War as a business

2008-10-29 00:00

The mercenary soldier is as old as history; and American President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex 50 years ago. But corporations listed on the stock market that run private armies are now moving into training, security and intelligence work, formerly the preserve of governments.

Stephen Armstrong traces their origins to Watchguard, founded by the maverick British officer David Stirling in 1967, and its involvement in the Middle East. While liberal democracies can easily recruit armies to defend their own sovereignty, the idea of dying in an obscure corner of the world for vague strategic objectives has depressed enthusiasm. Mercenary forces are flourishing.

While identifying general trends, Armstrong bases most of his book on case studies and interviews. Accounts of working lives in security companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan range from the gung-ho to the banal. They show that mercenaries are walking arsenals, far better equipped — and spectacularly better paid — than regular soldiers.

The most obvious questions concern the morality and effectiveness of warfare as business and the degree of discipline to which privately contracted soldiers are subjected. These gain sharper focus in the book authored by Jeremy Scahill, a highly detailed history of the world’s most notorious private army.

Blackwater was initially deployed to guard proconsul Paul Bremer in occupied Iraq. Its operatives, unhampered by the rules of war that bind soldiers, have enraged both Iraqis and the U.S. military. Misleadingly described as contractors, their cowboy language about “wasting bad guys” sets the tone: they have behaved with impunity and enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

Trigger-happy contempt for the local population culminated in Baghdad’s Nissour Square massacre of September 2007 in which 17 civilians died. Bizarrely, in stoking revolt Blackwater has created a ready market for its services. Its cavalier approach, together with American policy errors, has stoked terrorist recruitment.

The post 9/11 world is a sinister place. Blackwater, profiting from secret contracts with the U.S. State Department, has the human resources and hardware to take on many of the world’s national armies; while the word “security” has become a euphemism for an aggressive right-wing agenda.

Its presence is not limited to faraway places. Blackwater was active in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; and the British, according to Armstrong, are looking at private security firms to assist with the 2012 London Olympics. Soon it may not only be Iraqis who fear for their civil liberties.

Christopher Merrett

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