The war in Iraq has brought to light a new and disturbing mode of modern warfare: privatized military forces.


"Soldiers on Hire: Part I"
April 27, 2004

Huck Gutman

During the era of colonial expansion, trading entities such as the Dutch and English East Indies Companies operated as near sovereign powers, commanding armies and navies larger than those in Europe… These firms dominated in non-European areas considered beyond the accepted boundaries of the sovereign system, such as the Indian subcontinent, where local capabilities were weak and transnational companies the most efficiently organized units.            --   Peter W. Singer

        The situation in Iraq is going badly for the occupying US forces. Despite a staged-for-television proclamation of victory aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific ocean last year, President Bush has recently found his policies, from spurious reasons for waging war against Iraq, to the badly bungled early occupation, to politically-inspired deadlines for handing over “authority” to an as-yet non-existent Iraqi government, criticized more and more frequently.

        We live in an age of television, and so it was a televised event that precipitated the current sense of political siege and crisis within the White House. Four Americans were ambushed as they drove through Fallujah in north-central Iraq. They were dragged from their vehicle, killed, set afire, and dismembered. The charred remains of one body were hung from a bridge; those of another were dragged behind a car for 50 kilometers.

        The broadcast of these events were “read” very differently in West Asia than in the USA. In West Asia, despite the horrendous brutality of the Iraqi mob – even in warfare, even in great enmity, human tradition demands respect for the bodies of the slain – many cheered the pictures as signs that US power was vulnerable and capable of being attacked. Their response was understandable: the world’s sole superpower seemed, as images flashed across the television screen, to be unable to ward off attacks from indignant and angry civilians. The power of the street met the power of a mechanized, automated army, and for a few minutes at least, the street won.

        US reaction was shock. The images were indeed brutal, and the multiple violations – of the safety of American persons, of civilized norms of behavior, and ultimately of US supremacy and invulnerability – were shocking to the American public. The Bush administration kept quiet, for what could the President say: his victorious war no longer looked victorious, not when images of the barbaric treatment of Americans flashed on the television screen. It was a very tough day in the White House.

        As the world knows, the aftermath was powerful and disturbing. Iraqis were emboldened to attack Americans all over the nation, with Sunnis and Shias (those formerly supposedly implacable antagonists) promising to aid one another in driving out the occupying aggressor. US troops, for their part, mobilized and both surrounded and penetrated Fallujah, with heavy and bloody casualties, mostly Iraqi citizens, not all of whom were in any way combatants.

        I want to look at one of the many issues that arose from that moment of violence in Fallujah, that moment when four Americans were killed. Why, Americans wondered at first, were there no US forces ready to intervene? Even if it is impossible to prevent or undo an ambush, it is certainly possible to move in militarily to prevent bodies from being dishonored. After all, the record, both in literature and history, of military men showing great courage to protect both their wounded and their dead is extensive. So why didn’t US troops rush in to protect their fallen comrades?

        The answer is profoundly revealing. The fallen men were not, in any real sense, their comrades. They were Americans, and they were soldiers of a sort, but they were not US soldiers. They worked for a corporation, Blackwater Security Consulting, which supplies military personnel on a contract basis: these were soldiers for hire, or as they would have been called in a time when English had not been debased by the “spin” of political posturing, mercenaries. They were in Iraq not to fight for democracy or even domination, but because they were paid handsomely to be there – and paid by a company whose sole business is to make a profit.

        Sometimes dramatic changes take place in the world, hidden from sight, until a moment occurs when they erupt into public consciousness. So it was with the four Americans killed in Fallujah. The existence of a privatized military industry was known to military leaders around the globe, to corporate executives of multinational companies engaged in business in “risky” areas, and to despots and insurgent militias all over the developing world. But, in general, the citizenry of the world, and especially the USA, was unaware that the nature of warfare is changing, and changing rapidly.

        Warfare is less and less the domain of states, and more and more an area of for corporate investment, growth and control. Warfare, in blunt terms, is being increasingly privatized as we enter the 21st century.

        There is no arguing with economic facts. The privatized military “industry,” in the words of Peter Singer, an expert on this new economic reality, “has several hundred companies, operating in over 10 countries on six continents, and over $100 billion in annual global revenue.”

        Here is Singer elsewhere: though writing in an academic publication, he nonetheless has great real-world cogency. “PMFs [privatized military firms] represent the newest additions to the modern battlefield, and their role in contemporary warfare is becoming increasingly significant. Not since the 18th century has there been such reliance on private soldiers to accomplish tasks directly affecting the tactical and strategic success of engagement… PMFs may well portend the new business face of war.”

        Singer and I disagree about the importance of structure, since he maintains that PMFs are “fundamentally different [than mercenaries]: the critical analytic factor is their modern corporate business form.” That modern mercenaries are employees of a modern corporation, hired through “conventional” hiring practices, serving in a hierarchical business administrative structure, generating returns for investors, does not mean that they are not fundamentally soldiers for hire, nor that those who supply them – as in former years Hesse in Germany, or Switzerland, or Nepal – are not in it for the money. (It should come as no surprise that the Nepalese gorkhas are, once again, a part of the new mercenary forces: fighters for hire remain fighters for hire.)

        Singer is remarkably cogent in his analysis (readers are referred to his Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry, originally published by International Security). He points out that the market-based approach toward military services is as, “one analyst puts it, ‘the ultimate representation of neo-liberalism.’” In particular, he sees PMFs as a logical consequence of the two major capitalist innovations of the late 20th century, outsourcing and globalization. Military affairs – from maintenance and supply, to support, to actual fighting – can profitably be outsourced; the labor supply to provide trainers, logistical support, and warriors is an international market.

        The former anti-apartheid military and militias of South Africa are fertile hiring sources; so are not only former Soviet soldiers, but also the officers and operatives of the KGB. Those who were behind the Bank of Credit and Commerce International debacle are deeply enmeshed in arranging financing in the new military-for-hire industry, as are those who supplied illegal arms in the American Iran-Contra scandal. Employment in this new industry – soldiers for hire – is more about toughness and getting the job done, than about vetting potential employees for any ethical standards, even vestigial ones.

        Which brings us to Iraq. There are important reasons why the USA has depended heavily on privatized military firms to undergird the war and occupation efforts in Iraq. Most of them are not pretty – to my mind, some are actually corrupt.

The author, a former Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University, is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.