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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Lawless Mercenaries: Fueling Imperial Ambitions & Imperial Downfall

Lawless Mercenaries: Fueling Imperial Ambitions & Imperial Downfall
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

Since its earliest days, America's war in and occupation of Iraq has included a larger number of mercenaries — men and women doing the jobs that used to be done by soldiers, but for a lot more money and without the same legal responsibilities. Some aspects of the privatization of military-related jobs may make sense, but not when it comes to combat roles. Even some of those that do make some sense (transportation, for example) make a lot more sense in peacetime than in a combat zone.

Mercenaries probably aren't going anywhere any time soon, even though they may not even be legal under the Anti-Pikerton Act and complicate matters incredibly. What are the chances that we wouldn't need to use mercenaries and could have filled all relevant functions with military personnel if our political leaders were confident enough in the mission — and competent enough in the first place — to ask the American people for the sacrifices necessary?

Right now everyone is focusing on the use of extreme and unchecked force by Blackwater personnel, but let's take a couple of steps back to remember that however awful such incidents may be, they are actually part of a much larger set of reasons for why mercenaries are such a bad idea. The Wilson Quarterly discusses the article “Outsourcing War” by P. W. Singer, in Foreign Affairs (Mar.-Apr. 2005):

[U]nlike military forces, private firms can abandon operations that become too dangerous or otherwise too costly, and their employees are free to walk off the job. More than once, the U.S. military has been left in the lurch.

Their murky legal status has...allowed private military contractors to escape prosecution for crimes in Iraq. The U.S. Army found that contractors were involved in more than a third of the incidents in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case, but not one of the six employees identified as participants has been indicted.

You can’t order a mercenary to hold a bridge. You can’t order a mercenary to protect a convoy. You can’t send a mercenary on what is likely a suicide mission. You can’t order a mercenary to hold back when it comes to interrogations. If you try, and they disregard you, you can't effectively punish them — at worse, they are sent home with a large wad of money in their pockets and references good enough to get a well-paying job elsewhere. If one of them simply does a poor job, you can't retrain them or send them elsewhere; at most you can complain to their manager and hope they are competent enough to care — a common experience in the corporate world, yes?

It’s not just others who are put in danger by the fact that mercenaries can’t be held to the same obligations, though. Mercenaries themselves are put in danger as well.

Being “not quite soldiers” and “not quite civilians,” the private firms’ employees “tend to fall through the cracks of current legal codes.” The consequences for them can be dire, as three American employees of California Microwave Systems found when their plane crashed in rebel-held territory in Colombia in 2003. Unprotected by the Geneva Conventions, they’ve been held prisoner for the past two years, and both their corporate bosses and the U.S. government “seem to have washed their hands of the matter.”

It's no wonder that private security firms have to pay people so much to become mercenaries — with all the risks involved, it's the only thing that would make the job even vaguely worthwhile. If you survive a few years of this work and invest well, you can retire early. IF you survive...

Granted, it's not as though Iraqi insurgents are great observers of the Geneva Conventions — and even if they were, I think they'd be inclined to stop after the behavior of the American occupation forces. Ignoring that for a moment, though, we should wonder: what would happen if personnel from Blackwater or other firms were captured? They, too, wouldn't be protected by any Geneva Conventions. Unless a rescue mission could be mounted, what would be left besides a corporate ransom — assuming, of course, that the corporation cared enough to bother?

Unfortunately, all of this extra danger comes at a cost — a much higher cost than would have been paid if the government had simply relied on the military:

The private military firms are, in effect, competing with the government, observes Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Corporate Warriors (2003). “Not only do they draw their employees from the military, they do so to play military roles, thus shrinking the military’s purview. [The firms] use public funds to offer soldiers higher pay, and then charge the government at an even higher rate.” And some were not even competent.

A mercenary can be paid more money per day than a soldier receives in a month — even with extra hazard pay. The money being paid to mercenaries can’t be used to increase soldiers’ pay, to fund the government’s obligations to soldiers’ health care, to train the Iraqi military, etc. American corporations and their employees are getting wealthy from the war in Iraq and some American soldiers in Iraq are coming to resent this. And why shouldn't they? It's not as though their political leaders have been doing such a fine job otherwise.

After the most recent Blackwater incident, it should also be clear that the actions of Blackwater personnel will make things more dangerous for the American military. I doubt that the Iraqi insurgents care much about whether someone is a private contractor or a Marine — every American with a gun is part of the same occupation force being funded by the American government for the benefit of rich Americans. Blackwater personnel are thus earning more money than American soldiers to do things that make the situation more dangerous for American soldiers. Great return on investment, huh?

I apologize for my absence last week. The hard drive in my computer failed Wednesday night and it took a couple of days to get a new one, never mind restore the data.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.