In 2022, 407 billion US dollars of the Pentagon budget – representing half of that year’s funding – were obligated to private contractors of which a significant number were Private Military Companies (PMCs) involved in combat operations. According to the Congressional Research Service, the forever wars generated by 9/11 grew contracted private military force to 50% of our armed forces with a ratio of contractor personnel to U.S. personnel in war zones increasing to 3 to 1.
For accounting purposes, we can divide PMCs into three types: those primarily involved in consulting, training, supplies, logistics; those primarily involved in security for US embassies, diplomats, aid programs, and other US interests; and those primarily involved in combat operations. Strictly speaking, only those involved in combat operations are considered mercenaries. In practice, however, there is a very hazy line between protecting logistical supply lines and active security deployments and combat operations.
In Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today, Sean McFate – professor at National Defense University, former private military contractor – defines a mercenary as “an armed civilian paid to do military operations in a foreign conflict zone.”
Whether we use a narrow or broad definition of mercenary, the US has used and is using mercenaries in offensive combat operations in foreign conflict zones.
The use of mercenaries is banned by international law and US domestic law. The United Nations ban has been ratified by 35 nation-states, but not the US or Russia. In 1893, US Congress, in response to rogue actions by Pinkerton and other private police, passed the anti-Pinkerton Act which prohibits US from hiring private police or military. In 1977, Federal Courts applied this law to mercenaries. US, however, maintains that government hired PMCs are not mercenaries.
Lacking jurisdiction, Congress exercises no legal oversight over US employed mercenaries. When Barak Obama was senator, he introduced legislation to give Congress oversight on American sponsored mercenaries, specially to monitor human rights violations. When Obama became president, he actually increased the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan – the senate bill was forgotten. Obama could not maintain his cap on the number of American troops in Afghanistan without increasing the number of mercenaries whose presence and casualties are not counted in Pentagon statistics. He could not achieve American objectives in Afghanistan without employing mercenaries.
Thus: no body bags of US combat fatalities in the headlines.
The majority of American mercenaries in combat zones are not citizens of the USA. Many are elite ex-special forces from Columbia, Mexico, Philippines, and South Africa who have extensive experience fighting narco-terrorism and insurrection. The first PMC in Iraq was the notorious Blackwater, now known as Academi, which was founded by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince.
According to McFate in America’s Addiction to Mercenaries, “mercenaries now sustain more casualties than American military personnel in combat zones. (Atlantic, 2016)”
US sponsored mercenaries are currently active in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and several countries in Africa. The American mercenaries in Syria and Iraq are primarily involved in seeking out and destroying ISIS. They are also involved in protecting US interests in this region against Russian mercenaries, principally the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group, a good example of the sophistication and power of private armies, deploys elite battalions of well-trained, well- supplied, technologically adept soldiers to fight Russia’s wars in Ukraine, Middle East, and other regions.
The use of mercenaries is as old as war itself. Some call it the world’s second oldest profession.
The use of mercenaries in contemporary warfare is a fact. It is time for the US government to acknowledge the employment of mercenaries and set up mechanisms to monitor their behavior.
The principal reason the US government does not acknowledge the use of mercenaries is to hide the true costs of war from the American public. It is less expensive to employ mercenaries than to pay the short-term and long-term costs for US military casualties. The lack of public discussion of the true costs of war, moral as well as financial, keeps American citizens politically naïve, complicit, and malleable.
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubican, he was moving his elite private army into central Italy to enforce his will on Rome and the Roman Republic. The election of Trump as president demonstrated the fragility of our civil society. The rise of global private armies as well-trained and as well-equipped as our best troops poses an urgent security risk to our nation.
Machiavelli thought that the extensive reliance on mercenaries would eventually destroy the state and enfeeble its citizens.
The legal and moral issues involved in the use of mercenaries in contemporary warcraft must be publicly investigated and acknowledged both for the well-being of our Republic and for our credibility among nations.
We, American citizens, need to understand and take responsibility for the use and consequences of the lethal power our government employs to protect our interests.
Published: Windy City Times Media 20 May 2023
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Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network JP; member, Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.