Mercenaries—soldiers who fight for profit rather than allegiance to a country or cause—have been an integral part of warfare since Persia invaded Greece with the aid of hired Greek warriors in 484 BC. Over the past 15 years a new kind of soldier of fortune has emerged as hundreds of private military firms (PMFs) employ tens of thousands of soldiers and support personnel throughout the world. Collectively, these firms have an estimated revenue of nearly $100 billion.
By 2007 more than 180,000 Americans, Iraqis, and nationals from other countries were supporting the 163,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Blackwater USA, a private military company and security firm founded in 1997, is currently the biggest of the U.S. State Department’s three private security contractors. At least 90 percent of its revenues come from government contracts, two- thirds of which are no-bid contracts.
In September Blackwater personnel were allegedly involved in the deaths of at least nine civilians after the State Department convoy they were guarding was ambushed. A company spokesperson stated that “the convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents…and our people did their job to defend human life.”
This latest incident involving Blackwater has infuriated Iraqi officials at the highest levels of gov- ernment. Brigadier General Abdul- Karim Khalaf noted that, “Blackwater has made many mistakes resulting in other deaths, but this is the last and the biggest mistake.” An Interior Ministry official told Washington Post reporters, “Blackwater has no respect for the Iraqi people. They consider Iraqis like animals, although actually I think they may have more respect for animals…. If you are terrifying a child or an elderly woman or you are killing an innocent civilian who is riding in his car, isn’t that terrorism?” Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki stated that Blackwater guards would be held accountable for their crimes. “We will not allow Iraqis to be killed in cold blood.”
The increase in PMFs is one consequence of global military downsizing in the post-Cold War era. This personnel decrease resulted in a glut of unemployed soldiers (approximately six million according to one estimate) at a time when low-intensity conflicts were unfolding throughout the developing world, especially in Africa.
Peter Singer, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, divides the PMF industry into three sectors: military provider firms, military consulting firms, and military support firms. Provider firms offer direct military assistance to clients, including front-line combat per- sonnel.
The United States increasingly relies on PMFs for at least two reasons. First, it’s a way to bolster troop strength in a military that has been reduced from 2.1 million individuals in 1990 to a force of 1.4 million today without resorting to a draft, a policy opposed by both liberals and conservatives. Marine Corps Major Joseph R. Perlak notes that “passive” or support civilian contractors function as a kind of “force multiplier,” freeing up combat soldiers and Marines to perform their primary duty as “trigger pullers.”
Second, private armies are a mechanism for the president and/or Congress to dispatch combat forces without following normal government procedures. U.S. Army Colonel Bruce Grant stated, “Privatization was a way of going around Congress [sending troops to foreign countries] and not telling the public.” Singer notes that the Constitutional system of checks and balances is compromised by the use of PMFs as the president can “operate in ways not always open to legislative oversight.” Largely unknown to the U.S. populace, PMFs employed by the U.S. government have been involved in Central and South American drug wars since the early 1990s.
Over the past four years hundreds of U.S. military personnel in Iraq have been prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for crimes ranging from drunkenness to murder. However, no civilian contractors have been prosecuted for wrongdoing in spite of their involvement in the questionable shooting and subsequent deaths of Iraqi civilians.
The primary criticism of PMFs (especially in Iraq) is that they have become a “shadow army,” largely unregulated and unpoliced, operating beyond the rule of law. In 2004 then-chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Brem- mer, extended Order 17. This directive gives all foreign personnel in the Coalition Provisional Authority immunity from “local criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction and from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of the parent states.” Michael Hirsh reported in Newsweek that one of Bremmer’s “top aides” told him “we wanted to make sure that our military, civilians, and contractors were protected from Iraqi law.” In a recent article Hirsh noted, “No one worried about protecting the Iraqis from us.”
The U.S. Army’s “Taguba Report,” which investigated the “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib prisons in Iraq, concluded that three civilian contractors outside the military chain of command were either “directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses.” While a number of soldiers have been tried and convicted in military courts for their roles in the prisoner maltreatment, none of the civilian contractors involved were charged.
A vocal critic of PMFs, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), stated: “Under a shroud of secrecy, the United States is carrying out military missions with people who don’t have the same level of accountability.” According to Schakowsky, these civilian jobholders have an obligation “to their employer, not to their country.” Speaking of private security companies in Iraq, former Marine Corps officer Senator James Webb of Virginia stated, “It’s a lot of people with guns who are under no real law and that’s very troublesome.” Matthew Degn, onetime senior U.S. advisor to the Interior Ministry, noted that Iraqis hated Blackwater guards “because they were untouchable… they were above the law.”
In the late 1990s employees of a PMF working in Bosnia were engaged in prostitution rings run by the local mafia. According to one report, DynCorp workers purchased illegal weapons and passports as well as females (some thought to be as young as 12-years-old) to perform as personal sex slaves. Working on a tip, U.S. Army Military Police conducted a sting operation and a number of DynCorp employees were dismissed and sent home. No criminal charges were filed and the whistleblowers who alerted the Army lost their jobs.
PMFs have knowingly or unknowingly (via superficial or non-existent background checks) hired police officers and former soldiers who committed human rights crimes while serving with oppressive regimes in South Africa, Chile, and Yugoslavia. An Italian diplomat states: “Everyone knows that hundreds of men wanted for crimes against humanity have left the country to take jobs in Iraq.” Speaking of South African apartheid-era veterans employed in Iraq, Richard Gladstone, chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, stated: “The mercenaries we’re talking about worked for security forces that were synonymous with murder and torture.”
One of the more questionable aspects of PMFs is what impact these companies may have on decision makers at the federal level. According to investigative reporter Barry Yeoman, between 1999 and 2003, 17 of the nation’s largest PMFs contributed approximately $12.4 million to congressional and presidential campaigns. In 2001 10 PMFs spent more than $32 million on lobbying.
The ratio of private military contractors to enlisted military personnel during the Gulf War (1990-91) was 1 to 60; in Iraq that ratio is 1 to 10. In 2002 then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that the Pentagon will “pursue additional opportunities to outsource and privatize.”
Peter Singer notes that we are well into the process of privatizing the “fog of war.” The inherently ugly business of human beings killing each other en masse is being transformed into yet another saleable commodity in the global market place.
George J. Bryjak is professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.