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The Rise of a New Mercenary Industry


Jacob Burckhardt, the great cultural historian of the late nineteenth century, tracked the evolution of the Italian city-state culture from the Late Middle Ages into the Renaissance. It was, he said, a period of great struggle, between a vibrant and rising urban culture which valued arts, sciences and the human spirit, and the residue of a feudal age. But a development from the tail end of the fourteenth century made the emergence of the new culture that we came to call the Renaissance a much bloodier and more difficult process. And that was the arrival on the scene of the condottieri, or men at arms, who offered their services to the high bidder.

Instability appeared with the empowerment of the usurper, when long conflicts between the nobility and the citizenry, and between the different factions of the nobility, awakened the desire for a strong government, and when bands of mercenaries ready and willing to sell their aid to the highest bidder had superseded the general levy of the citizens which party leaders now found unsuited to their purposes. The tyrants destroyed the freedom of most of the cities; here and there they were expelled, but not thoroughly, or only for a short time; and they were always restored, since the inward conditions were favorable to them, and the opposing forces were exhausted.

(Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, ch. 7 (1860) (S.H. transl.)

Burckhardt links the rise of mercenaries directly with tyrannical government. He calls them the enemy of the city-state and all the values associated with it. Stability could be achieved only when the condottieri were subsumed into the citizenry and the chief motivation for their engagement ceased to be money and instead became love of country and respect for the fellow citizen. It’s possible that in writing this Burckhardt is moved by the tale of Sir John Hawkwood, the great English mercenary who made an immense fortune by selling his services to various Italian competitors.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Duomo in Florence to look at the magnificent fresco of Hawkwood painted by Paolo Uccello. It reminds us that Hawkwood ended his life not as a mercenary, but as an esteemed citizen of Florence, the city-state he adopted and whose rise to greatness began under the protection of his military genius. In a sense Hawkwood presented a portrait of the challenge and the solution.

America as a nation was founded on a vision of the citizen soldier. At the time, the world’s great powers fought wars using mercenary armies, and the notion of the citizen soldier was shared by only two nations: America and Switzerland. And not surprisingly, they were the only democracies on earth.

But today, the forces of history are tugging in another direction and the idea of the citizen soldier seems an old romantic dream. The Washington Post leads this morning with the second installment in its special series charting the rise of a massive new industry in America: the contract soldier, or security contractor. In today’s contribution, Steve Fainaru looks at reality on the ground today for the “security contractors.”

When one engages industry representatives today, they are quick to point to the non-military functions they perform and to insist that their mission does not intrude onto “core military functions.” They argue that they are “providing security” to other contractors, much like the security services that protect banks and shopping centers in the United States. Had the occupation and transfer of power in Iraq gone according to plan, that might be so. But in conditions of steadily worsening violence, in what increasingly looks like Hobbes’s war of “all against all,” the role they play is hard to distinguish from that of the uniformed military. Notably, the contractors are increasingly involved in lethal interaction with the community around them.

Private security companies, funded by billions of dollars in U.S. military and State Department contracts, are fighting insurgents on a widening scale in Iraq, enduring daily attacks, returning fire and taking hundreds of casualties that have been underreported and sometimes concealed, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and company representatives.

While the military has built up troops in an ongoing campaign to secure Baghdad, the security companies, out of public view, have been engaged in a parallel surge, boosting manpower, adding expensive armor and stepping up evasive action as attacks increase, the officials and company representatives said. One in seven supply convoys protected by private forces has come under attack this year, according to previously unreleased statistics; one security company reported nearly 300 “hostile actions” in the first four months.

The majority of the more than 100 security companies operate outside of Iraqi law, in part because of bureaucratic delays and corruption in the Iraqi government licensing process, according to U.S. officials. Blackwater USA, a prominent North Carolina firm that protects U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, and several other companies have not applied, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Blackwater said that it obtained a one-year license in 2005 but that shifting Iraqi government policy has impeded its attempts to renew. The security industry’s enormous growth has been facilitated by the U.S. military, which uses the 20,000 to 30,000 contractors to offset chronic troop shortages. Armed contractors protect all convoys transporting reconstruction materiel, including vehicles, weapons and ammunition for the Iraqi army and police. They guard key U.S. military installations and provide personal security for at least three commanding generals, including Air Force Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Scott, who oversees U.S. military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is a well-prepared report that does a good job of presenting the ambiguities and problems that security contractors face. It’s astonishing that back home in America so little attention has been paid to this vital issue. It’s time to confront it and for Congress to take some conscious decisions about when and how to use security contractors in conflicts overseas. This is a difficult and complex issue without ready or obvious answers, but not engaging it is unforgivable.

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