in the Nisour Square traffic circle, but through the creation of multiple subsidiaries and shell companies still managed later to get portions of coveted contracts. [16]  

The widely reported mistreatment and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison would not have been possible without the complicity of private contractor L-3 Services, Incorporated. Two years ago the company settled a suit brought by Iraqis at $5.8 million, but the effect of the mistreatment in foreign relations was far greater. [17]

Other incidents involving private companies’ employees have continued to crop up. A study in 2008 by the nonprofit RAND Corporation found that 35% of diplomats who had contacts with PMCs had to handle the consequences of ill-will that armed employees engendered in local populations. Further, 40% of these diplomatic personnel witnessed PMCs treating Iraqi citizens in a threatening, or arrogant manner. [18]

In addition to the early calls from Amnesty International about PMC oversight, a working group of the United Nations’ human rights office (OHCHR) stepped forward to praise the sentences in the Blackwater case. [19] Its chairwoman, Elzbieta Karska of Poland, said that “the difficulty in bringing a prosecution in this case shows the need for an international treaty to address the increasingly significant role that private military companies play in transnational conflicts.”

The Swiss government and the Red Cross have led a similar effort to adopt a world-wide body called the International Code of Conduct Association for PMCs to make sure companies are deploying forces that are well-trained and comply with standards. Other governments, non-governmental organizations, and industry representatives are taking part. [20] Still, it is a legitimate question whether industry involvement may prove too seductive for the public-sector representatives in the same way that the financial services industry has developed a too cozy relationship on the domestic front with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Any thought that a drawdown of contractors will coincide with the eventual decline and end to a U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other beachheads in the War on Terror is probably very naïve. According to Molly Dunigan at RAND, “[t]he private military and security industry is now incredibly large, powerful, and – perhaps most important – adaptable. Rather than scaling back, the industry is broadening its territory, expanding into maritime security, providing security to business and governments in Africa, and exploring other new markets.” [21]

Even when not on the frontlines of conflict, contractors comprise a worryingly outsized role in the United States intelligence community as well. According to author Dana Priest’s Top Secret America, private contractors make up 29% of the workforce of the 17 federal state security agencies, and cost the equivalent of 49% of their personnel budgets. [Priest, Dana (2011). Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Little, Brown and Company. p. 320. ISBN 0-316-18221-4] While it’s a separate argument, not under discussion in this article, whether the US intelligence services are too vast and encompassing for a democratic country, the involvement of thousands of non-government employees with questionable loyalties and access to sensitive material is a legitimate cause of concern.

U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has said that PMC sins “[demonstrate] the need for Congress to finally engage in responsible, serious and aggressive oversight over the questionable and growing U.S. practice of private military contracting.” [22] The U.S. Department of Defense should learn the painful lessons of their experience of wanton fraud and bad behavior by PMCs by returning to a purely support role for contractors. Until there are international standards in place to keep the burgeoning private mercenary business to an accountable code (if that can be done), no further deployment of armed irregulars in war zones should be allowed. Even if standards become binding, the utilization of PMCs in combat roles will always raise the specter that mercenaries are not observing, or not even required to follow, the rules and standards of the military.  Let us heed the wisdom of former President Eisenhower by not allowing a full-scale militarization of the nation by private industry.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.