Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Mercenaries and the Modern World

Written by johnleemk on 4:21:41 pm Oct 26, 2007.
Categories: ,

A controversial issue in the United States has been the US government's increasing privatisation of several tasks monopolised by the government in other countries. The most recent victim of public fury has been the usage of mercenary firms, most notoriously Blackwater, in military operations.

The US military at present is severely strained. Iraq is taxing it to the bursting point, and regardless of what happens, logistical constraints dictate that the US draw down its military presence there by the end of next year.

The apparent solution is to step up recruitment, or, in the worst case, institute a draft. Both solutions, however, run up against the problem of training — the US military's facilities are insufficient to ramp up so quickly. There just isn't enough time to train and deploy fresh troops.

Economists probably recognise this as the classic dichotomy between short and long run priorities. In the short run, economic producers are limited in their ability to produce by their physical infrastructure. What characterises the long run is the fact that there are no such limits.

If the US military is reaching the breaking point in producing new troops, it stands to reason that it will have to either reduce the demand (perhaps reducing deployments in places like South Korea) or to find outside sources.

Naturally, the US military has turned to mercenary firms. Thus far, their primary purpose has been to act as bodyguards for State Department officials, and other such low-key tasks. However, increasingly, they are also being forced to fight on the battlefield.

The usage of mercenaries raises very troubling questions. The widows of Blackwater men killed in combat have been demanding recognition that their husbands died for their country; the US government has denied such recognition, and at the moment, the official stance is that these men died for Blackwater. (They are commemorated as such by a plaque at the Blackwater headquarters.)

More worryingly, what happens when Blackwater soldiers commit war crimes? Blackwater was recently the subject of a Congressional investigation after allegations emerged that its men had needlessly fired upon civilians in a drive-by shooting.

Blackwater's soldiers are not subject to American civilian law; they cannot be charged with murder in an American court because they were not on American soil at the time. They are not subject to American military law, since they were not serving in the American armed forces. They may be subject to Iraqi law, but no American seriously has faith in the credibility of the Iraqi legal system (except, apparently, when it comes to trying Saddam Hussein).

It is extremely difficult for a government to hold its military contractors accountable. Typically, the market works through failure — those who mess up are weeded out, their contracts terminated. But for the US, failure is not acceptable here; it can't afford to experiment and see which mercenary firms rampantly murder civilians. It's obviously much more preferable to have a slightly less efficient army, if that means fewer war crimes.

This has naturally led to calls for the government to stop hiring private military contractors. But this is the major problem here: the US can only do that in the long term, when it ramps up recruitment. For the moment, it has no choice — it must either draw down its troops, or continue contracting military work out. Mercenary firms are not the best option at this point, but if the US wants to stay in Iraq, they may be the only option.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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