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Mercenaries: A Brief History and Current Debates

“A one-year contract to live and work in China, flying, repairing and making airplanes. Pay is as much as $13,700 a month with 30 days off a year. Housing is included and you’ll get an extra $550 a month for food. On top of that, there’s an extra $9,000 for every Japanese airplane you destroy — no limit.”

So opens a recent article by Brad Lennon explaining the deal that was taken by a group of American pilots in the 1930s. The First American Volunteer Group (AVG), also known as the Flying Tigers, fought in the Pacific theater of World War II prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were hired by the Chinese central government (and indirectly supported by the Roosevelt administration) to wage war against the Japanese without the official involvement of the United States military. The Tigers were, in modern terms, private security contractors, also known as mercenaries. The United States has a long history of enlisting mercenaries: Jamestown, Plymouth, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony all hired private security forces. Privateers were enlisted in the Revolutionary War to raid British ships in exchange for rights to the loot. Yet, despite this history, private military groups are often vilified: see here, here, and here. There are both pragmatic and ethical arguments made against mercenaries: they are ineffective, they are unpredictable, the United States is too reliant on the private sector, and it is immoral to support an industry founded on war and death. Each of these arguments miss a vital part of the picture, however.

Before discussing the arguments surrounding private militaries, it is important to understand how these companies operate. Modern mercenaries are not ruthless killers out of an 80’s movie. Rather, they are professionals working in an open market, typically ex-military or ex-law enforcement experts. Foreign Policy magazine explains that private military companies provide “logistics support, training, security, intelligence work, risk analysis, and much more.”

These military corporations can be both efficient and cost effective. For example, the United Arab Emirates funded Erik Prince to create a private army designed to eradicate Somali piracy (like the pirates in the movie Captain Phillips). John Stossel explains that Prince’s army had a huge impact: hostages taken by pirates numbered 1112 in 2010. By 2014, that number had reached 0. Further, he points out that the cost is often half of what we would spend using the United States military. Private companies operating in a competitive market are more cost-effective than a government.

One critique commonly brought against private security contractors is that they are unpredictable, loose cannons. Typically, those who make this argument point out that the United States military has more safeguards in place to ensure mistakes are avoided (for example, combat soldiers wishing to drop a bomb often need permission from a legal expert). Critics also point to the Nisour Square Massacre, a shooting in 2007 in which four guards from the private military firm Blackwater fired into a busy intersection and killed 17 non-militant Iraqis. These guards were definitely in the wrong. However, such an example is not reason enough to reject contracts with private militaries. When people are put at the tip of the spear in a combat zone, things are going to get messy and at some point mistakes will be made. I do not intend to cheapen the tragedy at Nisour Square, but it is important to remember mistakes are not isolated to private security. My Lai in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib in Iraq were both incidents comparable to Nisour Square, and the military was the primary actor in both. Just as isolated instances are not enough to discredit the United States military, neither should they be enough to discredit the entirety of private military contracting. Further, there is a system of accountability to ensure private military companies are held responsible for their actions: the market. For example, the British mercenary company Gurkha Security Guards was fired by Sierra Leone in 1995 for refusing to provide security for dictator Valentine Strasser’s army training bases. In the short term, Gurkha lost money. They rejected the contract because of the damage their reputation would suffer if they empowered a tyrant. Market incentives kept the corporation accountable.

Another common criticism of the United States hiring mercenaries is that we are too reliant on the private sector for our military operations. There is some truth behind this argument: the use of private contractors as a whole has skyrocketed in recent conflicts. During the Revolutionary War, the ratio of civilian contractors to military personnel was 1 to 6.  In the Second World War, it was 1 to 7. By 2008, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the ratio in the Iraq theater was 1 to 1. If the United States is serious about its capability to continue waging a given war independent of externalities, it needs to decrease its reliance on any part of the private sector. That said, such a plan does not seem feasible for our current military engagements in the Middle East. National Defense University Press explains that, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States eventually reached a point where military recruitment was not high enough to sustain the war effort. The options were threefold: leave in defeat, conduct a draft, or outsource to the private sector. While the Trump administration has reduced our commitments, the principle remains the same: contractors are often a better solution to recruitment problems than a draft. The proper implementation of this principle could certainly help shape the United States’ defense policy in future conflicts.

A third argument posited by the opponents of private security contracting is an ethical one: it is immoral to make money off of death and war, and hiring contractors supports the existence of that industry. I acknowledge there is a distinction between work as a mercenary and work as a soldier. Soldiers take an oath to a cause and a set of ideals, while private defense corporations, in general, follow the money. Yet both can fight for justice, and both can fight for evil. The morality of a war lies in the cause, not in whether the warrior earns payment for his or her involvement. The United States has wielded the advantages of mercenaries with honor and can continue to do so—it is no stain on our national conscience.

Mercenaries are a useful tool to be employed in American foreign policy. The United States military should maintain its readiness and superiority over other nations. However, there are instances when a private military force can accomplish a given mission efficiently without the need to send “American boys” across the sea. Like the Flying Tigers before them, modern mercenaries can be a flexible and cost efficient option for military action.