Private military companies are forcefully testing the mettle of America’s 220 year old national security establishment. After 8 years of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death toll has not subsided and violence has not diminished. The quick overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban initially compelled President George W. Bush to proclaim “Mission Accomplished.” To the contrary, American troops are still on the ground, and the unthinkable predicament has occurred; it is now a protracted war and the American military is suffering. Thinly stretched and severely battered, the U.S. government has employed private security companies, such as Blackwater (now called XE), to help alleviate American troops. By 2006 there were nearly 100,000 private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost a one-to-one ratio with active duty U.S. soldiers. As a result, outsourcing military functions has generated a vociferous debate in the United States about national security matters.
Foremost, many Americans ponder whether it’s Constitutional to hire private security firms to assist the United States in war. Regarding national security, the Constitution establishes three key principles: The first is stated in the preamble of the Constitution, which declares, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense;” secondly, it establishes that Congress has the power to raise, fund and arm the military establishment; and thirdly, it establishes that the President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. In essence, the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit the hiring of private security firms. In spite of that, this practice undermines the first and most basic American tenet; it debases “We the people.” American tradition holds that citizen soldiers bearing arms in defense of the United States is virtuous and an essential duty of the citizen. Thus, in hiring a soldier who is contractually required to bear arms, war becomes an act waged simply for financial gain. That is not to say that engaging in war is virtuous or that wars are never fought for financial gain, but when war comes or when or war is waged a distinction must be made between a soldier who fights for a civic duty and one who fights for financial profit.
Notwithstanding, the U.S. Armed Forces and private military corporations share a few superficial similarities. The soldier in the modern U.S. military is also hired and is placed under a contractual agreement. In addition, not every soldier who signs up for the U.S. military does it for the high ideals of civic duty; economic necessity also plays a decisive role. Furthermore, proponents of private military forces argue that the recruits of companies such as Blackwater are loyal Americans. This is true, but not in its entirety; Blackwater hires highly talented and experienced former Navy S.E.A.L.’s and veteran police officers. However, it has increasingly relied on Chilean, Colombian and Romanian commandos. While the combat skills of these recruits are stellar, many of these soldiers served repressive regimes with dubious human rights records. In contrast, the citizen soldier carries with him the weight of a tradition started on July 4th, 1776; a tradition which broke with monarchy and broke with executive authoritarianism. Furthermore, when inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces, the citizen soldier is required to make oath which both pays homage to America’s political heritage and affirms the continuity of long established civic values. The oath states: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” The private soldier does not make such a solemn oath and carries with him only the obligation of a written agreement. In essence, the American military and private security firms have irrevocable foundational differences, for they are wholly different institutions; the citizen soldier signs a contract with the people and country, while the private soldier signs a contract with the corporation and its board of directors.
Correspondingly, outsourcing national security also poses the notion of accountability. When war demands accountability, is America better served when the U.S. military or a private security firm is in charge of war? Hiring mercenaries is not a novelty in American history. From the nation’s founding days German Hessian mercenaries provided invaluable training to the 13 American colonies. However, since 1776 America’s fortunes have changed. America indisputably has the most formidable publicly funded military establishment in the world. The modern American military has the Department of Defense, has a professional volunteer army, it has military academies, an industry of arms manufacturers, military bases on foreign soil and alliances with countries around the globe. Thus, America must not rely on corporations to help provide for the common defense. The U.S. has more than enough institutions wrought by various generations of Americans, which are rich which traditions that stress honorable civic ideals.
On the other hand private security firms are rooted in the economic principles of supply and demand. Nevertheless, credit must be given to private military contractors for their capabilities. There is no doubt military contractors can deliver defense and security teams all over the world and in many cases faster than the U.S. military. In 2006, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince commented about his company’s logistical swiftness. He said:
“When you ship overnight, do you use the postal service, or do you use FedEx?...Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the postal service--never going to replace it, but we want to make it run better, faster, smarter, make people think out of the box...”
Private contractors are lean, efficient, lower the financial cost of war and have saved American lives. The merits of private industry and the corporation are many and must be acknowledged, but these merits belong in the business world; the ethos of efficiency and profit margins should not be intertwined with war. The death and suffering which is brought on by war cannot and must not be desecrated by the culture of business. If war is waged by men whose occupation is to furnish the world with goods and services, men who seek to build bonds among people based on a cash nexus and men who cannot exist without constantly finding and expanding markets for their goods and services, the consequence could be that the life for many will be at the whim of an invisible hand which enterprises to wage war for profit.
In sum, despite the logistical prowess of firms such as Blackwater, privatizing warfare diminishes the meaning and real social cost of war. Private firms blunt cultural responsibility by making warfare easy to wage. In removing this cultural responsibility debate over national security is turned away from the venues of public deliberation and over to the corporate boardroom. The lack of accountability and of civic engagement has allowed corporate defense contractors to violate the Army Field Manual, engage in acts of torture and thus commit human rights abuses. Such was the case when poorly trained private interrogators hired by the Army contributed to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Therefore, if a private security firm commits a war crime or defrauds the government, who is to bear the responsibility, it’s not the Commander in Chief or the General, is it the shareholder? The military draft is central to the notion of national accountability and responsibility. Conscription has traditionally not been well received by Americans; many feel that compulsory enlistment in the armed forces undermines liberty itself. However, despite its clear violation of a “right to choose,” the draft demands that people make a choice. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the draft served to make American’s conscientious about the military involvement of their country in Vietnam. The Vietnam war protests were contentious and divided the country; but when the draft forced Americans to share the burden of war, a balance of power was struck and Americans made a choice. The American people forced their president and Congress to rethink their strategy in Southeast Asia and pull out of Vietnam from combat that by far and large was considered senseless and a betrayal of American values.
Thus, war by its nature is not designed to be an efficient or an innocuous act. War by definition is messy and unsavory. If the American people are to wage war, everyone must share the responsibility and burdens caused by war. Being part of a republican democracy entails that in a time of war the citizen will not be a passive bystander, but an active participant in civic affairs. Common defense calls for a responsibility of we the people, not we the shareholders.