Soldiers R US: The corporate military

By Diane Alden
web posted August 30, 1999

In the 21st Century the American Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force will continue as the official organizations engaged to fight wars for the U.S., and will most likely be the primary executors of some of its foreign policy. Young men and women will wear the uniform and carry on a long, proud tradition of duty and sacrifice. For the most part they will be held accountable for their actions to the Pentagon, Congress, the Commander-in-Chief, and to the people of the United States. Apart from their primary mission, they may serve as policemen around the world, as they do in Korea, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and other unstable and potentially violent countries. They will do their duty, even as the evidence mounts that they are overextended, under-funded, strategically challenged, undermanned, over bureaucratized, top heavy, in need of modernization, and demoralized.

However, the problems of the world may not wait for the day when the U.S. military is rebuilt. The free market and the policy makers have found another option in the brave new world order of the 21st Century; and hi-tech military hardware is only one of the visions evolving in this coming age. Another notable addition to the foreign policy arsenal is as old as the days of bronze and iron shields and helmets. The corporate soldier is the next development in this ancient game of power between nations.

Forget Clark Gable as the handsome rogue in Soldiers of Fortune, forget John Wayne in Blood Alley. The new soldier of fortune may be wearing a three-piece suit, lugging a lap top, his ear perpetually attached to a cell phone. In countries around the world the soldier of fortune has incorporated, and he is making big money fighting for the highest bidder or for the most powerful.

This concept of the hired gun goes back into antiquity. Mercenaries have been around since the ancient Greeks, into the Middle Ages, and even during the American Revolution. The British used German soldiers -- 30,000 Hessians -- to supplement their ranks.

However, the modern mercenary force is no longer an unkempt, unprofessional band of soldier wannabes. They are, for the most part, organized former military officers and enlisted, from all ranks and nations, who operate out of fancy office suites in capitals around the world, including Washington, D.C. Ostensibly advisers and strategists, they also conduct warfare in places where official government armies will not go. In modern times, their special talents are being used in Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Balkans and in Southeast Asia.

Recently, the Clinton Administration, as well as the labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have used mercenaries to augment the armed forces of their respective nations; Clinton in Bosnia and Blair in Sierra Leone. Additionally, Russia has nearly 10,000 of these groups, which operate as security forces, protecting businesses and individuals. African strong men use mercenaries regularly to execute coups or institute counter-coups or to protect legitimate businesses in places where anarchy rules and there are no police forces. In Africa, mercenaries often operate with the tacit approval of the U.S. and Britain.

The major "enterprises" or players in the mercenary trade are the South African Executive Outcomes (recently renamed Lifeguard), the U.S. based Military Professional Resources Inc.(MPRI), and Sandline,Inc., of Great Britain. There are dozens of others but these three are the main players in the war games of the late 20th Century.

Frequently calling themselves "security firms," they sell their battle expertise to whoever has the cash and offers the line of least resistance. Governments, individuals or companies pay big money and pave the way for these corporate soldiers by providing documentation, transportation, or legalizing their status as non-state associated soldiers; because in most cases they operate outside national and international law. Controversial to say the least, these military organizations are coming under increasing international scrutiny as they expand, and from time to time, their activities become an international problem.

The largest and most influential of those based in the United States is MPRI. Ninety percent of MPRI's clients are in the United States. Some of them include the Departments of State, Defense, Joint Chiefs, Army War College, U.S. Army and the Department of the Interior, to name a few. Founded in the 1987 by former U.S. military officers, it has grown exponentially and currently employs at least 2,500 personnel worldwide. Among its first contracts was a deal negotiated through the U.S. Embassy in Angola. Officials familiar with the affair recount that the State Department helped to close the deal. The Angolan government of President Jose dos Santos had previously hired the South African firm of Executive Outcomes, which helped put the UNITA guerrilla army of Jonas Savimbi out of business. But the United States insisted that the new government of Angola hire MPRI, asserting that EO was merely a bunch of mercenaries in it for the money.

MPRI's most important contract to date was the U.S. contract in Bosnia. At an estimated $50 million dollars, the objective of the contract was to integrate and build up the Bosnian army of Muslims and Croats, against the Serbs. The theory behind the effort was, the sooner the Bosnians were capable of defending themselves, the sooner the international troops could leave the region. Critics contend when Western troops leave, the Bosnian army will go to war over territory lost to the Serbs through the 1995 Dayton Accords. The US State Department and Defense Department hired MPRI, allowing the Croats to create a national army, which successfully ejected 150,000 Croatian Serb civilians from the country. This success brought lucrative financial contracts from Islamic countries elsewhere. It was with the help of certain Islamic states that funding for participation by the American firm was concluded.

James L. Woods, a Washington defense consultant, says that, "If the international community cannot get its act together and help these countries keep themselves together and protect commerce and protect the citizenry, you're going to see more and more" examples of private contractors doing the job. Woods suggested these enterprises could become stronger than some of the sovereign states they are hired to protect.

Herbert Howe, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in the privatization of armed conflict in Africa, adds, "I think the major worry that everyone has about this sort of thing is, will these forces become a force unto themselves, kind of rogue elephants?"

Part of the problem is that the U.S. Congress, which is supposed to have authority over whether or not the U.S. will go to war, is bypassed. It has no authority over military groups, which are not associated with the Pentagon. If the congress is complicit and merely turning a blind eye to these activities, than the American people should know about it.

As of today, the administration can intervene without making an official U.S. commitment, and without worrying about the consequences of an enraged public when things go wrong as they did in Somalia several years ago. The sight of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu underscored the aversion to risk which has become part of the U.S. military post-Vietnam bag of traumas. Being splattered all over CNN and the network nightly news might mean a replay of Vietnam era protest and subsequent rejection of the military. At present, the administration can haul out the old "plausible denial-ability" ploy to cover itself. In any case, the American public is kept in the dark while paying for everything.

The British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair also has its hired guns. Its most famous or infamous military force for hire is Sandline, Inc. One of the biggest scandals to rock the Blair government in recent memory involves Sandline and its actions in Sierra Leone. While Executive Outcomes was also involved, it was Sandline which was the focus of the scandal. In May 1997, certain general army officers of Sierra Leone seized control and began to murder the opposition. The governments of the world were unable to help stem a murderous rampage. In response, the UN declared an arms embargo with sanctions on Sierra Leone. However, Blair and his Foreign Minister Robin Cook asked Sandline to intervene with its forces with at the very least the tacit approval of the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, International Monetary Funds were used to finance Executive Outcomes participation in the project, while the U.S. kicked in an undisclosed amount for operational expenses. Sandline, EO, and a couple of other support organizations, as well as hundreds of locals were able to overthrow the generals, restoring President Ahmad Kabbah to power.

Recently, the connection of the Blair government to Sandline came to light and has rocked the labor government to its toes. In a recent article in the London Telegraph, journalist Christopher Lockwood recounted documentary evidence which links Sandline, under the leadership of Falklands Island veteran Colonel Tim Spicer, to the shipment of 35 tons of illegal war materiel to forces loyal to President Kabbah. Spicer maintains he was encouraged by the British Foreign Office to carry out this task. The government of Tony Blair tried to cover itself by the "ends justifies the means" rule of thumb. The restoration of President Kabbah to Sierra Leone was deemed the greater good and besides "it all worked out." The teflon Prime Minister survived and with Kabbah back in power, plus concerned corporate interests more or less safe once again, there was only praise for the British role in the counter-coup. The most significant casualty was the rule of law and the end run around the British Parliament.

However, there is a sort of "what goes around comes around" to the story. Shortly after the Sierra Leone affair, Sandline was hired to do a job in Papua, New Guinea. The venture resulted in the capture and arrest of Colonel Spicer, who according to reports, was nearly executed for his efforts. In addition, the current government of Papua, New Guinea, i.e. Bougainville, does not want to pay the money which the former government promised to Sandline. Consequently, Sandline brought suit against the government of New Guinea to recover payment. However, the government of President Bill Skate indicated it will be paid "when hell freezes over."

In the last few weeks, Tony Blair and Foreign Minister Robin Cook were rebuked in one of the most scathing verdicts ever issued by a select committee of the parliament. As usual, the Blair government blew it off and according to journalist Lockwood; the committee was greatly "irritated," because it had been forced into a long uphill battle to obtain documents and official papers in regard to investigating the scandal. The upshot of the report, couched in harsh and damning language, condemns the mind-boggling incompetence of the Blair government as much as it does the collusion to circumvent the Parliament.

All this "stuff" going on at high levels in the U.S. and Britain makes both the Clinton and Blair governments look deceitful. Using private military firms to get around Congress and Parliament while creating policy and making dangerous commitments and becoming involved in non-critical areas of the world is on its face mind-boggling.

On the surface, this effort by the Clinton and Blair duo to streamline foreign affairs may make it easier for them to conduct a wily kind of foreign policy; however in the long run, it will beget a corporate-military nexus, which at some point, will challenge legitimately elected governments. In addition, it may produce corporate wars between states and inevitably involve the lawful military of the U.S. and Britain in those wars.

The Clinton-Blair twosome continues to employ an "end justifies the means" national foreign policy -- no matter how much lying, circumventing, or damage they do to national institutions. While fat, dumb and happy, the U.S. and Britain may learn the hard way that the ends do not justify the means. It won't be long before the European Union, Russia and China and others, may look upon the two superpowers as the over-bearing, self-righteous, interventionist - imperialists - they have always accused them of being.

Additionally, all the energy expended in behind the scenes wheeling and dealing in the Clinton-Blair "third way", might better be used to update the U.S military, and institute a massive effort to define foreign policy goals for the early 21st century. But perhaps more importantly, someone must define foreign policy limitations.

In this regard, the veritable George Kennan, diplomat and statesman during the Cold War recently emphasized: that regardless of its status as the major superpower, the U.S. needs to develop some humility, in what it can and cannot do on the international level.

Furthermore, the use of mercenaries as a security force to aid business interests in shaky countries may be reasonable, however, turning them into a defacto arm of the U.S. government is not. Coupled with the thoughtless declaration that every administration since George Washington has been guilty of duplicity, is not an excuse or a sufficient reason to circumvent the Constitution or congressional authority.

The continued reliance on the corporate military should be viewed with skepticism. While in some ways it may be more efficient, a military for hire is beholding to no one -- except its paymaster. Privatization works in the private sector. However, relations between nation-states, especially in war -- are not a private matter. That being the case, it is of great concern when, where and by whom, force of arms are used. And most of all is who decides to use it.

Strangely enough, one of the foremost and proper functions of government under the Constitution is to "provide for the common defense." Frankly, I don't think what is happening behind the scenes in the world of Clinton and Blair is what the founders had in mind.

Diane Alden is a regular writer for Enter Stage Right and has contributed to many other web publications including Right Magazine.

Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.