Briefing: Soldiers of fortune, then and now

The recent killing of several Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security contractors has sparked new questions about the role of these guns for hire. How long have there been mercenaries? Longer, even, than there have been nations. Soldiers who fight for pro

Soldiers of fortune, then and now

The recent killing of several Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security contractors has sparked new questions about the role of mercenaries. Why are guns for hire making a comeback?

How long have there been mercenaries?

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Longer, even, than there have been nations. Soldiers who fight for profit, as opposed to freedom or glory, have been around since antiquity. In the days before organized nation-states, they provided bloodthirsty rulers with the brute force to pillage and conquer. In the 13th century B.C., Ramses II of Egypt hired foreigners to pursue the escaping Israelites. For generations after that, the pharaohs relied on the “Medjay,” Nubians recruited from Sudan, as scouts and light infantry. By the fourth century A.D., the Romans were contracting with barbarians to beef up their legions. For the next several centuries, mercenaries were a regular part of the business of conquest.

Why were they necessary?

The would-be conquerors’ ambitions often exceeded the size of their armies. Hired guns filled the gap. When William the Conqueror fought the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he relied on Flemish mercenaries. In the Middle Ages, “free companies”—also known as “free lances”—began hiring themselves out for Europe’s many wars. Among the most skilled were the Swiss; armed with 18-foot-long pikes, they were such a match for cavalry that European monarchs used them for centuries. And as every American schoolchild learns, King George III hired 30,000 Hessian mercenaries to try to crush the American Revolution.

Wasn’t there a stigma to fighting wars for money?

Yes, but it didn’t deter either kings or mercenaries until the Enlight­enment. During the 16th century, Europeans began to believe that fighting for one’s country was every citizen’s duty, and that mercenaries were ignoble. Over time, mercenary armies also acquired a reputation for harboring misfits, criminals, and other undesirables. So as modern nation-states grew more powerful, governments found it easier to draft their warriors, instead of hiring them. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 outlawed mercenaries in international conflicts. “Those who fought for profit rather than patriotism were completely delegitimated,” said historian Peter Singer.

Was that the end of mercenaries?

No. After World War II, rival ethnic groups and political clans, especially in Africa, fought for control of former colonial possessions. These factions had no large armies of their own, and didn’t care about world opinion. Today, there are up to 100 “little wars” being waged around the globe, with mercenaries from dozens of for-profit companies providing much of the muscle. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War spurred the U.S. and other First World nations to reduce military spending; some 6 million military personnel have been demobilized since the Berlin Wall fell. So when crises do flare and these countries face manpower shortages—as the U.S. does in Iraq—private contractors can step in quickly.

Who works as a mercenary today?

For one thing, they detest the M-word; the preferred term is “private military companies,” or PMC. Advertising their services in glossy brochures and at trade shows, they tend to cloak their lethal services in such euphemisms as “conflict resolution” and “operational support.” Companies such as Blackwater stress their professionalism by noting that their ranks are filled largely with former police officers and soldiers. “All we really do,” said Tim Spicer of Aegis Defence Services, a British firm that has a $293 million U.S. contract in Iraq, “is help friendly, reasonable governments solve military problems.”

What do they actually do?

Pretty much everything that soldiers do. The U.S. doesn’t allow private contractors to directly engage in combat, but the line can be blurry. In Iraq, contractors are involved in battlefield support, embassy security, even strategic analysis. And if private guards come under attack, they can fire back. Blackwater says it was doing just that during the shootout in Baghdad last month, though witnesses insist Blackwater guards opened fire first, on defenseless civilians. “Often these companies will say, ‘We only do defensive work,’” said Brookings’ Singer. “But a weapon is offensive or defensive, depending on which side of the gun barrel you’re facing.”

Are soldiers of fortune still unsavory?

Nobody would confuse them with a Boy Scout troop. In the 1990s, several employees of the private military company DynCorp in the Balkans were accused of helping to run a prostitution ring. In 2004, the U.S., Great Britain, and Spain intercepted 15 employees of Logo Logistics who claimed to be en route to guarding mines in Burundi and Congo. It turned out they were working to topple the president of Equatorial Guinea as part of a plot to seize the country’s oil fields. But many governments, including the U.S., report that they have been generally happy with the services rendered. Blackwater, for example, boasts that not a single official it has been assigned to guard in Iraq has been assassinated.

What’s the future of mercenaries?

It appears bright. Private armies are very well suited to today’s “asymmetric’’ wars and unconventional military challenges. DynCorp, for example, currently assists Colombian forces in coca leaf eradication and trains police in Bosnia. In 1995, the government of Sierra Leone hired 350 men from the South Africa–based PMC Executive Outcomes to enforce a cease-fire in that nation’s civil war, so elections could be held. And with fewer nations willing to commit troops to dangerous peacekeeping missions or to humanitarian crises, even human-rights activists support private armies under some circumstances. “Watching a Rwanda genocide unfold without anyone lifting a finger is what I find obscene,’’ says activist Holly Burkhalter, “not using paid professionals to put a stop to it.”


A second army in Iraq

In Iraq, security is only one of dozens of services provided by private contractors. There are currently some 160,000 private contractors in Iraq—more than the number of U.S. troops. The biggest outfit, Halliburton subsidiary KBR, has 50,000 workers in Iraq and has been paid more than $20 billion. KBR delivers mail, keeps barracks stocked with potable water, does laundry, and is helping to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry. Other companies cook meals, fix equipment, and build bases. Security, however, dominates the private contracting scene in Iraq; there are about 48,000 personnel from at least 177 security firms, including Blackwater. Experts say these figures reflect the manpower shortages of the all-volunteer military, as well as the Bush administration’s free-enterprise orientation. Critics say that “privatizing” war has a dark side. “The overarching goal of government is supposedly the adoption of policies and practices that promote the public good,” said professor Janine Wedel of George Mason University. “For contractors performing government services, the bottom line is profit.”

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