Our Hessians

News Abroad

Mr. Donoghue, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History, Loyola University, Chicago.

In the summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned a blistering attack against King George III, condemning him for deploying Hessian mercenaries to “complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny” begun the year before by the British army on Lexington Green. Jefferson calculated this sensational passage of the Declaration of Independence for effect. He knew that it would inflame the passions of patriots immersed in a republican political tradition that stretched back to England’s own mid-seventeenth century revolution. At a critical point in this Old World struggle, soldiers in the “New Model Army” issued their own declaration, disclaiming that they were a “mere mercenary army” while proclaiming to the world that they fought for republican principles and not for plunder. Indeed, the democratic spirit of the New Model lived on in popular memory during the American Revolution, when colonial liberty mobs elected “Cornet Joyce, Junior” as their fictional commander. As both patriots and imperial officials knew, the real Cornet Joyce, without orders and at the head of a troop of New Model volunteers, had captured King Charles I in the name of the people in 1647.

The declarations of both Jefferson and the New Model Army rejected the long-standing policies of European monarchs. Rightly suspicious of their people’s loyalties, royal heads of state traditionally hired foreign mercenaries to fight wars abroad and to suppress dissent at home. Funding their mercenaries through crippling taxes, monarchs and their courts grew wealthy through wars of conquest that kept their people politically and financially powerless. Fighting against Hessian soldiers of fortune, colonial patriots envisioned a state free from this tyranny and corruption. Private armies would have no place in the free Republic.

Recent events involving Blackwater, USA have brought the issue of private armies back to the forefront of American politics and have raised important questions about their current place within the American military. Are these forces “private contractors” as the Bush administration insists, or even “patriots” and “heroes” in the war on terror? Conversely, are they “mercenaries,” soldiers of fortune who fight for pay first and principles second, if at all? And as one Republican recently claimed in Congress, is Blackwater on “our team” in a war that the administration has defined as a cosmic battle of good vs. evil?

While they do employ retired U.S. soldiers, it is clear that Blackwater and other corporate purveyors of military labor are not on “our team.” They are on the side of profits, which they have made in abundance in no-bid and competitive contracts during the Iraqi war. Furthermore, rejecting the term mercenary to avoid politicizing the Blackwater scandal assumes that choosing the administration’s terminology lacks a politics of its own.

By following the Bush team’s lead here, we become unwitting allies in their war against the American military, a war where administration policy-makers wield language like a lethal weapon against evidence and clear thinking. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared war against the Pentagon in September 2001, the day before it was attacked by Al Queda. In this speech, Rumsfeld vowed not to destroy the Department of Defense, but to recreate it in the image of corporate America. But as few fully understood, Rumsfeld aimed at more than infusing private sector savvy into an “outmoded bureaucracy.”

Rumsfeld’s ultimate goal, shared by others within elite neoconservative circles, lay in making corporate America an official part of the military establishment. Rumsfeld achieved this goal. Now incorporated within the military’s “total force,” private contractors provide a wide range of combat and non-combat services for the United States government. With this victory, de-regulating traditional military restrictions to allow these private contractors more operational flexibility, so the neocons thought, would enable the state to better meet the new challenges of a post Cold War world.

In truth, private sector “flexibility” in the military has failed to meet the nation’s biggest post-Cold War challenge, the Iraqi insurgency. As many of our generals in Iraq have repeatedly stated, the war can only be won politically, with force of arms as one important means to this end. Blackwater and its corporate ilk, operating under military de-regulation and with callous disregard for the lives of Iraqi civilians, have become a political liability. Fueling anti-Americanism and hampering the war effort, these mercenaries have also placed the lives of our traditional soldiers in even greater jeopardy. As one military official has said, the Iraqi backlash to the September Blackwater shootings “may be worse than Abu Ghraib.”

Customarily undeterred by evidence, President Bush seeks to expand the amount of privatized troops within the military’s total force. Why? Perhaps because using “private contractors” keeps boots on the ground during a war when the military continually falls short of recruiting goals.

Although it’s losing the war, the administration realizes that “support the troops” sloganeering can still mobilize the conservative base for the 2008 elections, as long as it can avoid calling a draft. Committing political suicide through the draft would diminish the support the administration still enjoys from heroic hawks who continue to sacrifice for the cause by sopping up unprecedented wartime tax cuts. Moreover, the draft might have the unfortunate effect of inspiring Young Republicans to desert en masse to the forces of cut-and-run. This would liquidate the critical voting mass of conservative campus warriors, who instead of enlisting to become troops themselves, “support” the troops by fiercely waving flags in epic engagements with America’s enemies, as we all observed during Islamo-Fascism Awareness week.

Like despots of old, President Bush and neoconservative policy-makers understand that an increasingly privatized army allows them to pursue unpopular ventures overseas while avoiding political fallout at home. Perhaps the expansion of America’s mercenary brigades will allow this administration or its successor to wage war in Iran without drafting troops into the traditional forces. But what the administration can reap by advancing its own ideological agenda, the American people lose in the way of a military designed to serve the public good.

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More Comments:

R. R. Hamilton - 12/22/2007

Prof. Donoghue must regard FDR as the worst-of-the-worst. FDR literally pulled military personnel out of the U.S. armed forces and put them into mercenary "volunteer" units such as The Flying Tigers, or even directly into foreign military service like The Eagle Squadron. In fact, The Eagle Squadron (which is featured in the movie, "Pearl Harbor") is the closest thing to Hessians Prof. Donoghue could hope to find.

However, I suspect that Bush Derangement Syndrome will prevent Prof. Donoghue from drawing the appropriate conclusions.

mark safranski - 12/13/2007

Hi Oscar,

No, I'm using the term "private" quite correctly here as in "privately organized irregulars", which covers a wide array of fighters including colonial era militias.That militiamen frequently accepted (or demanded) cash bounties for temporary state or Federal service maskes the practice akin to modern military contracting.

"Hessians" are an even worse analogy with Blackwater as they were professional soldiers and conscripts despatched by their sovereigns. Perfect analogies really do not exist here but the idea that military force in American history was predominantly state-centric (ex. in Prussia)as the author contends, is ahistorical.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/12/2007

You are using "private" incorrectly here.

The colonial and revolutionary era forces you refer to as examples were not governmentally sanctioned. However, they were seen by many as expressions of the local popular will responding to local threats and conditions.

As such they were not at all private in the sense that a modern company such as Blackwater is private. On the contrary, many Founders prefered such militia precisely because they were bound to the local will and not to that of a national government far away.

Whatever one thinks of the Blackwater or the Administration's use of them, such organizations are entirely different. In fact, they are useful precisely because there is little or no connection between them and any portion of the American public.

mark safranski - 12/9/2007

There are many things in this article that are, in my view, highly questionable but I will limit myself to pointing out that the author's underlying premise is factually incorrect.

The United States has a very long tradition of private armies, usually sanctioned after the fact by the issuance of government commissions that integrated these paramilitary volunteers under the command of the U.S. Army (or at times, the Governor of a State). At other times, with Indian and Range Wars, these militia forces remained entirely private and extra-legal/illegal.

As Professor Donoghue has invoked the Founders, perhaps he has heard of, say, the Green Mountain Boys ? The North Carolina Regulators ? These kinds of private and semi-private militias were actually preferred to the existence of a standing army by the Founders who had been Antifederalists or Democratic-Republican opponents of Hamiltonian High Federalists.

The end point for the raising of private forces, even with the imprimatur of the Federal or a state government, was 1918, when President Wilson forbade the traditional incorporation of private volunteer regiments into the U.S. armed forces ( there would be no "Rough Riders" on the Western Front).