Lorelei Kelly

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.

What Progressives Have in Common with the Military

When Army Col. Ike Wilson returned home in March 2004 from a 12 month deployment in Iraq, one thought remained with him: "Why such a deliberate plan to fight the war, but none to win the peace to follow?"

Wilson, a West Point professor with years of military planning experience, knew that placing this question at the the center of national security policy discussions was the only way to truly learn from Iraq and Afghanistan. He soon founded the Beyond War Project as a hub to educate both the military and the public about a new vision for war, peace and America's role in the world. Thus far, he's signed up participants ranging from Cornell University's Peace Studies Program to the U.S. Air Force.

Wilson's approach typifies today's professional military education, which includes a breadth of topics that might surprise those more familiar with the liberal arts. In contrast to linear Cold War themes like strategic nuclear deterrence, military schools emphasize humanities subjects such as language, international cooperation and world culture. Such lessons arrived in these academic settings in the early part of the decade--though it took the terror attacks of 9/11 and two offensive U.S. military actions before elected leaders really paid attention to the dramatic shift from Cold War thinking.

Today, nearly every general that testifies before Congress claims that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have purely military solutions. This sea change means that many members of the military and progressives are philosophically much closer than either believes and they are both hurt by the lack of meaningful interaction. Understanding and aligning with the military around shared concerns could be a crucial new strategy for the left.


I taught peace studies at Stanford University in California before moving to Washington in 1997 to work on Capitol Hill for Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.). In 1995, Congress suffered a semi-lobotomy. The new conservative majority--under the guidance of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America--cut many specialist staff and dismantled bipartisan educational organizations such as the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus. My job was to establish an informal study group to educate staff on new national security issues.

As I set out to find important security initiatives to bring to Capitol Hill, I learned that most of the creative new government programs were in the military. I enrolled in classes--free to Hill staff--offered by the Air Command and Staff College and the National Defense University. I spent days at the Army War College, where the challenges of peace were on every conference agenda. While learning about topics ranging from peacekeeping to AIDS prevention, I came to know numerous military professionals eager to share knowledge about international problem solving--most based on recent experience.

Montgomery McFate is an anthropologist who advises the military on the value of cultural knowledge. She points out how warfighting now sits at the intersection of traditional military activity and what is known as "human security."

"Technology is not the key to victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, where so much of our effort is focused on building infrastructure, increasing their ability to build a government, establishing the rule of law and promoting civil society," says McFate. "U.S. forces need to understand the human terrain in which they are operating."

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, good government is our exit strategy. And if there is a good news story about Iraq, it is that U.S. soldiers have already applied lessons learned from the peace operations in the '90s. In Haiti, the Balkans and even in Somalia, the importance of culturally sensitive conflict resolution was learned.

Good government is also a preventive strategy. As a whole, post-9/11 security threats are broad and inclusive, and require a variety of approaches--military, political, social and economic. Because so much of the institutional memory of post-Cold War security policy resides in the Defense Department, whoever figures out a way to engage and to learn from our military's experiences will have a wealth of policy ideas for moving forward.


Successful "branding" by conservatives has made liberals seem weak on national security. It has also created a lowest common denominator political discourse--especially the defense budget. The vast majority of members vote for defense bills that continue to fund a Cold War national security apparatus. The absence of a loyal opposition and real debate about national security has led us to where we are today: The U.S. military finds itself in a situation that it would have never gotten into on its own.

November's vote provides a timely opening to begin this conversation. With a new Democratic majority in Congress and the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, liberals must see past their anger over Iraq and grab the opportunity to learn from an unaccustomed source. Building relationships with military professionals will pay huge policy dividends when the time comes to pursue fundamental change on national security priorities.

The cost of the war has now passed half a trillion dollars--on top of a $400 billion plus defense budget. A more rational budget will soon become imperative, and progressives can be in the vanguard instead of on the margin by including real military needs in their list of spending priorities before diverting the conversation back to domestic issues. They can also consistently de-link defense spending from war spending--after Iraq, the Army will need to be rebuilt after its experience in Iraq. The rise of a cohort of military advocates from the left would mark an important change: Confident progressive voices joining the debate over the appropriate mission of American armed forces.

Such allies are needed: Despite their ability to wield tremendous physical force, the military is vulnerable when it comes to protecting itself in the domestic policy process. The armed services' professional ethic forbids interference in political decision-making. Hence their fate is often influenced most by those poised to gain in the short-term, either financially or politically, and who encounter no similar professional barriers --i.e., defense industry lobbyists, members of Congress and an executive branch obsessed by domestic politics.

This strategy is not unrealistic. Today's antiwar movement is leagues more sophisticated than the one that ended the Vietnam war. Today's liberal activist has learned how to be anti-war without being anti-warrior.

What's more, liberal philosophy shares many values with the military: looking after the general welfare, shared risk, sacrifice for common goals and long-term planning. Liberals value public service, and the military is our largest public institution. We also share many other areas of concern:

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