Mercenaries in Iraq: Dogs of Indecision

The most striking thing about the Blackwater scandal is the American state’s readiness to share its means of coercion with others.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

In recent weeks, ‘Blackwater’ has become a byword for ‘failure in Iraq’.

On 16 September, private military contractors from Blackwater USA, a security firm based in North Carolina and with hundreds of men fighting on the ground in Iraq, killed as many as 17 people in what Iraqi officials are describing as an ‘unprovoked murder’. A convoy of men operated by Blackwater entered Nisour Square in Baghdad and fired their guns at a car they considered to be a threat. The killings have focused the world’s attention on the mercenary phenomenon in Iraq, where almost 200,000 private military contractors – that is, men with guns who are in it for the money – are helping to enforce the occupation and fight against Iraqi insurgents.

A US congressional inquiry into the Blackwater killings called for legislation to make these ‘guns for hire’ more accountable. Meanwhile, critics of the Bush administration argue that Blackwater, and the other mercenary outfits on the streets of Iraq, are attack dogs for the Bush administration’s plan to take over the Middle East and transform it into a profit-spinning outpost for American capitalism. Naomi Klein, the anti-globalisation author of Disaster Capitalism, argues that Blackwater is at the forefront of President Bush’s ‘corporate supremacist’ agenda.

This debate about private military contractors – or what we might call the ‘Blackwater-bashing’ that now passes for an anti-war position – is based on a profound misunderstanding of what lies behind the rise of the mercenary in Western warfare. The use of Blackwater and other money-hungry former soldiers in Iraq is not a product of any clear-cut political agenda on the part of the Bush administration, but rather of its opposite: a severe crisis of authority amongst America’s rulers which means they are even willing to outsource the means of coercion – traditionally the highest form of authority in capitalist society – to non-state actors.

It is a powerful sense of political stasis in Washington, and the US government’s inability to convince its own military men that Iraq is a cause worth taking a risk for, that means it is ready to hire others to use force on its behalf. From this viewpoint, Blackwater and the rest do not represent Washington’s authority, but rather its crisis of authority; they are an army of private contractors conjured up to do what Washington feels it does not have the political or moral legitimacy, or the military nerve, to do for itself. Mercenaries were once referred to as the Dogs of War – the private military contractors in Iraq look more like the Dogs of Indecision.

In the recent, rather simplistic focus on Blackwater as the cause of all problems in Iraq, commentators have overlooked the sweeping historical significance of America’s readiness to share its means of coercion with private companies. Over the past 200 years, capitalist elites centralised and monopolised the means of physical force; they jealously guarded their right to use violence over any other section of society. Now, that is changing – swiftly and dramatically. In Iraq, there are an estimated 200,000 private military contractors; that is more than the number of American military personnel, which currently stands at 168,000.

And these private military contractors are not just ‘helping out’ the armies of America and Britain – they are carrying out risky and key operations in some of the most volatile towns and cities. Indeed, the private fighters have become the public face of the occupation. Where American and British military personnel take part in fewer and fewer public patrols or hand-to-hand combat operations, the private contractors have become, according to one report, the most visible part of the occupation, ‘…the most hated and humiliating aspect of the occupation [for Iraqis]’.

Peter W Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatised Military, points out that traditional US military doctrine held that civilians accompanying US forces abroad should not be put into positions where they had to carry or use weapons. The doctrine also said that ‘mission-critical’ roles should be kept strictly within the military itself. Yet in Iraq, civilian contractors are armed to the teeth, with guns, tanks and helicopters, and they play key ‘mission-critical’ roles: including combating anti-American insurgents and even protecting Paul Bremer, the American head of the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004. As Singer says, ‘you can’t get more mission-critical’ than being charged with keeping safe America’s no.1 representative in Iraq. Protecting Bremer was more than a simple security task: it was political and moral endeavour, where ‘guns for hire’ were effectively charged with preserving American rule itself.

Singer says that in Iraq there is now a system where ‘it’s not civilians accompanying the military force, but civilians who are an essential part of the force’. This sharing of military authority between the American state and vast numbers of men employed by private companies is a striking historical development. The modern capitalist state emerged by dissociating itself from mercenaries. In Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (1994), Janice E Thomson argued that prior to 1900, ‘non-state violence dominated the international system. Individuals and groups used their own means of violence in pursuit of their particular aims, whether honour and glory, wealth, or political power. People bought and sold military manpower like a commodity on the global market’. In the modern era, bourgeois ‘state-builders’ sought to ‘extract coercive capabilities from other individuals, groups, and organisations within their territories’, leading to a situation where ‘control over violence was centralised, monopolised and made hierarchical’. Thus was the modern state born, through the sidelining, and in some instances the physical defeat, of mercenaries and auxiliaries. States, at various different times and through various different methods, monopolised the use of force and criminalised non-state elements that dared to use force for their own ends.

In The State and Revolution (1917), Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described how the state assumes a ‘monopoly on violence’: ‘This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds.’ Lenin argued that the monopolised means of coercion represented the ultimate authority of the state: ‘A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.’

Now, Washington and other Western governments are selling off these ‘chief instruments’ of their power to private companies. Military manpower has become, once more, ‘a commodity on the global market’ which is bought and sold between governments and profit-oriented firms of mercenaries. The widespread use of mercenaries in Iraq and elsewhere is not a simple cynical attempt by Western governments to enforce their rule through brute measures. Rather, it is a product of the profound crisis of the modern state. The mercenary phenomenon in Iraq is so much more than an interesting or shocking security issue, which is how it has been discussed in the media and by US Congress; it speaks to a deeply-felt loss of political and moral authority in the West, where governments seem ready to auction off even the ultimate form of their authority.

Frank Furedi recently argued on spiked that governments are outsourcing various political and technical tasks to international institutions and expert bodies because there is ‘a loss of confidence in the authority and legitimacy of the contemporary state’: ‘As far back as the 1970s, it was clear there was a widespread loss of trust in authoritative institutions in the Western world…. Lacking confidence in their authority, political elites have started looking for other ways to authorise their actions’ (see A tyranny of experts, by Frank Furedi). European governments outsource authority for certain areas of policymaking to the European Union; governments fall back on the authority of climate science to force through social policies and tax measures; and governments increasingly employ private firms to run hospitals and educational institutions. Now, Western states are even allowing non-state bodies to play a role in their once most jealously-guarded institution: violence. Peter W Singer argues that ‘corporate warriors’ have played an increasingly central role in warzones around the world since the end of the Cold War, and are playing an ‘unprecedented’ role, in both scale and scope, in Iraq. The selling of violence as a ‘commodity on the global market’ mirrors the post-Cold War crisis of Western elites.

Against this background of crisis, there are two specific factors driving America’s employment of Blackwater in Iraq. First, there is the Washington elite’s inability to convince its own people, even those in the military, of the political case for staying in Iraq. Today, American military personnel openly ask ‘what are we fighting for?’ and state their desire to leave Iraq, while Blackwater and others are charged with staying and stabilising the country. Unable to make the moral case for occupation, even to its own troops, Washington must instead pay high sums of money to civilians to execute military tasks. Machiavelli, in his advice to Princes, argued that ‘mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous’ for they have ‘neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men’. ‘[T]hey have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.’ Yet in 2007, Western governments, devoid of a clear mission and unable to convince men to die for them, have no choice but to rely on stipends to encourage others outside of the state to fight on their behalf.

The second factor behind the rise of Blackwater is the institutionalisation of risk-aversion in Western societies, including in Western military machines. Soldiers, like other state employees, are now schooled in the importance of avoiding risk and minimising the possibility of being harmed. From the outset, US military officials promised that the war in Iraq would be a speedy and risk-lite affair, in which very few Coalition soldiers would die or be seriously injured. The reality, of course, has been different. This has led to a situation where American and British soldiers have sued their militaries for exposing them to unnecessary risk, or have complained about feeling ‘stressed’ and ‘traumatised’ and have asked to be returned home. The politics of risk-aversion makes all-out military warfare increasingly difficult, in some instances impossible, leaving Western governments with little choice but to pay mercenaries who like a bit of danger to go to the frontline.

The re-emergence of mercenary forces, after decades during which force was monopolised by the state, is a consequence of both a Western crisis of authority and loss of military nerve. The rise and rise of private armies provides a striking snapshot of the disorientation of the institution of the state itself. Yet rather than interrogating these issues, commentators and radical activists have discussed Blackwater and the rest simply as the representatives of the Bush administration’s ‘mission’ or the ugly face of American militarism. There’s no doubt that Blackwater, like mercenary outfits throughout history, is a nasty organisation – but the current Blackwater-bashing is the anti-imperialism of fools. Rather than explore and explain what lies behind the comeback of guns-for-hire, critics of the Bush administration take cheap and easy potshots at Blackwater.

Even politicians who voted for the disastrous invasion of Iraq are now trying to cover up their sins by posturing against the evil mercenaries. In the US, Democrats who okayed the military intervention in Iraq – including Hillary Clinton, who voted for war in the Senate in October 2002 – are calling for Blackwater to be reined in and ‘made more accountable’. Her implication is that the US military, unlike the mercenaries it employs, is accountable – though quite how America’s occupying force in Iraq is accountable to the people who live there is anybody’s guess. Clinton and many others who had a part in authoring the attack on Iraq are pointing the finger of blame for the destruction there at the trigger-happy cowboys of Blackwater. Where the Bush administration employs Blackwater to do its dirty work, the critics of the Bush administration ridicule Blackwater to cover up their own dirty decision-making.

The Bush administration sends Blackwater to Iraq from a position of moral confusion; others slate Blackwater from a position of moral cowardice. It is time we cut through this non-debate, and put the proper moral case for resolving the crisis of authority at home rather than projecting it on to the people of Iraq.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. He is speaking in sessions on Iraq, new technology and politics, and the future of journalism at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27&28 October.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called the British withdrawal from Basra a media stunt to end a PR war and said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq had turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. Tara McCormack discussed a British merchant banker who was charged with reconstructing Basra, Patrick West said it was the Brits who invented ‘friendly fire’ and James Heartfield said that the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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