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July 17, 2008

For Private Military Companies to flourish they may have to become much more boring and perhaps less effective enterprises, argues Richard D. North: War Plc: The rise of the new corporate mercenary - Stephen Armstrong

Posted by Richard D. North

War Plc: The rise of the new corporate mercenary
by Stephen Armstrong
London: Faber and Faber, 2008
Paperback, 14.99

This is a lively and very enjoyable book, and it confounds expectations. It's a story of the cash nexus with fire-power. We're expecting an anti-capitalist jeremiad. But the author surprises us: he finds himself rather liking the world he is researching, and rather approving of it.

Who licenses force?
Not even education, health, broadcasting or the penal system have been completely stalinised, though not for want of trying. We ought at least to consider the merits of private force. Big chunks of the Army, Navy, and Air Force might well be run by firms. And the police, come to that, as some prisons already are. The State is often thought to have a natural monopoly over violence, and it makes sense to challenge such an orthodoxy. A moment's thought reminds us that the issue comes down to who can authorise and license force. Who pays for it or lays it on may be quite another matter.

I have a prejudice or two here. I think Britain and the world would be a better place if there were three times as many British fighting men and women as there are now. We can be terrifically good at the military, and maybe a corporate approach will make us yet more valuable in this department.

Steady on, though. If one way to invest in force is to privatise and license it, there will also be a matter of who indemnifies whom against what cock-ups. In this, the military is quite like the nuclear industry. This book doesn't deal with these issues properly, but it certainly leads one to them.

A ripping yarn
Mr Armstrong is a feature-writing journalist, and it shows. He takes us to the swanky offices of the luminaries of the new world of corporate violence, and out into the desert to meet the middle-rank mercenaries the big players send out to struggle with chaos on the ground. The senior people behind their desks worry about how their private armies can get respectability. The people on the ground behind their wraparounds worry about how they can get after-care. There's overlap. The senior people have mostly been fighters, and understand the pressures of the job, whilst the foot-soldiers are mostly not stupid.

Obviously, the men in this trade want money and some want lots of it. But most don't seem amazingly greedy. They see their non-military contemporaries doing well as plumbers or whatever and note that not making much in uniform is compounded when a man is back on civvy street. Some are adventurers and some may fear or dread civilian life. Either way, they are British soldiers, and I'd like to have them on my side in a scrap. They strike me as being on the side of the angels, or preferring to be.

Mr Armstrong's interviews convey that this industry is quite thoughtful and certainly impressive. Even at the level of the kind of people who actually carry arms, and closely command others who carry arms, there is acute understanding that there are profound moral issues at work. Many of the people in the industry, and especially those Mr Armstrong meets, have come out of conventional Western armies or security forces, and they yearn for the decency which comes from being mandated by a democratic state.

No-one likes a mercenary
Hence, perhaps, the hang-up about the use of the word "mercenaries". Everyone likely to be so labelled resists its use. Mr Armstrong's use of it adds drama to his book, but detracts from its seriousness, and from his acceptance that this is a useful trade. Besides, the "New Corporate Mercenary" is most likely to be a bodyguard. He is more likely to be shot at or blown up than to shoot. Mr Armstrong charts the rise of this new industry from its early swashbuckling days in the 1960s and 1970s when ex-SAS people were signed up to fight small wars. But by his own account, most privatised military activity now is about security.

Adding respectability to a vulgar brawl
Mr Armstrong describes a new world whose main feature is a curious blend of chaos and fastidiousness. The standard thesis (his) is that the end of the Cold War has produced a different sort of warfare, one in which state stand-offs are not the model of conflict. That implies that regular forces meet each other less, and threats are more muddled. Guerrillas, gangs, insurgents and terrorists loom larger as the threat to states, and special forces are needed to combat these wild men.

Actually, the problem is a little odder still. With the decline of the imperial orderings of the last couple of hundred years, there are all sorts of hot-spots in which democracies have difficulties. In the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Darfur, Somalia and Iraq we have seen situations in which it is disputed that there is a clear obligation or right for the US or UK (say) to get involved. Times was, in public or private, states felt very strong interests or obligations in many of these places and everyone understood that a Cold War logic had superseded an imperial one. Now, no nation - and perhaps not even the UN - can make an armed intervention respectable by saying it is so. Besides, nothing stays secret or uncontested now.

Spicer and Mann: very different outcomes
Sometimes the state does feel an interest, doesn't want to be directly involved, and does decide to turn a blind eye to commercial military activity, as Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary did when Tim Spicer's Sandline was allowed or encouraged to act in Sierra Leone in 1998. That intervention was not a million miles from the private warfare that Simon Mann got into so much trouble over in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, except that Mann didn't get (and perhaps didn't deserve) any official nods and winks. Thus did the two most famous names in the business show what a small divide separates something like glory from a very definite gaol.

One, Lt. Col. Spicer, perhaps burned by his Sierra Leone experience, has gone all out for respectability. He speaks freely to Mr Armstrong. Spicer's old acquaintance Simon Mann went the other way and can't speak to anyone from his African cell.

Even the most articulate and free are little help when they speculate about the industry's future.

It is fascinating that it was Jack Straw as foreign secretary who wrote the foreword to the UK government's 2002 green paper (Private Military Companies: Options for regulation) which seemed to welcome private military operations, if only PMCs could somehow be licensed. Presumably this was a recognition that HMG and the corporate soldiers needed each other. Corporations and charities need them too: how else to be anything like safe as you do good in the world's worst places?

And there, so far as we know, things seems to be stuck. We can easily see the difficulty. The conflicts into which the UK or the US can't send their own military will often be the sort these governments can't license others to take part in either. Even relatively simple defensive operations are proving problematic. The US company, Blackwater, got into deep trouble over a 2007 shoot-out in Iraq (the firm's men killed 17 Iraqis), and the incident's being a rarity doesn't detract from its being emblematic.

Indemnifying cock-ups
Mr Armstrong doesn't help us much with this sort of question. He relies quite heavily on the work of Christopher Kinsey, whose 2006 Corporate Soldiers and International Security: The rise of Private Military Companies is the policy wonk's equivalent of War Plc. As an analyst working closely with the military establishment, Dr Kinsey anatomises the industry more systematically than Mr Armstrong, and he discusses the various licensing possibilities. But he brings us little nearer to understanding what is likely to happen next.

The lesson so far seems to be that the less likely a soldier is to fire his weapon, and the more defensive his role, the more likely it is that his work can be privatised. Cooks are easily outsourced; bodyguards very commonly are; infantry, marines and special forces all pose greater difficulties, and they are worse the degree to which they do the killing they were trained for. The more the job to be done will involve controversy, injury and death, the more difficult it is for the state to licence it to someone else. And it's not just a matter of whether the soldier will kill and maim someone else. The more likely it is that the privatised soldier will himself get hurt, the less likely it is that competent people will be found to sally forth without state sanction or that the state will sanction them.

Permission alone won't be enough. Whilst governments will often accept a regulatory role, they will very seldom accept that this means they ought to stand by those they regulate. But this is exactly what the PMC - boss class and soldiers alike - must need. They want diplomatic and legal backup. They know that anyone in the industry may end up in court, not least now that private security companies seem to have lost their immunity to Iraqi law. That's a wrinkle which came too late to be discussed in Armstrong's book, which is in any case very light on policy detail.

There's a problem that neither Armstrong nor Kinsey discuss, though Armstrong at least raises it. To become respectable, PMCs will need to provide clear and generous health and welfare packages to the soldiery. Stephen Armstrong provides what looks like good anecdotal evidence that PMCs have (unsurprisingly) rather shadowy corporate identities, and that injured former employees have some difficulty claiming against them. Governments will find it hard to license firms which can't prove that they have sophisticated and expensive insurance to back up respectable employment practices. Who will provide it?

It's very hard to imagine that Private Military Companies won't thrive. They are plain useful. But if they are to become respectable corporations, they may have to become much more boring and maybe less effective. Oh dear. Is this really a natural monopoly for the state after all?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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