Mercenaries: Useless and Dangerous? It is a matter of choice

As much as I hate to hear Machiavelli’s warning against mercenaries regurgitated without so much as a fundamental understanding of the realities of the time and place it was written, recent revelations that the Department of State willingly allowed Blackwater to use aggressive tactics to “keep the Diet Pepsi from spilling” resonates deeply with the real intent of the Secretary. The irony almost drips from the media reporting on State’s culpability in Blackwater’s tactics that virtually incited the Iraqi public against the mission.

As I have written about many times here (and here and more generally here), blaming the companies themselves, especially after four years of rules-free or as we are learning now protected behavior (versus merely ignoring the behavior), is foolish. MountainRunner friend Singer ably points out that Congress is either ignorant or, well, ignorant:

The hearing revealed a fascinating, but also disturbing, lack of awareness in Congress about the private military industry. Members on both sides repeatedly struggled with the most basic facts and issues that surround the over 160,000-person contractor force in Iraq: Everything from the number and roles of contractors to their status and accountability, or lack thereof. It was quite clear that this was the first time that many had been forced to think much about the issue (even though the industry is over a decade old and the supplemental funds have been paying for the use of contractors in Iraq, year after year).

What I found especially telling, given the consistently weak grasp of the issues, was that multiple representatives opened their remarks by talking about how Blackwater contractors protected them while on visits to Iraq. They often meant this as a compliment to the firm, and also a way of establishing their credentials on the issue.  But it usually backfired, revealing a lack of simple curiosity.  It showed that they’ve known about the massive use of contractors for years – they just didn’t bother to ask any questions, even when the issue was in their faces.

Many representatives questioned the issue of legal status of contractors and why they weren’t being held accountable. No one had a good handle on this.  Prince, for one, frequently mentioned how he had fired employees who may have violated some law, but could not go beyond such an action.  And no one was there from the Department of Justice to explain why they have avoided prosecuting these same employees.

The hearings today shows that in fact Machiavellian quotations do have a place in today’s debate over Blackwater, but not as the blanket statement they are too often used for. Many cite Machiavelli’s warning to his prince about his contemporary contractors, the condottieri, but conveniently ignore, just as the Secretary did, the political economy of the period, especially the substantial role private soldiers and sailors played in virtually every war since the beginning of recorded history.

The Strategist (via ZenPundit), is one recent example but you can find other examples in nearly every other account of mercenaries/contractors. In the case of The Strategist, he looks to Machiavelli to support his argument that all mercenaries are bad, specifically observations on Sforza, the mercenary who “betrayed the Milanese”, and the comparisons to free German city-states and Swiss Cantons. As is the case today, the fact that Milan placed so much unguarded trust and minimal oversight is their fault. Would you leave your child in the care of somebody you don’t know and don’t monitor in some way, shape or form? Why your state? Further, the irony is lost on The Strategist as he draws from the short-sighted Machiavelli as he uses two mercenary providers as evidence of self-defense.

The reality is different when historical context and details are included. Take for example the more frequently cited warning by Machiavelli that mercenaries are “useless and dangerous…and without discipline,” but this is much less damning when reinserted into the socio-temporal context in which it was made and its aftermath.

Machiavelli’s own beloved Florence attempted to raise a citizen-army in an era when skill was much needed on the battlefield. However, after continually losing battles to smaller contract armies, Florence decided to return to condottieri.

Machiavelli counseled against using foreigners to fight the battles of the ruler was based on the idea that patriotism, or what we call nationalism today, were prerequisites for victory and nothing else could substitute. Missing from his model, was the prerequisite capital to train and maintain a standing army, as well as having an economy that could afford the absence of these men from production.

The requirement of political and economic capital to go with something other mercenaries are often ignored and not something states could afford until forced by the evolving market of war hundreds of years after Machiavelli (why is it that people forget this part?) and hundreds of years after the Treaties of Westphalia.

More important, the warnings over the quality of service and loyalty was arguably a charge that sometimes might have been more appropriately levied against Machiavelli’s princes than on the mercenaries. This shifting of responsibility is what we see today in the debate over private military industry, security and reconstruction alike (although the media is focused on the gun-slingers today, hopefully soon they will go back to the shoddy work of the non-military contractors who had a bigger hand in dragging down the fallen image of the United States).

The essence of the debates must not be the emotional reaction of contractors on the battlefield, but their role in our national security. Contractors, mercenaries, or whatever you want to call them are not antithetical to democracy, to nationalism, or modern warfare. They are, however, a severe threat to national security if not managed properly. This was well understood by the US Congress in 1812 when it last authorized the President to use mercenaries in the conduct of war, provided Congress maintained oversight over the contractors.

Emotions make great theater and sell papers, but they don’t bring solutions. Rescinding CPA Order 17 and similar measures without well-thought-out plans will lead to very bad things, as I noted earlier. State is fully aware of this issue when it recommended Blackwater reduced its proposed payment to the family of a deceased Iraqi.

Nick Bicanic’s testimony to Congress is key here. I emphasize them again here because I helped him write those words, which echo other posts on this blog with regards to the military as public diplomats and the very purpose of the screening of his film at USC back one year ago this month (read what I wrote then here), an event the USC Center for Public Diplomacy denied had anything to do with shaping foreign opinions or public diplomacy in general.

In a world where perceptions matter more than fact, and whether or not Blackwater acted properly on September 16th, the lady has sung. What we do is critical. Do we learn from the informational power of our agents and bring them inside the kimono or do we fantasize about a deniable accountability we don’t even practice (think Fallujah and senior USG civilians forcing a reaction that reoriented the vector of the war from positive to steeply negative) and whip them more and then return to old practices? One will lead to enhanced national security and the other will not, and we will see more of the same in the future.