The Atlantic reports that for every 1 US soldier deployed in the Middle East, there are 3 Private Military Contractors working for Private Military Companies (PMC’s) A.K.A mercenaries. This ought to come as a shock. The Atlantic also reported that “Today, America can no longer go to war without the private sector”, an extremely unnerving fact, as this report will explain. PMC’s and their growth are a natural evolution of the neoliberal ideology, shrinking state involvement and outsourcing what was typically within the purview of our democratically elected bodies to private companies. PMC’s are the 21st century’s capitalism army. As global citizens, are we comfortable with war becoming privatized and profit-driven?
To understand the modern mercenary, or PMC, we must go back to the 1990s and look at the first modern PMC, Executive Outcomes (EO). This group saw huge success in Africa, taking on contracts of unprecedented scale and securing the rule of the Angolan and Sierra Leonian governments. It was previously unheard of for governments to contract out their wars to private companies. EO was reliant on the labour of ex-South African soldiers who had spent decades fighting in defence of the Apartheid government and in the ‘hottest’ part of the cold war, where there were pitched tank battles between communist and anti-communist forces. These soldiers were extremely experienced and highly professional. Yet with the move away from Apartheid, they found themselves out of place in the newly egalitarian South Africa.
The results EO achieved were spectacular, as were its rewards. The Angolan government paid handsomely. EO was different from most mercenary groups. Jeremy Harding in the Review of African Political Economy writes of the now-defunct group that EO was “primarily a boardroom operation, less a model of military than corporate aggression”. This became the new model, inspiring companies like the infamous Blackwater and less contentious groups like the UK based Olive Group. These are mercenaries with lobbying groups, PR offices, and boardrooms. This ought to be what one envisions when thinking of the contractors deployed in the Middle East. Employees who are there to do a job, former soldiers whose skills are inapplicable in a civilian context. The efficacy of these groups is undeniable and based on their employee’s skillsets, entirely predictable. PMC’s hire only the best, many only recruits from the military world’s elite, the SAS, SWAT, Delta Force etc. But what happens when these employees slip up? Who holds them accountable when their bullets take civilian lives?
The aforementioned Blackwater has marred the relatively clean record of PMC’s. In 2018 the New York Time reported that a Blackwater employee was found “guilty in the deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis in Nisour Square in Baghdad”. This is perhaps the most infamous and appalling incident in PMC history. It took so long to prosecute because there is limited oversight. Global Policy Forum reports “International efforts to regulate the use of PMSCs have failed to effectively deal with many of the issues related to their use”. These groups operate in inherently lawless areas. If something goes wrong who is going to report them? The failed government they are fighting for? Who is a South African deployed in Iraq working for a UK based company accountable to if he shoots and kills a civilian? The structures in place to hold these men accountable are woefully lacking. International Law is simply not equipped to deal with these possible international war criminals, as the Blackwater incident demonstrated. We have little way to reign in these heavily armed men and women.
Not only do PMC’s lack enough oversight, but their incentives inherently propagate war. Here we see the issue with capitalism going to war. PMC’s earn their money in conflict. But what happens when the conflict ends? Why would a PMC want to end a conflict, why would they want to cut off their income? At their core PMC’s are profit driven, they cannot survive if they are not making money, and if there is no war, they are not making money. So, then there is the uncomfortable reality that PMC’s thrive when conflict is greatest. How can a group fundamentally incentivized to foment and sustain conflict bring about peace? World Peace would be an utter disaster for PMC’s. Are these the groups we want fighting our wars. Soldiers in national armies have a chance at a life beyond war. The employees of PMC’s do not, given that is the reason they joined the PMC.
The US and other nations have good reason to use PMC’s despite the clear issues outlined above. When an employee of a PMC dies, there is no coffin draped in an American flag flown in to mourning crowds and cameras. Politicians cannot sustain a war that is killing a nation’s young men; society will not permit it and democracy will see them removed from power. There is no equivalent pressure when an employee who chose to be handsomely paid in exchange for risking his life in a conflict zone dies. Yet what true difference is there? Many of the men and women working for PMC’s are there because their years of service to their nation’s military has left them bereft of the mental health, financial health, and skills to re-integrate into civilian society. The US Army and its PMC’s have the same mission objectives, rely on the same pool of people but the deaths of PMC employees cost politicians back home nothing. This allows warfare with no political cost; this is exactly what is occurring in the Middle East and why there are so many US PMC’s compared to US soldiers. A dead employee of a PMC costs a politician little.
As an international community, we must recognize that PMC’s, however corporate, effective, and professional, are not an acceptable substitute to national armies. They are groups incentivized to foment conflict, are utterly unaccountable and are used to hide the true cost of war. If we are to go to war, we must bear the consequences of that, the lives lost, the money spent, and the tragedies that come from it. If war is declared a price must be paid by those who declared it. PMC’s allow that price to be hidden and ultimately allow conflict to continue.