Politicians' desire to make war often exceeds citizens' desire to be sent to war. Such are the challenges of foreign policy in a free market with an all-volunteer military. What do you call the people who fill the gaps arising when politicians insist on going to war anyway?
There are 20,000 "private security contractors" in Iraq: This is the number –and name – widely used to describe the legions outside the armed forces of the US and its allies, but doing work remarkably like the work military people do. This figure has popped up in such places as a much-linked-to article in The Washington Post and a documentary from the PBS program "Frontline."
But "20,000 mercenaries" is another phrase that pops up as well. Are these two different names for the same army?
"Mercenary" derives from Latin – note the "merc" root, meaning "market," which it shares with "commerce" and "merchandise" and other such words. It's been in the English language since the late 14th century, and originally referred to one who did any kind of work for pay, although, as distinct from being an unpaid volunteer.
But early on, the word seems to have picked up a whiff of filthy lucre. The Oxford English Dictionary cites as a usage example from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (1386) a line wherein the Parson is described as "a shepherde and noght a Mercenarie." With a little bracketed note ("Cf. John x:12") Oxford refers us to the New Testament's Gospel of John, which contrasts the "good shepherd," who "giveth his life for the sheep," with the hireling, "whose own the sheep are not" and who abandons them when the wolf cometh.
Whatever the conditions of their employment, let's note that the soldiers of this army of 20,000 have in fact been paying the ultimate price in numbers roughly comparable to those of regular armed forces. The admittedly incomplete information on the Iraq Coalition Casualties website indicates 278 contractor fatalities to date.
But the usage history of "mercenary" illustrates what we might call Gresham's Law of language: the narrower, "bad" meaning of a word tends to drive the more neutral, nonjudgmental ones out, as the word begins to take on more of an emotional load. Just a few lines south of the Chaucer quotation, the OED notes sternly that "mercenary" now refers "exclusively" to "a professional soldier serving a foreign power."
Some of us remember learning in school that the British hired Hessian "mercenaries" to help them put down the rebellious colonials during the Revolutionary War. It was seen as a sign of the righteousness of the American cause that it could be defended by a ragtag band of farmers and fishermen, whereas the mighty British Empire had to hire on extras in an attempt – unsuccessful in the end – to hold up its side.
The "foreign power" aspect of the definition has many people bristling against the use of "mercenaries."
Over the past summer, the BBC solicited on its website comments on contractors in Iraq, and experiences from those working for private security firms in Iraq.
One discussant cast the phenomenon as just another example of corporate outsourcing.
"Ahmed" in Edinburgh, Scotland, however, had this to say:
When foreigners not part of an army get caught in Afghanistan they're "illegal combatants", however when they serve the mighty USA they're honourable "contractors". America needs to cut down on this sort of hypocrisy if it wishes to be a responsible superpower.
The BBC also quoted "Ian" in Baghdad, working for a British security firm, which he defended as providing "a professional, low profile service attuned to the operating environment." He further notes,
While private security contractors are a concern, they are not - at least not typically - used in an offensive role thus the term mercenary is not correct.
It may not be as simple as that, however. Security analyst John Robb has coined the term "global guerrillas." He uses it specifically to refer to Latin Americans who were trained by the United States to prosecute drug wars in the jungles and who now find themselves with time on their hands, ready and willing to work in Iraq for much less money than veterans of the US military typically get from private security firms. Even high-end skilled labor is subject to price competition, it seems.
To whom do these people answer? Where do they fit in the rules of war? Those are questions for lawyers and lawmakers. But the wordsmiths should help think them through.
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