Like many liberal criticisms of market-based solutions to public policy problems, the idea of privatized armies is likely to conjure images of rogue mercenaries advertising in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. However, many of today’s paid civilian soldiers are highly skilled and professional former Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Marines. They often are employed by private contractors because of their effectiveness as support staff, training instructors, security personnel, and occasionally as combat-ready operators. They are trained and ready to kill the enemy, not “degrade” him.
Such contractors have been instrumental in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; filling key positions with the State Department, the CIA, private companies, and others that the U.S. military either cannot, or will not, supplement. Most recently, insofar as responding to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region presents policy, budgetary and other conflicts for the Obama Administration, there is a new focus on using paid military contractors (PMCs) to “finish the job.”
Such a move makes sense; just as it has in other times and conflicts, dating back centuries.
The fact is, the history of warfare is replete with examples of highly successful paid armies. From the “Ten Thousand” army in Ancient Greece, to the iconic shark-faced planes of the “Flying Tigers” early in the Second World War, nations have come to rely on irregular, private armies to supplement or replace official military units. Even the elite Swiss Guard units in Vatican City charged with protecting the Pope began their storied history as 15th Century mercenaries.
Since the dawn of war, governments have used paid, private armies to protect kingdoms, carry out dangerous missions, and vanquish enemies. This reality is reflected even in the Constitution of the United States, which provides that Congress has the power to issue “Letters of Marque and Reprisal.” These devices are official governments licenses granted to private sailors to hunt down and attack enemy ships (Sen. Rand Paul’s father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, asserted that this power should be used today to fight piracy off the east coast of Africa).
The use of private militaries and Letters of Marque make sense on today’s battlefields, where victory is not necessarily determined by the biggest army, the most sophisticated air support, or the heaviest artillery. The modern enemy often does not wear a uniform, nor does he always fight for a single country or even a country at all. Even with the most fearsome fighting force on the planet, accomplishing military objectives in such an environment is a daunting task, long before U.S. politicians become involved.
Regrettably, our military today is led by a Commander in Chief so paralyzed by political pressure, indecision and timidity that the response to terror attacks on American citizens, such as those by ISIS, have become a waiting game for international cooperation to build in hopes of “degrading” and “managing” the attacks. The situation presented by an indecisive commander-in-chief is made worse by the infusion of hyper-partisan politics into today’s political debates in Washington. This makes success harder to define and more elusive at any rate, even as it squanders billions of taxpayer dollars on military strategies dictated by political consultants rather than field-grade officers.
It is the resulting uncertainty, in which ISIS festers and grows, that has led former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince to conclude that, “If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job.”
Using all-volunteer PMCs could avoid much of Washington’s political wrangling, and allow highly skilled, highly effective operators to conduct missions to destroy — not simply “degrade” — threats to America and our interests around the globe. This could be accomplished largely without leaving a job unfinished as troops are pulled from combat to meet political promises, or not given the resources they need because of budgetary constraints.
The use of American PMCs is also far better for national security than the current strategy of sending arms and money to unreliable, un-vetted and untrained “rebel” groups, whose only claim to our money and arms often is nothing more than the fact that some Washington policy makers have deemed them to be “on our side.” Those same policy wonks then watch with shock and amazement as their “allies” quickly surrender, leaving US-supplied weapons and munitions to be expropriated and turned against us by enemy forces. If we are going to spend taxpayer dollars using outside forces to fight terrorism, we might as well use PMCs who we at least can be sure are fighting for the right side.
It is true that the use of PMCs in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been without valid criticism; there were plenty of mistakes made with bidding, oversight, and accountability for misconduct during the massive and often too-quick build-up of U.S. interests in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. However, the conviction of four former Blackwater guards last week in the deaths of 17 civilians in Iraq, shows us that military contractors can, and should, be punished for failing to follow the same laws as members of the Armed Forces with whom they are working. Furthermore, as contractors, PMCs would be accountable for conduct, costs, and mission effectiveness in order to retain contracts for work. As more and more PMC groups are employed to handle military operations, the competition increases the incentive to do the best job for the lowest cost.
Rather than wait for a vacillating Administration to build sufficient courage to “manage” a crisis and to “degrade” those who do us harm, we should send in trained and motivated, paid military contractors to do the job. I suspect they would rather kill than “degrade” our enemies; which is what most Americans would prefer they do.