Ramblings & ephemera

Modern mercenaries

From Rebecca Ulam Weiner’s “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing” (Legal Affairs: January/February 2006):

YOU WON’T FIND THE WORD “MERCENARY” on the homepage of the International Peace Operations Association, the trade group for the private military industry. While many of the IPOA’s member companies are staffed by elite former soldiers of the United States military who now make a living hiring themselves out, the so-called “M word” isn’t in the IPOA’s corporate vocabulary. Members are known as private military companies (often called PMCs) or military service providers, who specialize in “private peace operations.” …

In recent years, private contractors have increasingly taken on important military functions, operating in some 50 countries and earning an estimated $100 billion in annual revenue. They provide security to civilian aid workers, other contractors, and even military forces. They train local armies for combat, develop future American soldiers (the firm MPRI helps run ROTC), and interrogate prisoners. At times, they’ve engaged in combat. During the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the U.S. has relied heavily on their support – private contractors make up a workforce of about 20,000, double the British troop presence. …

During the Iraq war, contractors have run the computers that control Predator drones, operated guided missile systems on naval ships, and maintained aerial surveillance and communications systems. In the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the ratio of soldiers to contractors was 50 to 1. In the current Iraqi conflict, it is 10 to 1 and falling.

This proliferation has worried many – in the academy, Congress, the media, and, increasingly, the military – because contractors operate outside the military chain of command and most legal jurisdictions. PMCs have no clear place under the framework of the Geneva Conventions – they aren’t noncombatants, because they carry weapons, but they aren’t lawful combatants, because they don’t wear uniforms. Nor do they fit the anachronistic definitions of mercenaries found in international treaties and resolutions, because those definitions generally require engagement in direct combat.

Soldiers are subject to rules of engagement and can be court-martialed for breaking the law. Contractors are governed most directly by the terms of their contracts – their extraterritorial activities and corporate status make them virtually immune from federal law. …

Worse, critics argue, because the military has no direct control over its contractors, it won’t accept responsibility for their actions. And PMCs allow the Pentagon to evade accountability to Congress, because they circumvent caps on the number of troops approved for deployment and their casualties aren’t counted.

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