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Mercenaries in the Marketplace of Violence

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Message HPatricia Hynes
They are a potent but barely perceptible component of U.S. militarism and foreign policy. Ceding armed conflict and ultimately national security to the private market of military companies is a dire and disastrous trend.


After 9/11 one of the few sectors to enjoy growth was the young market niche of private military contractors (PMCs). Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute was an early analyst of this new growth industry, generating a detailed taxonomy of their militarized services and a litany of case examples of their clients and covert activities in his book Corporate Warriors (2003). Private military companies are lean, nimble global businesses formed and managed in many cases by former military men and specialized in armed conflict services from combat and operating drones, to intelligence and spying, war logistics, training militaries, building and servicing military bases, post-war de-mining operations, and peacekeeping. Their clients include governments of all ilk from "democratic" to "rogue," the UN and NGOs, rebel groups, paramilitaries, drug cartels, and human traffickers. Sometimes they contract with both sides of a conflict. Some garner business concessions in oil and natural resources in client countries, thus the cachet of conflict in resource-rich countries.

It's anticipated that military companies will continue enjoying generous growth despite current global economic contraction. According to Allison Stanger, author of One Nation Under Contract (2009), PMCs have made the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan possible, given the low support of Allies. In 2009, military contractors comprised half of the Department of Defense workforce in Iraq and more than half in Afghanistan. The vaunted U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq leaves in place a substantial, shadowy private military occupation. Stanger observes that the core pillars of national security — intelligence, diplomacy, development and defense — are increasingly handled by private contractors, a troubling trend unremarked by most Americans.

Caveat Emptor.

Here are five caveats regarding military merchants in corporate clothing:

1. Corporate profit vs. public good. Making a profit from war, for company owners and stockholders, is the bottom line for PMCs. Being in the "marketplace of violence," they rely upon, and are positioned to promote continuous armed conflict, with few, if any, public checks and balances.

2. Global glut in ex-soldiers and arms. Since the end of the Cold War, the market has been saturated with ex-soldiers and military weapons unloaded by governments to arms brokers. On the "demand" side of violence, the incidence of conflicts within countries has doubled since the end of the Cold War and zones of conflict have doubled as well, creating a perfect storm of opportunity for corporatizing war. "The consequence," according to Singer, "is that governments no longer have control over the primary means of warfare."

3. Under the radar screen and outside the law. Historically, the U.S. Uniform Military Code of Justice has applied only to U.S. military, a lacuna in law which left PMCs in conflict zones virtually free of the threat of disciplinary action, court martial or arrest for fraud, drunken and reckless behavior, assault, rape, insubordination, leaving the battlefield, and so on. In 2005, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act was amended to permit prosecution of private federal contractors and their employees. However, journalist and author of Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007), Jeremy Scahill, testified in a 2007 congressional hearing that private military contractors are almost never prosecuted under U.S. military or civil law. In fact, in the international arena, PMCs are not covered by international law in warfare so that these armed mercenaries operate fairly immune from any justice system. This convenience for the military companies and their clients creates great risk for their victims, whistleblowers, and female employees.

4. Select history of abuses.

Working both sides of conflicts: According to Singer, the PMC Lifeguard allegedly supplied arms to rebel forces in Sierra Leone at the same time they were hired as security by mining companies to protect operations from rebel forces and their parent company Sandline was contracted by the government to defeat rebel forces. Another affiliate of Sandline simultaneously supplied aerial war support to the government and weapons to the rebels.

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H. Patricia Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health, is on the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice
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