Book Review – Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror

Licensed to Kill is Robert Young Pelton’s broad survey of the modern world of mercenaries. Strike that, of contractors. Mercenaries, after all, as Doug Brooks of IPOA (International Peace Operations Association) said in the movie Shadow Company: anyone convicted as being a mercenary should be shot along with his lawyer (Doug, pardon my paraphrasing). Regardless, Pelton’s subtitle captures what these guys are: hired guns. Or as one of the contractors in the book put it: “guns with legs”.

Pelton’s book is (or can be) a quick read. It’s conversational, often with the feel that you’re sitting in a pub having a beer while he tells you a story (as you do in his World’s Most Dangerous Places books). For me, however, it wasn’t a quick read. I found myself highlighting sentences, scribbling in the margins, and applying colored flags for quick and future reference. Pelton may challenge the journalist\ community with how he gets into the action (journos not always being the type who will ride with the bad guy when something might happen), but this is how he gets the facts, the story, and the respect that opens doors later. A perpetual cycle, his access gets him more access and so on. Unlike other others who seek to justify a point of view, Pelton comes off balanced, telling it like it is and, very importantly, with context.

Licensed to Kill is more than a narrative of private operators, it is almost a forensic look into the use of private military forces. High profile actors in the world of hired guns, such as Erik Prince and Blackwater, Tim Spicer, Simon Mann, and Michael Grunburg (profiled deeper in Three Worlds Gone Mad) of various ventures, and even a con-artist who’s convinced he’s the greatest American hero.

This book is a great resource the pulls the curtain aside to see how the firms operate and their motivations, and where they are being used. If you’re not provoked to learn more, you’re not paying attention.

There have been numerous references to this book on this site, look for more in the future. There’d be more now in this review, except Ioaned out my copy…