These Guns for Hire

There is something terribly seductive about the notion of a mercenary army. Perhaps it is the inevitable response of a market economy to a host of seemingly intractable public policy and security problems.

Consider only a partial list of factors that would make a force of latter-day Hessians seem attractive. Among them are these:

• Growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq;

• The prospect of an endless campaign against global terrorism;

• An over-extended military backed by an exhausted, even depleted force of reservists and National Guardsmen;

• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideous, large-scale atrocities (see Darfur and Congo);

• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious and potentially hostile settings.

Just as the all-volunteer military relieved the government of much of the political pressure that had accompanied the draft, so a rent-a-force, harnessing the privilege of every putative warrior to hire himself out for more than he could ever make in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve us of an array of current political pressures.

In the areas of logistics and support, this proposition is already more than theoretical. In addition to the roughly 130,000 American troops now serving in Iraq, private contractors have their own army of approximately 50,000 employees performing functions that used to be the province of the military. The army used to cook its own meals, do its own laundry, drive its own trucks. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon reduced American armed forces by some 36 percent, anticipating a peace dividend that was never fully realized.

So, if there are personnel shortages in the military (and with units in their second and third rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan, there are), then what's wrong with having civilian contractors? Expense is a possible issue; but a resumption of the draft would be significantly more controversial.

Moreover, contractors provide the bodyguards (most of them veterans of the American, British, Australian, Nepalese or South African military) and, in some cases, the armored vehicles and even helicopters that have become so necessary for the conduct of business by foreign civilians in Iraq. Such protective services are employed by practically every American news agency and, indeed, are responsible for the security of the American ambassador himself.

So, what about the inevitable next step - a defensive military force paid for directly by the corporations that would most benefit from its protection? If, for example, an insurrection in Nigeria threatens that nation's ability to export oil (and it does), why not have Chevron or Exxon Mobil underwrite the dispatch of a battalion or two of mercenaries?

Chris Taylor, the vice president for strategic initiatives and corporate strategy for Blackwater USA, wanted to be sure I understood that such a thing could only happen with the approval of the Nigerian government and at least the tacit understanding of Washington. But could Blackwater provide a couple of battalions under those circumstances? "600 people in a battalion," he answered. "I could source 1,200 people, yes. There are people all over the world who have honorably served in their military or police organizations. I can go find honorable, vetted people, recruit them, train them to the standard we require."

It could have the merit of stabilizing oil prices, thereby serving the American national interest, without even tapping into the federal budget. Meanwhile, oil companies could protect some of their more vulnerable overseas interests without the need to embroil Congress in the tiresome question of whether Americans should be militarily engaged in a sovereign third world nation.

There are limits, of course. None of these security companies is likely to undertake the full-scale military burden presented by an Iran or a North Korea. But their horizons are expanding. Cofer Black, formerly a high-ranking C.I.A. officer and now a senior executive with Blackwater USA, has publicly said that his company would be prepared to take on the Darfur account.

At whose expense and to what ultimate end is not altogether clear. But Blackwater and other leading security companies are seriously proposing to officials at very high levels of the government that their private forces could relieve a number of the burdens now being shouldered (or not) by American troops. The underlying theory seems to be that where a host government is unable to protect American business interests overseas and where the American government may be reluctant or unable to intervene, there is another option conveniently available.

The Pentagon, which is anything but enamored of the prospect of private armies operating outside its chain of command, is nonetheless struggling to come to terms with what it now calls "the long war." There is every expectation that the fight against global terrorism and the most extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism will last for many years. This is a war that will not necessarily require aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, fighter jets or heavily armored tanks. It will certainly not enable the United States to exploit its advantages in nuclear weapons.

It is a war, indeed, that favors the highly mobile and adaptive fighting skills of the former Special Forces soldiers and other ex-commandos who have already taken early retirement from the military in order to serve their country less directly, if more profitably.

The United States may not be about to subcontract out the actual fighting in the war on terrorism, but the growing role of security companies on behalf of a wide range of corporate interests is a harbinger of things to come. Is what's good for companies like Exxon Mobil, Freeport-McMoRan (the mining company that has paid the Indonesian military to maintain security) or even General Motors necessarily good for the United States?

The other morning on NBC's "Today" program, Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon, was asked by Matt Lauer if his company would consider lowering profits to help consumers this summer. Mr. Tillerson had the good manners not to laugh. "We work for the shareholder," he said, adding, "Our job is to go out and make the most money for ... those people."

What then if the commercial interests of a company or foreign government hiring one of these security contractors comes into conflict with the interests of the United States government? Mr. Taylor of Blackwater doesn't even concede the possibility. "At the end of the day," he said, "we consider ourselves responsible to be strategic partners of the U.S. government." To which he then added, perhaps a little more convincingly: "If we went against U.S. government interests we would never get another contract."

It is, however, an evolving relationship that requires far greater scrutiny. There is, in the final analysis, no direct chain of command from the government to units of Blackwater or other security companies that have been hired by private corporations or foreign governments. Chris Taylor insists: "We are accountable. We are transparent." That's debatable. But, he adds: "Given the global war on terror, this is a way that a lot of these retirees (from the military) can contribute. We want to have a discussion into how we fit into the total solution set."

By all means. Let the discussion begin.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 23 Private Security
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