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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: The Business of Defense

There can be little doubt about the growing role and importance of private security companies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These companies provide what for centuries was termed “mercenaries” — soldiers for hire — as well as services that include combat support, service support, and private security details. Some of these companies, like the Blackwater Group, have enjoyed exceptional growth since September 11, 2001, and the launch of the “War on Terror.” Others, like DynCorp and Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown and Root subsidiary, have been longtime military contractors for the U.S. and other countries. Those two companies, for example, provided service support to American forces in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (better known as LOGCAP). Still other private contractors, many of them with British and South African connections, have found work in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also have personnel who in the past took on shadier tasks, such as fomenting coups in impoverished African states.

With its ground forces stretched to the limit, and with the same personnel forced to redeploy to Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple occasions, the United States appears likely to continue to rely on private security companies for a variety of military-related tasks. It is certainly true that it is far more efficient for the American military, with its huge health-care and other personnel-related costs, to use these companies for a variety of service support functions. The logic behind this approach is at least as strong as the logic behind outsourcing for multinational corporations. Why should troops that might otherwise serve in combat roles be relegated to cleaning toilets, preparing food, doing laundry, or giving haircuts to their colleagues? Private companies perform these functions just as capably and at a lower cost (although that’s not all they do). For this reason alone, as Christopher Kinsey notes in his scholarly volume Corporate Soldiers and International Security: The Rise of Private Military Companies, private security firms are likely to remain a permanent part of the international landscape.

Professor Kinsey lectures at the Defence Studies Department of Kings College, London, and he brings to his volume a valuable breadth of perspective, taking in the entire course of European military history. The book also extends his previous arguments in a debate that has taken place in the U.K. since 1999 — indeed, since Tim Spicer’s misadventure in Sierra Leone — over whether military private contractors should be regulated, and if so, how. Corporate Soldiers and International Security argues that these private firms cannot, and will not, be banned; they simply are too essential and cost-effective. Yet, Professor Kinsey argues, these firms require some form of serious regulation (he advocates licensing and monitoring them), or else they will carry the risk that mercenaries have also carried, of transforming war beyond national, indeed international, control.

Many of these companies — and there are literally hundreds in Iraq alone, involving tens of thousands of individuals — may be as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution. Just as the nature of war has changed in recent years, all three books make clear that the nature of private military contracting has changed as well, especially as private firms provide services that bring them much closer to the line of fire. Many of these contractors are retired Special Forces types, and they retain the “snake eater” mentality that makes them eminently suitable for the jobs they have undertaken. Indeed, as Mr. Pelton illustrates, a number of retired special operators have found civilian life boring, and they jump at the opportunity to reexperience the thrills, risks, and glory of their youth. Others are misfits who try to find themselves in the blood and gore that is the daily fare of Iraq and Afghanistan. Still others are simply pragmatists with no better job possibilities, wanting to make some money to support their families. For members of those three groups, Colonel Schumacher provides a guide to finding a job with a private military contractor and lists the most likely employers, complete with contact numbers, in his book’s appendix.

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