In schoolbook accounts of the fall of Rome, one thing that was always mentioned was that the empire started hiring mercenaries to defend its borders, rather than the volunteer army. Those mercenaries were professional soldiers with no strong allegiance to the empire, and they often became a force in the struggles over who would be the next emperor.

The U.S. is now hiring large numbers of mercenaries in Iraq, although they are given the euphemistic name of military contractors. I’ve seem some statements that the U.S. has more contractors in Iraq than it does soldiers, although I believe that includes all contractors, not just mercenaries. Many of the mercenaries are in fact former members of the U.S. military, who change jobs in order to get the much higher pay available in the private sector.

This doesn’t have to be a problem. Mercenaries are still a fraction of the overall size of the U.S. military. The U.S. will leave Iraq, hopefully sooner rather than later, and demands for military manpower will drop significantly. In a few years it seems likely that the number of mercenaries will be much smaller.

Still, it’s a worrying trend. Regardless of your feelings about privatization, privatizing your military forces is an extremely bad idea. Ultimately the power of the state relies on its control of military force. Regular soldiers, especially volunteers as is true of the U.S. military services, support the state, and that inclination is strengthened by military training and indoctrination. Mercenaries are in it for the money, and it’s much easier to shift their allegiance. The more mercenaries the state hires, the closer it comes to losing its monopoly on military force. Fortunately, the U.S. isn’t close to that, and it still has plenty of time to pull back.


  1. ncm said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    The danger of mercenaries isn’t in their number (which remains small) but in their effect on government. Billions spent maintaining regular soldiers has little political effect, aside from wasteful weapons system projects. Billions of dollars handed out to mercenary contractors isn’t just spent on MREs and HMVs, it comes back to political campaigns and dirty tricks that subvert democracy. We see a similar effect in the privatized “Prison Industry”, which has succeeded in driving the U.S.’s incarceration rate to the highest in the world.

    Blackwater is already making preparations to operate within the U.S., and spending heavily on lobbying to get such assignments.

  2. etbe said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    Another issue is what the mercenaries will do once the war is over. Part of the current problem in Russia is that they trained a huge number of people to serve in the military, intelligence, and internal-security agencies. When the USSR collapsed those people had no jobs and their skills were a better fit for criminal employment than anything legal.

    I have the impression that any soldier who is honourably discharged is eligible for employment in a police force, while many currently serving mercenaries might not pass the background checks. Also the fact that police are well paid by soldier standards but poorly paid by merenary standards suggests that a law enforcement career will be more desirable to soldiers than mercs.

  3. ncm said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    etbe: In other words, pre-packaged organized crime, with government connections already in place. Collecting revenue has always been the most stressful part of operating a crime syndicate, with avoiding legal scrutiny a close second. Letting the IRS do the work for you, and just getting quarterly checks from the GAO, and with effectively no risk of prosecution, has to be a more relaxing way to operate.

    When no-bid contracts escape all scrutiny, isn’t blackmail just as good a reason to issue a contract as any other?

  4. etbe said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 12:21 am

    ncm: Your point is fair, but it should also be noted that the same thing happens with all the industries that get government assistance. It seems to me that the only way that the war business is worse than the farming business in this regard is that people get killed in wars.

    Of course there are some countries running short of food stocks now, so I guess that mis-managing the farming part of the economy can kill too.

  5. ncm said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    The amount of money handed over to individual merc outfits in this decade is orders of magnitude larger than is typical of government grants for other purposes, with much less opportunity for public scrutiny (not just per-dollar, but even per-grant). So, two more ways it is worse.

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    I suppose that if the U.S. never runs out of wars, then there is no problem of bringing mercenaries back home.

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