Modern Mercenaries

Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror - Robert Young Pelton

Based on what I have seen on Goodreads maybe I should have read Corporate Warriors instead of this book because people have described that book as 'the quintessential book on the private security industry' but the reason I ended up getting this book was because the title caught my attention when I was perusing Amazon and decided to place an order. In a nutshell it is an interesting book that explores the aspects of the private security industry that has arisen since the Iraq War but I found that Pelton seemed to spend a lot of time simply telling stories and would only then spend a small amount of time outlining the pros and cons of this relatively new industry. Not all of his stories were bad, though most of the time he seemed to just waffle.


Now, the idea of private security is nothing new because there have been firms providing security for as long as I have known, but in an advanced democracy these firms (at least here in Australia) tend to be kept on a very short leash. As a private security contractor in Australia you simply cannot be trigger happy. For instance, while a bouncer at a night club (and they generally work on a contractual basis, though the proper term for them is a crowd controller) can break up fights and eject people, they have to do it in a way that they cannot open themselves up for prosecution or civil penalties (such as a lawsuit).


What changed with the Iraq War was that these firms began to operate in overseas jurisdictions with limited oversight. At this stage the American Army was not actually outsourcing the combat aspects of the assignment, but rather they were outsourcing security for dignitaries such as the UN and the pro-consul Paul Bremer. However, in a place that was as chaotic as Iraq, the normal restraint that can be shown in a Western Democracy would probably end up getting you killed. The concern is that there is limited oversight over their actions and even if they do get involved in a fire fight that they start, they can easily vanish with no repercussions.


The US army had been outsourcing operations for quite a while, and an economic way that is understandable. It is better to outsource the minor details of the army such as catering, maintenance, and even laundry services because it means you do not need to keep full time staff on the payroll. You only pay what you use. This is the same with security details because it frees up the troops for combat orientated roles and also, theoretically, keeps costs down. While they still have mess halls, I have seen films of the bases in Iraq where there are Pizza Huts and Subways on base which, I must admit, does offer better variety than the simple mess hall.


There are problems with that though, as Pelton points out. For instance, the idea of cost plus (being the cost of providing the service plus profit) may at first seem cost effective, but these costs can quickly spiral out of control. There is one incidence where there were at least four layers of cost plus contracts (that is the initial contract which is sub-contracted to another company who then sub-contracts to another company and so forth). This also applies to other areas such as cantering because the company that won the contract (on a no bid basis) then goes and sub-contracts out to another. Further, because corporations operate purely on a profit motive, and because the average soldier does not get a choice as to the provider the soldier wishes to use, there is no incentive to provide a quality product. If the company doing the laundry service does a rubbish job then the soldier is stuck with that. I have actually heard that soldiers were not allowed to wash their own clothes but had to use the contractor who charged the American government an inordinate price for the service.


Many of us think of private security contractors as earning huge amounts of money and living a high lifestyle, however Pelton blows that myth to smithereens. The people making the money are those that sit at the top of the food chain, that is the executives. While the contractor may be earning $600.00 a day, this is not steady income and there is no guarantee that their contract will be renewed after the next stint. Then there is the threat of injury and/or death, separation from their families, and the fact that their skills are not really transferable. Once they are back home the best they can get is a minimum wage security job, and even then only if they are physically capable. It is highly unlikely that they would be offered insurance, so the only thing that their families have to rely on in case of death is a small amount given by the US government (about $65000.00).


Naomi Klein mentioned in her book 'Disaster Capitalism' that the next bubble would the the private security bubble. I thought she was talking about Homeland Security but I suspect that she was talking about this industry. From what I gathered there are a lot of companies and once the war in Iraq is over (which I believe it technically is) there is going to be little to no work for these companies. I suspect that many of them have already folded, that is if they were not wound up beforehand and the executives made off with a tidy profit. However, many of these companies aren't listed on the stock exchange (Blackwater isn't) so I suspect most of the operators knew that this was only going to be a short term venture. By the way, Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater, as since left the company and the company has also changed its name twice so is no longer known as Blackwater.


The last chapter was particularly interesting because it was about the failed coup attempt in Equitorial Guinea that involved the son of Magaret Thatcher. I remembered that clearly because it involved the son of Margaret Thatcher. What I thought was odd was that Pelton was writing as if this coup was something new and something that had arisen from the Iraq War. In reality it is not. It was not so much like Executive Outcomes, a South African security firm that would be hired by African dictators to put down rebel forces, but rather a bunch of out of work special forces operatives that where brought together to get rid of a dictator and steal Equatorial Guinea's oil resources. Further, I don't actually think that it is all that ironic that they got caught in Zimbabwe. It is not that Mugabe would have particularly been concerned about some coup plotters, but what would have concerned him would have been the fact that the people pulling the strings behind the coup were all white. Okay, it all came about by accident, but for a guy that sought to evict all of the white farmers from Zimbabwe I highly doubt he would have turned a blind eye where a coup against an African government was being orchestrated by white power brokers.