Book Reviews and Other Ideas
The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, by Sean McFate
This book describes the current use of private military contractors both for military and security purposes by different nations and organisations around the world and draws frequent parallels with the employment of mercenary armies in northern Italy in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. The two main messages are:
- In recent decades the private military industry has grown to such a size that it is unlikely, if not impossible, that its deployment will stop, or even decrease, any time soon.
- In practice, this means that the ‘monopoly of the use of force’ (Max Weber’s defining feature of modern states) is no longer limited to national states. From this, the author infers that the increasing use of private military contractors represents an erosion of the Westphalian system (the current geopolitical system is which power lays firmly in nation states) and a trend towards a de-centralised geopolitical order, reminiscent of the European middle ages, which he defines as Neomedievalism ‘a non-state-centric, multipolar international system of overlapping authorities and allegiances with the same territory”
According to the author, this outcome is the result on the interaction between a number of recent trends
- The neo-liberal tendency to privatise as much as possible, to the point of dismantling even the last essence of state political power (the monopoly of violence)
- The ever increasing cost of running a modern army
- The public distaste for war and war casualties: since most private armies employ soldiers from 3rd world countries, whose nationality is largely unknown to the public, they do not add to the warring nations’ causality count.
- A chain of contracting, sub-contracting, sub-sub-contracting (and so on). The outcome is that who eventually does the fighting is largely unknown even to the original contractors (see below)
There appears to be something quite bizarre in the diversity of the private military contractors’ ecology. First, most providers come from a handful of countries (US and UK on top, followed by South Africa and increasingly China). Second, the list of employers is even smaller, mostly US, UK and UN. However, as mentioned above, the employees come from everywhere, and mostly 3rd world countries.
I found the book most interesting when it describes some of the operations in which private military contractors have been employed. Three in particular caught my attention:
- To highlight the positive and negative aspects of the use of private military contractors the authors juxtaposes two African cases, Liberia vs Somalia. In Liberia, after the fall of Charles Taylor’s regime, the UN intervened and employed a number of private contractors which acted under a centralised UN supervision. This is usually considered to be a success since the US managed to restore some form of order to the country. This example also highlights one benefit of private contractors vs national armies: they can be deployed much faster. Apparently, their use had been recommended to Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, at the early sign of genocide in Rwanda but he opted for national armies instead and the resulting delay is considered one of the reasons why the genocide spiralled out of control.
- In Somalia, neither the US nor the UN had any appetite to intervene following the battle of Mogadishu, leading to complete lack of centralised power. Private armies were employed by private shipping companies to address piracy, resulting in a purely marker-driven de-centralised approach to security. When security firms or their employees were dismissed or found an economic incentive, they turned to piracy themselves, making the problem worse than originally was. The lesson appears to be that security cannot be left to purely market incentives. I guess this is not surprising, but it highlights an underlying contradiction, since the proposed concept of Neomedievalism seems to deny the role of a centralised figure. But maybe we should simply look deeper to history remember that even during the Middle Ages centralised power WAS in place, in the form of the Pope or various Emperors, and that national states partly developed to counteract such centralisation.
- In Afghanistan, security is largely in the hands of private contractors, who employ sub, sub-sub-contractors and so on. At the end of the sub-contractor chain, usually there are local warlords. For example, they are delegated the responsibility to protect the main highways from Taliban attacks. According to the author, these local warlords often carry out their task by colluding with or bribing the Taliban (I guess this makes the Taliban the actual end of the sub-contractor line, although the author does not say so). Ultimately, these warlords benefit from this state of affairs and thus have no incentive to see the war ending. The author suggests this was the case in the north of Italy in the Middle Ages in which private armies had an interest in prolonging or even instigating war. Another potentially negative consequence of a market driven or over-de-centralised approach to security.
The book is at time very dry, and reads more like a military report, with endless lists of contractors and resources at their disposals which are not fun to read, but these can be skipped for the more interesting chapters.