October 09, 2009

The Morality of Mercenaries

by Barnaby Pace

A part of my daily routine is now that I switch on my laptop in the morning and spend an hour or two reading stories on dodgy arms dealers, big bribing corporations and innumerable states with inferiority complexes that cause them to buy lots of phallic-shaped weapons. Despite the wealth of strange stories that sometimes seem more suited to the world of a John Le Carré novel than a trade magazine report (the Arctic Sea hijacking for example), the twitter updates of a US reporter called Jeremy Scahill regularly outdo them all. For many years now Scahill, along with a few others, have worked tirelessly to expose the insanity of the modern mercenary business.

Mercenaries, often referred to as Private Military Security Contractors (PSMCs) or sometimes just ‘contractors’ have become inseparable from many modern conflicts. The role of PSMCs varies from the Halliburton employees who do laundry and catering for many military bases to the construction companies like Jacobs (which Warwick uses) who build the military bases from which the US military garrisons the globe and fights its wars. PSMCs go as far as the Blackwater mercenaries who engage in front-line combat duties and sometimes command regular troops or contractors who perform intelligence work, even interrogations.

States can find many cosy advantages in using mercenaries; the public back home can be easily misinformed about the scale of the conflict, the death of a contractor isn’t big news whereas a soldier’s death is, the state does not take the risk of caring for injured veterans and the military can hire and fire mercenaries easily. As much as anything, the idea of mercenaries fitted neatly into the neoconservative wet dream of the well conducted, risk outsourced, privatised war.

Of course there is no such thing as a well conducted war. War brings to the surface all the worst in humankind’s behaviour; cruelty, suffering and death are always the outcome, with nearly everyone involved a victim of some kind. However, as obscene as it might sound to those at end of a gun, there are rules in war. Certain international treaties govern weapons that should not be used (such as landmines, biological and chemical weapons). The rules of engagement determine when force can be used and the Geneva Conventions govern the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. Although these rules and laws are a fig leaf over the inherent violence of war, on a pragmatic level they make some difference to the end result with the worst extremes at least being publicly recognised as wrong. There are of course many examples in history where such rules are ignored, not least in recent years with the US and above all the Bush (Jr.) regime frequently violating rules, especially with regards to the Geneva Conventions. The breaking of these rules should clearly be addressed at the most powerful level; the Bushs, Cheneys and Rumsfelds of this world should not be above the law, but violations of such rules can also often occur at the whim of the lowest ranking soldier.

Within warfare the soldier is granted absolute authority through the potential to inflict violence; as the saying goes, power corrupts, and in the case of 18 year-old boys given this power, abuses are frequent. But possibly more dangerous than the power-fuelled abuses are those motivated by factors other than mere power: those motivated by ideology or greed. It is in the very nature of the mercenary that they are motivated by money, sometimes out of necessity rather than greed, but they also inherently lack the assumed motivation that an army acts in the interests of the state.

This summer there have been numerous sad stories of mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. This brings us back to Jeremy Scahill and his fascinating twitter account. Scahill this summer has unveiled even more of the complex story of Blackwater (now rebranded Xe, pronounced ‘Zee’), probably the largest private military force of its kind in the world. Blackwater came into the public eye after the unprovoked Nisour Square killings of seventeen Iraqi civilians. In that case the US Department of Justice has alleged that Blackwater forces “fired at innocent Iraqis not because they actually believed that they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury and actually believed that they had no alternative to the use of deadly force, but rather that they fired at innocent Iraqi civilians because of their hostility toward Iraqis and their grave indifference to the harm that their actions would cause,”. Blackwater has been accused of helping set up a secret CIA assassination programme, of smuggling arms into Iraq in sacks of dog food, and of setting up a wife-swapping ring within the company. Further to this the owner of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is accused of seeing himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe, and that the company “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”; the company even went as far as using Knights of the Templar names as call signs for their operations. These allegations have been made under oath by former Blackwater employees. Contractors from other companies were involved in torture at Abu Ghraib and other atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the best attempts of the Iraqi government to ban Blackwater from the country they still operate with virtual immunity. Even whilst this article was being written, Pakistani police found stashes of illegal weapons in the offices of the mercenary company Inter-Risk. Meanwhile the UK (which has a sizeable mercenary market) is choosing to allow mercenary companies to regulate themselves.

The conclusions to draw from this sorry episode are many. Warfare is always going to cause pain, death and destruction, but where the use of force is no longer even wielded by a supposedly democratic state but on a for-profit basis as exemplified by arms companies and mercenaries, then even the fig leaf of the rules of war will continue to be blown away. There are two clear alternative paths to the current one being pursued. The first is that warfare is brought back under the full control of the state; arms companies are nationalised, mercenary activities banned and the privatisation of war reversed. The other alternative is simple; that violence is recognised as a negative force that will always lead to pain, death and destruction, just as power corrupts all in time, and that we recognise that peace is the only true answer.


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