Mercenaries and the decline of the state I: Blackwater

The US Congress this week held hearings on Blackwater, the private military company whose involvement in a massacre in Baghdad has roused the anger of the Iraqi Government, and prompted renewed scrutiny of US use of mercenaries in Iraq.

There is a widespread belief that the rise of the private military industry is inevitable, which is neatly encapsulated in John Robb’s reaction to the hearings. 

It’s clear that private military forces will be a major part of the
global security equation, like it or not. The decline of the
nation-state ensures it. As a consequence, the real thrust of our
collective efforts should be on methods to manage its emergence. (John Robb)

Perhaps the most cogent counterpoint to that view has come from Peter W. Singer, whose ground-breaking study of the industry appeared on the eve of the ‘Baghdad bubble’ expansion ushered in by the Iraq War.

Congress has been funding an entire pattern of private military
outsourcing that it never explicitly voted on, and it is well past time
to act.

Many of those vested in the system, including those testifying on
Tuesday, will try to convince us to ignore this cycle. They will
describe an evident pattern of incidents as "mere anomalies," portray
private firms outside the chain of command as somehow part of the
"total force," or claim that "we have no other choice" but to rely on
contractors, when it is rather about choices they’d rather avoid. These
are the denials of pushers, enablers and addicts. (

What both Robb and Singer understand is that the privatisation of warfare represents a unique challenge to the state as an institution. Where they differ is over whether this process is reversible.

The Blackwater hearings could be interpreted as a struggle between the politicians who have most to lose from this transition and those who have most to gain.

It’s important to understand that what would emerge from this process would not be the impartial nightwatchman-state of nineteenth century liberalism. That vision originally emerged not in opposition to socialism but to weak early-modern states that used political power to legitimise private monopolies.

This why early free market thinkers like Adam Smith opposed private military firms like the East India Company.

Part Two






2 responses to “Mercenaries and the decline of the state I: Blackwater”

  1. CW avatar

    There’s a good article in the latest Private Eye, which refers to the bodyguard of the Iraqi vice-president who was shot dead by a drunken Blackwater employee, who was then spirited out of Iraq without charge.
    The article states that the US is completely dependant on the private soldiers while it tries to keep its own “surge” going, giving Blackwater the opportunity to boast about their “compassion for all people”, and coming across more like “a humanitarian charity than a bunch of trigger-happy soldiers of fortune”.

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    Thanks Ciaran,
    I’ve just got hold of a copy. It’s a good summary of the situation. In some ways there are more signs of PMCs moving away from dependence on the US, than of the reverse.

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