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The Price of Privatizing War

Modern Mercenary is a fascinating look at the free market for force and the companies that profit from it.

My experience with mercenaries extends about as far as Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, a comedy that ran repeatedly on a New York television station when my brothers and I were young and never failed to tickle our funny bones. Yeah, yeah, I know—très sophistiquè. But in those days, private military companies (PMCs) were well beyond the ken of four kids from New Jersey.

These days, on regular drives to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I pass a turnoff that leads to a 7,000-acre training center belonging to a PMC named Academi.

According to the company’s website, it “boasts many unique training facilities, including 50 tactical ranges, five ballistic houses, multiple MOUT/scenario facilities, four ship-boarding simulators, two airfields and three drop-zones, a three-mile tactical driving track, 25 classrooms, multiple explosive training ranges, a private training center, accommodations for over 300 personnel, and other training support activity centers.” Academi acquired the center from Blackwater, the notorious PMC whose employees killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007.

Both companies supply services in the “market for force,” as Sean McFate, an assistant professor at the National Defense University and adjunct social scientist at the RAND Corporation, puts it. They are part of a multibillion-dollar industry (estimates range from US$20 to $100 billion annually) that includes public multinational companies run by veteran Fortune 500 executives and represented by their own trade association.

McFate explores this industry in Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford University Press, 2014). And happily, he does it in a way that eschews moral hysteria in favor of a dispassionate, academic approach. That may be because he has worked as a defense contractor (helping Liberia build its army, for example, among other assignments), and studied the industry. No matter what you think about “for-profit killing and the commodification of conflict,” McFate makes a strong case that demand for PMCs will expand in the decades and, perhaps, centuries ahead. The privatization of war is a growth business.

The privatization of war is a growth business.

McFate acknowledges that PMCs are an emotionally charged subject. But he also puts them in historical perspective. They’re not a new concept. Xenophon’s Ten Thousand—whose story Peter Drucker said taught him everything he needed to know about leadership—were Greek mercenaries. Mercenary companies (condottieri) were the go-to guys if you wanted to wage war in the late Middle Ages. “By the middle of the seventeenth century,” explains McFate, “the conduct of violence was a capitalist enterprise no different than any other industry.” Around that time, states began to monopolize the market for force by building standing armies, and private armies were outlawed. What better way to guarantee the security of your kingdom than to have the only army in town?

Mercenaries didn’t disappear entirely after that, but the demand for their services was relatively limited, until the United States started hiring PMCs to bolster its downsized standing army in Iraq and Afghanistan around 2003. And it’s unlikely that demand will fall again, even as the U.S. buying binge subsides. The reason, explains McFate, is that we are entering a period of neomedievalism, in which “the world’s order is polycentric, with authority diluted and shared among state and non-state actors alike.”

This means that the market for force is diversifying, with the demand stemming from more and more countries, transnational organizations like the United Nations, NGOs, corporations, and even movie actors. Yep, as McFate reminds us, Mia Farrow approached Blackwater and several human rights organizations in 2008 with a plan to end the genocide in Dafur. She wanted to pay Blackwater to stage an armed intervention aimed at creating protected refugees camps, while the human rights organizations mounted a media campaign to force a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The well-intentioned idea fell through, but could Farrow really hire a private army and invade Sudan? Yes, and successfully “for days and perhaps even weeks,” concluded McFate, who was called on to evaluate the feasibility of the plan shortly after it was conceived.     

The Modern Mercenary is filled with fascinating stuff, and its bottom line is that there is no stopping the continuing development of the market for force. So, what—if anything—should be done? McFate says we have to regulate the industry while the free market for its services is still dominated by the demand from a few big customers, mainly the U.S. If we don’t, he warns, the profit motive could cause PMCs to perpetuate armed conflict. And then, we might really get a look at what the world was like in the Middle Ages.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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