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Between 1503 and 1505, Niccolò Machiavelli was responsible for organizing the defense of the city of Florence. He turned to mercenary units to bolster the defense efforts, with disastrous results. Machiavelli concluded from this experience that mercenaries were dangerous—they were devoted to their pay rather than their sovereign, and they tended to use their military skills to make money with rank indifference to the dictates of law and civil order. Those who use mercenaries may quickly learn that justice requires that they be prosecuted and severely punished, he wrote in Dell’arte della guerra. Five hundred years later, America seems to be busy relearning many of Machiavelli’s lessons.
PBS took a look at the problem of private security contractors in a special episode from its Wide Angle series. The episode is entitled “Once Upon a Coup,” and it focuses on the 2004 attempted coup d’état using mercenaries in Equatorial Guinea. You can identify a broadcaster close to you and a playing time here. I discuss the legal issues surrounding the accountability of private security contractors in this supplemental web feature entitled “The Controversial World of Private Security Contractors,” and an interview with Harper’s Washington editor Ken Silverstein figures in the main feature. You can catch the entire program at the PBS site.
More from Scott Horton:
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
No Comment — March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm
On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers
Amount by which the total wealth of all American households declined last year:
A study concluded that commercial fish stocks may be gone by 2050 as a result of overfishing, pollution, and global climate change.
“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”