As part of the Global Perspectives Society’s Student Speaker Series, YRIS editor and Naval ROTC cadet Andrew Song gave a talk on the rise of military contractors in modern conflicts on April 19. Entitled “Soldiers for Sale,” Song’s presentation sought to shed light on the under-reported topic of privatized security companies and the ethical dilemmas and political incentives involved in their use. For context, he noted that approximately 75 percent of American personnel in Afghanistan are contractors rather than soldiers affiliated with the Department of Defense. Furthermore, in conflict settings worldwide, the ratios of privately employed troops to those in uniform range from 10:1 to 50:1.
Song detailed a brief history of the use of mercenaries. Arguably one of the oldest professions, soldiers for hire were used consistently from Ancient Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance and Wars of the Reformation, to privateers in the age of sail. WatchGuard International was perhaps the first modern private military firm was created by British Col. David Sterling, one of the founders of the SAS, after the Second World War and the decline of the British military commitment overseas. WatchGuard International participated in an attempted coup against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the 1970s, but was also employed in peace monitoring operations and anti-poaching in Africa. The explosive rise of military contractors occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Both the Russian and American militaries sharply reduced in size, and many highly trained soldiers found themselves out of work. With few other lucrative job prospects, many of these veterans accepted well paying jobs with private companies.
Song went on to detail two case studies of recent conflicts involving private militaries. In 1995 the government of Sierra Leone employed Executive Outcomes, a group of primarily ex-South African special forces, to suppress a rebellion and retake key diamond mines in the country. With only two hundred soldiers, and heavy weaponry provided by the government, Executive Outcomes was able to retake control of the capital city and the diamond fields as well as forcing the rebels to agree to a peace treaty. The activities of Executive Outcomes were highly romanticized in western media, including their portrayal in a comic book, and Hollywood film “Blood Diamond.” However, despite forcing a temporary peace, violence ultimately continued in Sierra Leone until a later intervention by the British Government. During the insurgency in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, military contractors were increasingly used due to the intense political aversion to American casualties in the war. These groups often lacked any significant oversight, and contractors belonging to the company Blackwater murdered 17 Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre. Blackwater eventually rebranded to Academi and continues to operate alongside the Department of Defense, CIA, and State Department.
Today, private military companies fill a wide range of roles instead of and alongside uniformed military personnel. From conventional operations to cybersecurity, counter-narcotics, intelligence, personal security, logistics, and training. A combination of factors has led to contractors being preferred to regular military forces. With politicians facing pressure to avoid casualties and withdraw from foreign conflicts, while also defending allies and protecting broadly defined American interests, private firms have been able to appease these competing interests. Furthermore, the lack of veterans’ services and the appeal of far higher salaries have channeled retired soldiers into the arms of security companies. However, as the costs of military conflict become ever more hidden from the public it may become harder to end wars that have dragged on since the early 2000s. The accountability and effectiveness of private companies is questionable at best, especially since the ability to distinguish between which personnel report to the U.S. military and which are private employees becomes increasingly difficult.
Song also noted how many companies that would not normally be labeled as military contractors are involved in the business of war. Many firms project nondescript appearances with office spaces in Washington DC and New York as well as unremarkable branding, advertising services such as law enforcement assistance and personal security. While many companies do not even provide troops on the ground, they sell products to militaries around the world. Tech companies provide services that sift data and assist with target identification. Larger manufacturing companies build passenger jets and fighter-bombers. These companies are often publicly traded and deeply ingrained in the financial industry. From private troops in Afghanistan to the larger military industrial complex, an examination of the way private interest influences military action is long overdue.
Along with members of the Yale community, New Haven Students participating in YIRA’s Hemispheres program joined the talk. After Andrew Song finished his talk, the audience engaged in debate over whether the use of military contractors could be ethically justified.