In Defense of Mercenaries

This article has previously appeared on democracyarsenal.org and the Huffington Post.

Remember that old movie "Escape from New York," the one where the city has become a large prison populated by violent and depraved criminals? A story that fell between the cracks of the State of the Union last month -- two downed Blackwater helicopters, five Americans dead -- made me remember the images from that film. No escape, not by land, not by air, not by sea.

Some news reports speculate that four of the five were shot on the ground. Ugh and sigh. I know it is hard for some people to feel outrage or grief over the death of private military contractors -- an attitude that I often find is supported by perverse logic and misplaced anger about our own government's dysfunction. The bottom line is that the privatization of U.S. national security is a trend that has been ongoing for years. It was a conversation that Congress forgot to have during the heady government-hatin' rally that passed for a legislature for the past decade. So here we are. The Washington Post recently reported that there are some 100,000 contractors in Iraq alone, including 25,000 private security contractors.

This exceeds the number of all coalition forces combined, and is only 40,000 less than the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. It is a virtual army of largely unregulated individuals working on behalf of U.S. national interests. From strategic weapons systems as the B-2 stealth bomber and Global Hawk to running ROTC programs, the military has been colonized by corporations. This is all legitimate business created by our own government -- though the billions of dollars disappeared by contractors in Iraq make Abramoff look like Little Bo Peep.

When I was a Hill staffer some years ago, I remember going on a site visit to one of our national labs. Our tour guide and host gave me a card with both the U.S. government and Lockheed Martin logos on it. I was puzzled, but it didn't strike me until later just how pervasive this sort of privatization is. Later, after a missile defense trip larded with industry dollars, I became a purist. I don't want profit-making entities to have a large decision-making influence on any part of our government.

Handing over public tasks to the free market without a thorough discussion about what are essential government responsibilities is the hallmark of the era that just ended. The new Congress has set out an ambitious agenda of contract oversight. But a much larger conversation needs to happen at the same time. Now is the chance for Democrats and rebellious Republicans to put forward a governing philosophy that will provide a backdrop for all policy decision making, one that values a public sector that is the keeper of our collective memory. Values measured by the common good, not by NASDAQ.

Private military companies -- like many other "efficiencies" introduced into government -- are here to stay. They arose in the 1990s to meet a demand for manpower in MMOTW (Military Missions Other Than War), a now defunct acronym that referred to peacekeeping. Whenever this type of military capacity need came up during the last decade, entire rooms full of congressmen would come down with the Cold War vapors. The subject was soon redirected back to gold plated commie-killin' pet projects and MMOTW were left to hang in the wind. I know a handful of contractors. They are idealists about their work. They think that if the world isn't going to intervene in places like the Sudan -- why not outsource it? Its hard to disagree with them on this point. But the fundamental question is still why the heck haven't we adapted our military to handle these types of missions? Iraq is a lesson in our failure to do so.

The recent oversight hearings on Iraq contracting are a welcome sign of change. Yet there's no guarantee that they will lead to a thorough overhaul of our philosophy of government. What we need is a bare-knuckled battle of ideas with neoconservatives. And as far as our Cold War defense hangover goes, there's still not enough discussion. Even now, when all the commies are watching American Idol.

Meanwhile, an entire infrastructure has developed to support private security services. Take a look at these bios. These are not mercenaries. In my ideal world, they would be public servants, but our government has pared down its personnel by the thousands over the past two decades. Now the institutional memory for many of today's most important issues ... conflict resolution, peace ops, post conflict stabilization -- reside in the private sector. It doesn't have to stay this way, however.

The U.S. Congress took a step toward acknowledging this problem: last October's defense bill placed contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice ... Great Britain has been looking at options for regulating private military services in the United Kingdom, the rationale being that since the government already licenses the export of military goods, it makes sense to license the export of military activities in a similar way.

And here in this country, the PMCs themselves are clamoring for more regulation. A friend of mine who used to work for General Dynamics as a private military contractor agreed. In his own words, he called for a national debate -- led by the new Congress -- on the regulation of his own industry. Moreover, he said, only Congress can reestablish the once clear line between where public authority ends and private initiative begins.

Now all we need is civilian leadership to step up to the plate and make some decisions.

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