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Mercenary Impulse

Is there an ethics that justifies Blackwater?

The state, Max Weber wrote in his classic essay "Politics as a Vocation," "is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Our government is struggling to create such a state in Iraq, one strong enough to monopolize the use of force within its territory. To achieve this, we are using the physical force of the U.S. military against (some of) the private militias that have sprung up since the fall of Saddam Hussein. There can't be an effective Iraqi state until these militias are disarmed or incorporated into the Iraqi army and subjected to its chain of command. It is exceedingly strange, then, that we have brought private militias of our own into Iraq.

In September, one of these private entities--a North Carolina-based company called Blackwater USA--became the subject of scrutiny when its guards fired into a crowd and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. Blackwater, which has a $1.2 billion State Department contract, is the largest of the dozens of private security firms currently operating in Iraq--firms that provide protection for top American officials, reconstruction projects, residents of the Green Zone, convoys of different sorts, and even the U.S. military itself (the Pentagon employs 7,300 private security guards inside the country). Blackwater's employees, of course, are not fighting a private war--Iraq is an American war--but they do get into firefights on their own, for their own reasons; and these firefights are not always approved by the U.S. military. Blackwater and similar firms are private in another sense, too: The U.S. government keeps no record of the security guards who have died or been wounded--nor, needless to say, of the Iraqi civilians the guards have killed.

Mercenaries like Blackwater have a bad reputation. But is that reputation really deserved? Two books published in the last several years have examined the role of private security firms in Iraq--one from the left, one from the right. Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army is informative but written as if readers already know the argument and so it is necessary only to present Blackwater's history in appropriately indignant tones. Then there is Gerald Schumacher's A Bloody Business: America's War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq, which defends the contractors but also considers in detail the criticism directed against them. (This happens shamefully often these days: political correctness on the left, intellectual engagement on the right.) I believe Scahill is right; but I also believe that it is important actually to make the argument against mercenaries--and not merely to assume it.

Consider first an example of possible mercenary usefulness. During the wars of the former Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration wanted to help the Croatian army, which was in headlong retreat, badly battered by Serb attacks. But Clinton also thought he had good political reasons to avoid sending U.S. troops into battle. So, instead, his administration permitted a private U.S. firm to conduct training exercises with Croat soldiers--some of which, Schumacher writes, "turned into hostile encounters with the enemy." Thanks partly to this assistance, the Serbs were defeated and driven out of Croatian territory.

A big success, right? Not necessarily. Might it not have been better in the long run--better at deterring future Serb attacks, better at preparing the American people for just interventions (and making unjust interventions harder)--if President Clinton had gone to Congress and laid out the argument for helping the Croats? Using private soldiers makes policy invisible and so reduces (or eliminates entirely) its political costs. But it is a crucial feature of democratic decision-making that politicians should pay the costs of the decisions they make. They should also get credit for the benefits. And then voters can study the balance sheet.

Indeed, the question of accountability--for the highest-ranking politicians, the lowest-ranking fighters, and everyone in between--undergirds most of the arguments against the use of mercenaries. Take the standard claim that mercenaries are cheap, which they often are. Since many security companies compete for these contracts, and since government agencies and aid organizations are looking for inexpensive help, there are strong incentives to skimp on training, equipment, and battlefield support. And, at any given moment, in any given place, despite the number of companies, the demand for private soldiers may exceed the supply, and so the people hiring them won't be able to insist on high standards of competence and provision. The result, writes Schumacher, "has been a ... flood of relatively unskilled and inexperienced contractors on the battlefield." Without sufficient training and without sufficient equipment or support--Schumacher lists what is often missing: Kevlar helmets, body armor, armored cars, trained medics, medical evacuation helicopters, hovering attack planes--"they compensate by asserting a level of aggressiveness that they hope will ward off would-be attackers." There is no question, he says, "that civilian security firms have gotten out of hand at times." Soldiers, of course, get out of hand at times, too; and, in Iraq, training, equipment, and support have often been inadequate, with terrible consequences for both U.S. personnel and Iraqi civilians. But that is the result of political decisions, not market processes. And, for such decisions, we know whom to hold accountable.

It is not just accountability for politicians that matters; equally important is the question of accountability for individual fighters. And soldiers who get out of hand are accountable in ways that mercenaries are not. At least in the best cases, soldiers are trained to fight in accordance with a code of conduct enforced by military courts, which in turn are overseen by civilian courts. By contrast, though a voluntary code of conduct has been accepted by many of the security companies operating in Iraq, the code doesn't provide any enforcement mechanism. Under Order 17 of the Transitional Administrative Law, approved by Paul Bremer in 2004, private security guards are immune from prosecution in Iraqi courts. American soldiers are also immune, but they can be prosecuted in military courts. By contrast, it remains unclear whether contractors can be tried by the military. There has been some talk about applying military law to contractors working for the Pentagon and the State Department--or, at least, to the American citizens among them; many private soldiers are not American--but the Supreme Court may not allow this.

American mercenaries can, theoretically, be brought home and tried in federal courts. But then witnesses would also have to be brought over--and the evidence, too, with guarantees that it had not been tampered with en route. In practice, it would be very difficult to secure crime scenes in a war zone and produce evidence that would stand up in a U.S. court. Nor, until the September killings by Blackwater guards, have American officials shown any interest in doing this. Mercenaries suspected of crimes are sometimes sent home (but not for trial) or dismissed from one security company and hired by another. As Columbia professor Scott Horton told The New York Times in October, there are some 100,000 American contractors in Iraq, yet not one has been prosecuted for an act of violence. He then invited us to "[i]magine a town of 100,000, and there hasn't been a prosecution in three years." But that comparison doesn't tell the whole story, for the town's population would include children and old people, while the combatant contractor population is almost entirely young men (and a few women), for whom rates of violence, even in zones of peace, are much higher than the U.S. average. Not a single prosecution. That means mercenaries in Iraq are radically unaccountable; their fire is free.

The new regulations for such contractors adopted by the Pentagon and State Department in early December do little to fix the problem. True, they specify minimal standards for training and set limits on the use of force; but, if one tries to imagine how these standards and limits could be enforced, and how many monitors and military police would be necessary, it gets harder and harder to envision a realistic scenario in which mercenaries are actually held accountable.

If we want to maintain accountability in war, then, we had best take a statist view of military activity. I don't want to argue that private armies run by commercial companies, political parties, religious organizations, or governmentson-the-sly are everywhere and always a bad idea; but they are mostly a bad idea. The state is the only reliable agent of public responsibility that we have. Of course, it often isn't reliable, and it often doesn't represent a democratic public. One might plausibly argue that the army of a tyrannical state is a private army. Still, there isn't any agency other than the state in the contemporary world that can authorize and then control the use of force--and whose officials are (sometimes) accountable to the rest of us.

Weber's definition suggests that the state is constituted by its monopoly on the use of force. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, justified by its monopoly. This is what states are for; this is what they have to do before they do anything else--shut down the private wars, disarm the private armies, lock up the warlords. It is a very dangerous business to loosen the state's grip on the use of violence, to allow war to become anything other than a public responsibility.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Speaking at a conference of arms merchants and war contractors in Amman, Jordan, in March 2006, Blackwater vice chairman J. Cofer Black offered to stop the killing in Darfur. "We've war-gamed this with professionals," he said. "We can do this." Back in the United States, another Blackwater official, Chris Taylor, reiterated the offer.

Since neither the United Nations nor nato has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide, should we send in mercenaries? Scahill quotes Max Boot, the leading neoconservative writer on military affairs, arguing forcefully that there is nothing else to do. Allowing private contractors to secure Darfur "is deemed unacceptable by the moral giants who run the United Nations," Boot writes. "They claim that it is objectionable to employ--sniff--mercenaries. More objectionable, it seems, than passing empty resolutions, sending ineffectual peace-keeping forces and letting genocide continue."

Some of us might prefer something like the International Brigade that fought in Spain over a force of Blackwater mercenaries. But the International Brigade was also a private militia, organized by the Comintern and never under the control of the Spanish republic. Does it matter that most of its members fought for ideological rather than commercial reasons? Scahill tells us that Blackwater is run by far-right Christian nationalists--for me, as for him, that doesn't make things better.

Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur. If the Comintern could field an army and stop the killing, that would be all right with me, too. But we should acknowledge that making this exception would also be a radical indictment of the states that could do what has to be done and, instead, do nothing at all. There should always be public accountability for military action--and sometimes for military inaction as well.

Michael Walzer is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Michael Walzer