On January 16, the New York Times reported that Justice Department officials have informed Congress of “serious legal difficulties” in prosecuting Blackwater security guards involved in a September shooting that left at least 17 Iraqis dead.
There has been much controversy over America’s use of private military companies to provide security services. Renae Merle of the Washington Post reports that as of December 2007, there are at least 100,000 “contractors” working in Iraq. During a 2007 radio interview, journalist Jeremy Scahill went so far as to call Blackwater “the official mercenary company of the US government” because it hired “Colombian soldiers [and] Chilean soldiers” to serve in Iraq.
It is unfortunate that in our modern lexicon, “mercenary” is generally seen as a pejorative term, although this article will use it in a neutral sense. If we define mercenaries as people who “wage war for profit” (to borrow a line from the liberal blog Daily Kos), it is still arguable that that waging war for private gain is not always a bad thing. Making the assumption that private military companies are indeed mercenary companies, it is arguable that mercenaries are vital if America is to continue her current foreign policy of making the world safe for democracy.
Consider: when fighting a war, there are generally three ways to raise an army.
First, people may volunteer to fight if they perceive that a cause is just. After the horrific September 11 attacks, football player Pat Tillman rejected a $3.6 million sports contract in order to fight in Afghanistan. Indeed, people like Tillman would probably have made the same decision even if the football contract were worth a billion dollars. With America under attack, many people saw the War on Terrorism as a good cause, and were hence willing not just to fight for freedom, but quite possibly to fight for free.
However, there are only so many people who would join the U.S. military for purely patriotic reasons. This leads us to our second option: pay Americans to fight. By offering a good salary (or a college education), it becomes relatively easy to persuade large numbers of young people to fight for America. Indeed, by utilizing the power of free choice and free markets, the U.S. military—comprised entirely of well-paid, professional, and highly-motivated troops—has become the finest force in the world. If you can’t get people to volunteer for purely patriotic reasons, you might be able to get them to fight not just for freedom, but for both freedom and a fee. We are a commercial nation, and the volunteer military is a fine American tradition, as American as apple pie.
However, it is not easy to persuade many Americans to enlist in the war effort, because modern life is simply too fun for most people. We are reluctant to sacrifice our iPods, our Facebook, our McDonalds burgers, and our Desperate Housewives. Just as the Baby Boomer generation dodged drafts, seized university exemptions, and protested against the Vietnam War, this generation is reluctant to sacrifice their careers and civilian comforts to fight in Iraq.
This leads us to our third option: hire mercenaries. Unlike U.S. troops who fight for both freedom and a fee, mercenaries fight only for the fee. Yet, for all their faults and mistakes, these mercenaries play an important role—like illegal immigrants, they do jobs that most Americans won’t do. Most importantly, because they are motivated by the base, but effective profit motive, they tend to do a very good job—Blackwater guards have done a remarkable job of protecting U.S. diplomats and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. When was the last time you heard about a top U.S. official being killed while on tour in Iraq?
America’s mercenaries are highly-trained, highly-motivated, and highly-paid. According to the New York Times, Blackwater’s training facility in North Carolina is so well-equipped that even U.S. Navy Seals sometimes use it for specialized military training. Quite simply, the profit motive allows the development of world-class mercenary units—the finest private armies in the world.
Despite the controversy over the morality of hiring mercenaries, it is arguable that the pursuit of self-interest leads to the general (i.e. America’s) gain. As classical economist Adam Smith once wrote of the average person, “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
It is true that mercenaries have committed excesses in Iraq, and it is certainly arguable that these excesses ought to be punished. However, on the whole, our nation’s use of mercenaries has more benefits than costs. If it weren’t for the 100,000 military “contractors” from companies like Blackwater, CACI, and Aegis Defense Services, more young American men and women would be dying in Iraq rather than surfing Facebook, listening to iTunes, and playing football. Between having a military draft and hiring mercenaries, most of America’s young, judging by their actions, would prefer the latter.
Making the world safe for democracy requires that America maintain large military commitments overseas. Unfortunately, few Americans are willing to serve in sufficiently large numbers to maintain all these overseas commitments. Therefore, this leaves us with a choice—either we adopt a humbler foreign policy that allows us to maintain a smaller army with fewer commitments, or we hire mercenaries to help fight the wars that our foreign policy requires, but which too few Americans will risk life and limb for.