Machiavelli Was Right: Mercenaries are Unreliable

“…Since these new rulers were priests and private citizens, they knew nothing about armies and turned to foreign mercenaries…The result: Italy was overrun by Charles, pillaged by Louis, ravished by Ferrando, and disgraced by the Swiss.

“The mercenaries moved quickly to take away the standing of the infantry and appropriate it to themselves.  They did this because, not having a state of their own and living by their profession, too few soldiers would not afford them the standing they needed, whil they could not support and feed as many soldiers as they did need.  So they limited themselves to the cavalry, where the force was smaller and could be fed and paid.  As a result, in an army of twenty thousand you could not find two thousand infantrymen…They did not attack cities at night, nor did those defending the cities attack the encampments outside.  They did not build stockades or ditches around their camps, and they did not go on campaigns during the winter.  All these things were consistent with their military conventions and, as I have pointed out, enabled them to escape fatigue and danger.  They have driven Italy into slavery and disgrace.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, “On the Different Types of Armies, and of Mercenaries”

The Liberal Ironist sees Machiavellian prudent wisdom as applicable to all manner of political and military problems; for this reason it is so unfortunate when we bear drastic costs due to an ideological belief that the dictates of prudence can be ignored when they can’t.  This post should be seen as a sequel of sorts to the early-October post on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ Duke University speech.  Our all-volunteer military, impressive as its performance has been, still represents the smallest military-to-civilian ratio our country has ever maintained in wartime.  As much of the emphasis in our media discourse has addressed the psychological strain imposed on re-deployed personnel (and particularly their officers) and the financial strain imposed by addressing serious combat injuries and veterans’ needs, a possibly-darker “conceptual scoop” has often gone unaddressed: Our military actually hasn’t been large-enough to fight our two wars of the Aughts.  This has resulted in heavy reliance on security contractors–in effect expensive, unaccountable mercenaries which have been tied to a disproportionate number of incidents of violence against civilians.

Actually, their biggest departure from the way Machiavelli characterizes mercenaries in Renaissance Italy appears to be in their surprising failure to protect themselves from insurgents, US military units that cannot identify them, even irate civilians tired of their heavy-handed presence.

The New York Times has published its first in a series of reports on the way reliance on contractors made the Iraq War–and continues to make the War in Afghanistan–longer and more-dangerous.  This is a story worth following, in order to recognize both that the seemingly-structural problems of the war in Afghanistan are in part the result of unintelligent strategic choice, and the importance of realistic assessment of the costs to a democracy of fighting a major war.

These security contractors aren’t evil or intentionally-parasitic.  It is understandable why soldiers or Marines whose terms of service are concluded would want to join these outfits: The pay is much better, their strategic responsibilities often narrower and the chain of command is less strict.  For professional soldiers, work as a security contractor must hold a powerful appeal.  That said, this phenomenon has made the work of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq more dangerous and more expensive, and has even diluted the power of the military for strategic decision-making.  So, why have there at times been as many security contractors in Iraq as active-duty US military personnel combined?

Again, members of these mercenary outfits aren’t necessarily bad guys.  They aren’t bandits; they came to the country by request.  Many have a military background, and many are under contract with the US military; Hamid Karzai even retained American bodyguards through a security contractor.  Many of the accounts in the Times story focus on security contractors as victims of violence–whether at the hands of insurgents, US or Iraqi soldiers that often cannot tell their unmarked vehicles and often-local drivers from those of insurgents, or even from Iraqi civilians apparently outraged at their previous treatment.

But the most-disturbing incidents involve apparently unmotivated (and at times unprosecuted) killings of Iraqi or Afghan civilians.  Blackwater Worldwide, which has changed its name to Xe Services to dodge its existing infamy, paid $1 million in hush bribes to Iraqi officials following the September 2007 shootings in Nisour Square in Baghdad which killed 17 civilians.  By fall 2007, Congressional investigation found that Blackwater had been involved in 195 incidents of shootings of Iraqis, and had opened fire first on 163 of those occasions.  On January 28, 2009, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the expulsion of Blackwater Worldwide.  The government had previously attempted Blackwater’s expulsion following the Nisour Square shootings, but the Bush Administration refused to comply.  Ongoing use of security contractors has arguably generated more hostility between our government and Iraq’s than incidents of collateral violence involving our own soldiers.

Following several incidents of shootings of civilians, embarrassing conduct, and unauthorized distribution or carrying of sidearms, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that all private companies proving military services would have to leave the country within the next 4 months.  The US military has preferred a gradual phase-out of security contractors, arguing that their expulsion on a deadline could leave a security hole in Afghanistan that neither the government nor any of its NATO sponsors would be prepared to fill.

With so many virtual mercenaries carrying out narrow, private duties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t necessary or helpful to characterize them all as mad dogs or opportunists; the simple fact is that their massive presence in our war theaters facilitates indiscipline, confusion and mistrust.  Unbound by the rules of engagement, irresponsible to the military chain of command, and uncoordinated with the military command structure, the modern mercenaries haven’t just killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have fired on our own soldiers, too.

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4 thoughts on “Machiavelli Was Right: Mercenaries are Unreliable

  1. Kukri

    Two problems 1) LACK of responsibility, and 2) too many Indians running around.

    When the contractors conduct a mission and something goes wrong, the company rarely pays for it (financially or legally), the company isn’t held accountable for it. Heck, there have even been too many incidents where these companies have gotten shady, no-bid contracts, or have simply overbilled the taxpayer. This is inexcusable. They screw up, and the US pays for it. Throw some of the execs in prison.

    Secondly, as you might have seen in the NYT piece, one incident involved *three* different private companies engaging in a firefight against each other. Too many different outfits running around without any coordination. Example: Company A is supposed to guard the gates at Site X, Company B is supposed to protect a shipment of goods to Site X, but because the policy of these private groups is to speed around (and mostly in unmarked vehicles) to avoid attacks, Company C, down the road protecting Site Z, sees a bunch of trucks speeding at them (to get to Site X) and opens fire. Result? Iraqi civs get killed.

    If you have one player in charge, and they are all on the same radio frequency, report to the same command, and are wearing the same uniforms while driving the same marked trucks, half of these damn incidents wouldn’t happen. Instead of relying on coalition or Iraqi units to provide security, we decide to outsource the job to more expensive and less accountable outfits. Instead of training and paying local Iraqis to protect their country (which not only teaches them responsibility, security, and proper tactics, but the paychecks mean Iraqis have money to spend and improve their economy), we are importing foreigners and overpaying them to do work Iraqis should be doing at a fraction of the cost.

    This has to stop.

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      I agree. As I implied in the post, I suspect that the Bush Administration felt that it could mask the inadequacy of the force strength it had been prepared to deploy to Iraq by making up the difference with much more-expensive security contractors, some of whom came from a military background but whom in general could be drawn from anywhere. Some within and supportive of the Administration were insensitive to the mounting problems with contractors because of a free market ideology, and some simply saw a profit to be made, and were apparently unconcerned about the resultant increased deficits, stretched Defense and State Department resources, and squeezes on Veterans’ benefits in the context of 2 wars.

      Reply
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