Ten years ago, I found myself in Burundi, sipping a Coke with the country’s president, the American ambassador and the president’s 8-year-old daughter. The president’s life was in danger, and the American government sent me in to keep him alive.
The Rwandan genocide had begun in 1994 after the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda were assassinated. In 2004, an extremist Hutu group planned on assassinating the new president of Burundi to reignite it. My job was to prevent this from happening.
I wasn’t a member of the C.I.A. or a covert military unit. I was a “contractor” (“mercenary” to some), working for a company called DynCorp International. This is increasingly how foreign policy is enacted today.
I’m proud of the work I did as a contractor in Africa, but my buddies from the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, in which I had once served, scowled that I had “gone mercenary” and was lost to “the dark side.” A fellow graduate student at Harvard accused me of being “morally promiscuous.” Yet the work was similar to what I did in the military, and the pay and benefits weren’t that great, despite perceptions to the contrary.
Private military contractors are back in the news after four former Blackwater guards were sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. In 2007, they killed 17 innocent Iraqis in Baghdad. They mistook civilians for terrorists and murdered them. It was wrong. Many around the world have hailed their long prison sentences as a victory for America and Iraq.
But fewer people remember the Haditha massacre of 2005, when a squad of United States Marines murdered 24 innocent Iraqis in a revenge killing spree. It started when one of their Humvees hit an improvised mine, killing one and injuring two more. The squad immediately killed five people in the street. They then went house to house, and killed 19 more civilians, ranging in age from 3 to 76. Many were shot multiple times at close range, some still in their pajamas. One was in a wheelchair.
The military investigated and acquitted the Marines, except one who got a slap on the wrist. The Pentagon blamed the affair on “an unscrupulous enemy” and dismissed it as a “case study” that illustrates “how simple failures can lead to disastrous results.”
Like the Blackwater guards, the Marines committed atrocities. But the outcomes were different. For the Marines, there was a single internal investigation, and the charges were quietly dropped. By contrast, Blackwater’s crime immediately sparked international ire and multiple high-level inquiries. It remains seared in the global imagination as a nadir of the Iraq War. Those contractors will spend most of their lives behind bars; the Marines of Haditha will not.
There have been other abuses, from Abu Ghraib to civilian deaths from air strikes. So far, no American official has been sent to jail for 30 years. The United States seems to hold armed contractors to a higher ethical standard than its own armed forces.
America turned to the private sector for personnel that its all-volunteer military could not muster. In Iraq half of the personnel in war zones were contracted, and in Afghanistan it was closer to 70 percent. America may fight future wars mainly with contractors.
Now others are following America’s lead. Nigeria hired hundreds of mercenaries to fight Boko Haram. Russia is allegedly using them in Ukraine. And oil companies and humanitarian organizations are turning to private military companies to protect their workers and property in dangerous places, and there is an argument that the United Nations should use this industry to augment thinning peacekeeping missions.
Private force isn’t a new phenomenon. Contract warfare was the norm in the Middle Ages. Like today, for-profit warriors were called condottiere (“contractor” in old Italian). They usually fought for the highest bidders: kings, city-states, rich families, even popes.
The problems associated with private force were solved when states began monopolizing the market and put mercenaries out of business. They created large national armies accountable to governments and bonded by patriotism, rather than cash. This process took centuries, but is now unraveling.
Few would welcome a new unbridled market for force, yet it is already developing. The industry continues to proliferate as new consumers seek security in a deeply insecure world. And mercenaries are less expensive than standing armies, just like renting a car is cheaper than owning one. The Congressional Budget Office found in 2008 that Blackwater cost 10 percent less than a comparable army unit in wartime Iraq, and a private force costs nothing in peacetime because its contract can be terminated.
The question now is how to minimize the risks of private armies. Some companies have proposed self-regulation, but that proposal lacks teeth and is dependent on firms confessing their own crimes, which is bad for business. Nor can it be externally regulated; strict laws will only drive these firms offshore or underground.
The solution is to use market power. Superclients, like the United States or the United Nations, could shape best practices by rewarding good firms with profitable contracts and withholding them from bad firms. America or the U.N. could establish a licensing and registration regime that all industry members must observe in order to be eligible for contracts. This would include clear standards for training and vetting members and transparent mechanisms for oversight and accountability.
Multibillion dollar industries don’t just evaporate, and outlawing private security forces won’t work. Relying on the market is the best way to avoid a return to the medieval chaos of armies for hire.
Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.