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Private Military Forces, Again

Today we look at an interesting article called “The Future of Private Military Companies,” a subject we have previously covered here and here. I actually encourage you to read this article, unlike most other articles that I mention on this site; however, I am going to spend most of my effort here disagreeing with it. The gist of the article is that mercenaries and private military forces are profilerating as states lose authority and there is increasing intrastate violence. I don’t actually know if states are losing authority or if there is increasing intrastate violence. During the Cold War, civil wars were an opportunity for superpowers to intervene and fund one side or the other, which may have given an apparent coherence to the conflicts that they actually lacked. The article mentions local military forces seizing territory from a failing state and administering it, which seems to me quite different from a private military force. If an army is administering a territory, it is a form of government: with questionable legitimacy, to be sure, but difficult to include with private armies that fight for profit.

I was surprised to learn that Kofi Annan actually suggested that the U.N. might benefit from using private military forces to respond to conflicts. This seems both contrary to the spirit of the U.N. and extremely dangeous for national states, who probably don’t want the U.N. to develope an independent military power outside of what is specifically delegated to it.

Of course, I have to lament the article’s inaccuracy with regard to the Peace of Westphalia and the Thirty Years’ War. The Thirty Years’ War is often hauled out as the prototypical example of the private military force, which it was not. Military forces were raised largely by captains who were paid to do so, but this was true in most national armies since governments lacked the infrastructure to find and recruit troops directly. Nor did the Peace of Westphalia do anything, deliberately or not, to end the practice. Americans will remember the British use of Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War. Even at home, Britain — one of the most highly centralized governments in Europe — continued to raise troops indirectly into the 19th century by commissioning individuals to recruit them.

The article includes a graph showing how contractors have made up an increasing percentage of deployed U.S. forces since WWI. I don’t dispute that, but it is misleading since the world wars were national efforts that required national mobilization; Korea occurred shortly after WWII, and there was a draft for Vietnam. The wars since then have been fought by a volunteer force, and it seems logical that the government would seek to supplement its limited enlisted personnel with contractors.

I’m also not sure how many of those contractors actually do any fighting. The article mentions that

they provide external and internal security, engage in warfare, secure local leadership and even become an extension of that leadership’s armed forces. They also oversee crucial infrastructure like oil wells and mines, and train local forces.

I suspect, however, that the actual “engage in warfare” part is extremely small. The U.S. Army has a logistical tail that has grown enormously over the past century, mostly because of changes in the nature of war, and that leaves a lot of non-fighting jobs for contractors to fill.

I think the real proliferation of private military forces has come abroad, especially in those regions where states are weak and can’t count on traditional recruitment methods to raise reliable armies, in part because they don’t trust their own citizens. Setting up an administrative infrastructure to recruit and manage an army is difficult; using money to hire someone to fight for you is much more straightforward. It comes with its own set of problems, of course.

The article mentions that America and Russia already prohibit their citizens from fighting abroad, but, of course, they were not the major source of private militaries. It concludes that the U.N. is unlikely to regulate this area, especially since Russia benefits from their existence. That is something that I can agree with wholeheartedly.

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