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.