Should We Even Be Using Mercenaries in Iraq?

News Abroad

Mr. Finkelman is the William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School and a writer for the History News Service.

In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson attacked King George for sending hired troop -- mercenaries -- to occupy his American colonies and help put down the Revolution.  Jefferson wrote:    "He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation."

Jefferson's complaint might easily be uttered by Iraqis and others who are skeptical about American policy in Iraq.  We learned last week about that murky, previously almost unknown company, Blackwater USA, the largest of a number of firms providing between 20,000 and 30,000 private security guards in Iraq  -- what Jefferson would have called "large Armies of foreign Mercenaries."

These guards are heavily armed and appear to have no external authority over them. Their job, loosely defined, is to protect Americans and other westerners in Iraq.  They do so with helicopters, armored cars, and serious amounts of firepower.  They bully their way through the streets of Baghdad and other cities and drive as fast as 120 miles an hour in convoys.   They've killed scores of Iraqis and frightened even westerners with their shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics.

Blackwater and the other contractors have in effect created private armies what Jefferson's day knew as mercenaries.  Congress has ordered that they be placed under the same rules of engagement as United States military forces.  But in fact this has yet to be done. Thus the security guards remain armed to the teeth but under no rules of engagement, and they're not required to obey any military or civilian authorities other than those who've hired them.  They can't even be charged under Iraqi law because in 2004, the chief U.S. civilian in Iraq, L. Paul Brenner, III issued Order 17, which, as the New York Times writes, give "security companies working for the United States government immunity from prosecution."

Iraq is surely a dangerous place.  Over one hundred private contractors have been killed there.  Blackwater and other companies guard these civilian contractors.  They're the new mercenaries.  They wear no national uniform; they're not subject to traditional military discipline.  And, like all mercenaries, they have no loyalty to any government or any interest in the outcome of the conflict in which they are engaged. They have only three goals. They want to survive; they want to guard those they're assigned to protect; and they want to get paid.  If someone else offers them more money, they might quit the job they now have and move to a new employer.  They would not be "defecting" to the enemy, because they are not soldiers.

The dangers of using a private army are clear.  Employees of various companies, including Blackwater, USA, have been charged with senseless, reckless, cold-blooded killings.

The new mercenaries are not merely civilian employees of western contractors.  They've  also been hired by Department of State to be bodyguards for U.S. officials in Iraq, including the U.S. Ambassador.  Thus we have the odd situation in which the United States government is hiring mercenaries who are not even under the government's legal authority to do the job that the American military or federal law enforcement agencies should do.  We've now outsourced the protection of our more important diplomatic and civilian officials to hired guns.

This policy raises significant questions about the nature of our mission in Iraq. It is also an implicit insult to our own military.  Are the U.S. Marines, the traditional embassy guards, no longer able to protect our ambassador to Iraq? Are American forces spread so thin that they can't spare troops to defend the U.S. embassy and its staff?  Or is the nature of the Iraq adventure such that we don't want marines and soldiers in this kind of "harm's way."  Do we want mercenaries who don't have to answer to U.S. or military law to protect the ambassador so that the mercenaries can always use lethal force whenever they wish and not be subject to any legal sanctions?

Jefferson was right to condemn King George for using mercenaries. Nations that fight their wars with mercenaries run the great risk of having their hired guns carry out "Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny" under "circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation." Sadly, the more he sanctions the use of mercenaries and hired guns on helicopters, the more our Third President George begins to look like our nation's first adversary, George the Third.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Should any one fail to digest the tragic comedy of the US under the Bush administration all one has to do is consider that the USA, under President Bush, intends to establish DEMOCRACY in Iraq through MERCENARIES.

In this particular war the USA chose to SUBcontract some of its military activities.

In future wars it is only rational and true to form to expect the USA to CONTRACT the whole war effort to commercial mercenaries.

That would not only spare future US administrations the embarrassment of US casualties it would also be a fitting coronation of the PRIVATIZATION gods that have ruled over the USA, and now most of the (free?) world, for the several past decades.

It is NOT only that absolute power corrupts absolutely , as with the USA being the one and only hyper power in this unfortunate world, it is that such power demeans and corrupts , first and foremost, its wielder; the American nation in this case.

However the truth must be faced: when the USA, with great public support, chose to abolish the draft it really meant to recruit and marshal an army of American, and green card holder, mercenaries.

Until now, but diminishing rapidly, the US army at Abu Ghraib and Blackwater are the face of the Bush/Wolfowitz administration; soon enough both will become the universally recognized face of the USA and the American nation.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

I would like to make the following adjustments to your statements Mr Clarke:
1-"Having achieved none of their objectives in Iraq (except liquidating Saddam)" and DESTROYING on going propsition to the last day of B(&W)'s administration
2-"Wolfie has already resigned in disgrace from the job he took after he resigned his Pentagon post in disgrace" while his innermost concern ,interest?, in furthering and defending Israel's expansionism continues as blatantly as ever.
(Witness the NEW,with B's administration, US position re settlements, the Wall in the West Bank etc etc.)
(Wolfie's departure, WITH honour, from the US ministry of defense was a necessary tactical.
His dishonourable departure from the World Bank was NOT made in the USA!)

As to:
"I very much doubt that we will see another cocky and cocked-up "cakewalk" fiasco this decade or next"
I only wish and hope that that would be the case; for the sake of the world and the USA!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"Wolfie's departure, WITH honour, from the US ministry of defense was a necessary tactical"

should read

"Wolfie's departure, WITH honour, from the US ministry of defense was a necessary tactical move once his mission, re Iraq, was achieved."

Sorry for the inconvinience!

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Honor and Wolfie do not fit peacefully side by side, although it should be recognized that he is a paragon of polite reasoned discourse compared to most other major neo-cons.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

It would be much more difficult for America to prevail in places like Iraq if the use of mercenaries were to be proscribed. But, even with mercenaries the neo-con's Iraq adventure has been a total failure from the start. It is time to stop denying that, time to stop obsessing on how to more efficiently safe face while we cut and run, and time to focus on bringing to account and punishing those who caused this mess, and on putting better safeguards in place so that it doesn't happen again. Some restrictions on using mercenaries might be worth considering once such an accounting and punishment process has truly begun. At this stage of still-massive American denial, talking about mercenaries or not mercenaries is basically a distraction.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I could not agree more about "Congressional complicity," Rodney.
Topping the list of hypocrite cowards is Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was only one of about 25 Democratic senators cravenly rubberstamping the authorization for the neo-con chickenhawks' asinine Cakewalk to Baghdad, but she is the only one with a credible expectation of being elected president in reward for having helped produced this monumental lunacy.

There are lots of well-meaning people in America, but I have almost come to believe that a Democratic Party that nominates (as appears at least very possible) someone who betrayed everything it ought to stand for deserves to be blamed (as the Bushies clearly intend) for the Iraq mess. And that a country too stupid to see that its soldiers are not dying in a "war" but in a political charade turned quagmire by colossal incompetence, and MARKETED as a war, deserves to have its foreign policy run by unaccountable mercenaries who ruin its once proud international reputation.

P.S. I also agree on sending the chickenhawks to Iraq. Start impeaching Bush and Cheney for treason with the announced intention that following conviction and removal from office Congress will resolve that they be assigned to Baghdad until the last mercenary leaves. And (realistically now) that final mercenary leaving looks like happening a long long time in the future.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Your point is well taken Mr. Baker, but your assessment was much more valid 4 1/2 years ago than today. What you call the Bush/Wolfowitz administration has, in the meantime, become a symbol IN AMERICA for record-breaking deceit-covered incompetence. Having achieved none of their objectives in Iraq (except liquidating Saddam) and having drastically worsened America's geopolitical position thereby, the neo-con chickenhawks are on a one-way ticket to the rubbish bin of history. I very much doubt that we will see another cocky and cocked-up "cakewalk" fiasco this decade or next. Bush's face will go into the history books along side the twin towers burning, the riots in New Orleans, and graphs of the US fiscal budget plunging into massive deficits. Wolfie has already resigned in disgrace from the job he took after he resigned his Pentagon post in disgrace. Mercenaries are and will continue to be a problem, but will rank well down the list of the many debacles and tougher challenges resulting from the stupidist American presidency in human memory.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/3/2007

They are effective as guards. Whether they are as benign in their actions as you suggest is far more questionable.

In any event, the administration has placed an armed mercenary group that does work essential to our military mission outside the reach of both the military chain of command and civilian justice. Given the administration's tendency to grasp power for its own sake, regardless of what that grasping does, suspicion is justified.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/2/2007

Every post above and the original article ooze with ignorance. I hope you were all paying attention to the hearings on C-SPAN today about Blackwater. So far they haven't lost a single customer, or even had one wounded. There are 7,300 Blackwater bodyguards, not 30,000. They are well paid, but much cheaper than U.S. military substitutes, especially given the number of additional troops backing up every one of our front-line soldiers. They were hired because they are both good and economical. They have killed something like 39 Iraqis over the entire campaign, perhaps none of whom were innocent. They are occasionally set up by subversive media attacks, Middle Eastern and Western. They are falsely accused of killing civilians, routinely. Etc. All in all, they do a great job, and are one of the success stories out of Iraq. There is no comparison whatsoever with the hired mercenaries of George III.

DeWayne Edward Benson - 10/2/2007

Get used to paid killers, they were hired after Katrina as paid killers, when Americans try to take back America I'm sure we will see them again, perhaps with Special Forces.

mark safranski - 10/1/2007

An interesting article. Wrongheaded in my view, but interesting nonetheless. It's an important topic and those interested might want to peruse Peter Singer's _Corporate Warriors_ and Chet Richards _Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead_.

Technically speaking (and only technically) PMC employees are not mercenaries under international law, which was crafted to give sovereign governments the widest possible latitude and to excuse ideological crusading by Marxist Che Guevara types. Very few, if any, combatants qualify legally as mercenaries unless they are the next "Mad Mike " Hoare wannabe.

Of the fact that Blackwater and other PMC's have been charged with crimes, well, the same is said of *all* conventional armies of states engaged in war. And sometimes it's true. Sometimes not. Overall, Blackwater's record here probably compares quite favorably to the record of the armies of a majority of the members of the UNSC.

Nevertheless, PMC's for reasons eloquently spelled out by Machiavelli, should be tethered to the supervision of a great power military and not be permitted to become a " free company". This doesn't mean having the same ROE as regular troops but having a system of accountability in place related to the mission the PMC is contracted to perform for the sovereign power.

Fahrettin Tahir - 10/1/2007

And by convincing the people in the Islamic World that the main US target is killing Moslems, the mercenaries are assuring that that the US has no chance to win anything in the Middle East.

An Army which targets only saving the lives of its own soldiers should stay at home.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 10/1/2007

I agree that money is the root of the relationship between the Bush Administration and ther private security firms (mercs). But we should also remember that the Bush administration favors mercs over the US military because mercs are unaccountable. Mercs in Iraq are not covered by the US uniform code of military justice and they are exempt from Iraqi law.

Rodney Huff - 10/1/2007

I totally agree with you about bringing the neocon warlords to justice for their misdeeds and creating new safeguards to prevent executive overreach of power - though there was a fair amount of Congressional complicity involved here as well.

However, I don't think that the author is distracting us from the main issue. The mercenary issue, he suggests, leads us back to it: "This policy raises significant questions about the nature of our mission in Iraq."

In other words, the use of mercenaries to take over duties traditionally carried out by the marines is, like the Iraq oil law that would open up Iraq's oil fields to foreign private investment, further evidence that the Bush administration rushed to war with Iraq not to liberate the Iraqi people and spread democracy (or even to get those nonexistent WMDs) but to create lucrative opportunities for their corporate cronies to capitalize on death and destruction - to "make a killing" (in the case of Blackwater, the phrase can also be taken literally).

And of course, a percentage of these public funds that get transferred to private hands will get recycled as campaign contributions to the GOP as well as any morally bankrupt politican who runs on a neocon platform.

This article, I think, makes it harder to deny what is really driving the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Unfortunately, Bush's dupes seem determined to go on denying. I say, send Bush's supporters over to Iraq to fight - they're so gung-ho about "winning" what's already been lost, and then ask them how they feel about the war!

William Thomas Cherry - 10/1/2007

For an amusing evening, substitute the appropriate words President, George, Bush, United States in place of King, George, and Great-Britain, plus appropriate changes from English to Iraqi, in the Declaration of Independence then read it as if you were an Iraqi. Not really amusing at all.