The Ethics of Private Military Contractors

A couple of days ago, a NYTimes article revealed that Blackwater Worldwide, a private military contracting group, authorized about $1 million in secret payments intended to bribe Iraqi officials to silence their criticism following a September 2007 incident in which Blackwater security guards shot and killed17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

This incident, disturbing in itself, and as one of my professors described, an example of the “’crony capitalism’ of the entire Iraq war financing coming home to roost” also raises a larger question which the Iraq war especially has surfaced: what are the ethical implications of using private military contractors in modern warfare, and correspondingly, what ethical standards should such contractors be held to?

Private military contractors (PMCs), unlike former private industries, do not provide the goods of modern warfare like the weapons, ammunition, and uniforms, but rather, the actual services of warfare. PMCs perform the functions once limited to state-sponsored soldiers, functions like training forces, logistics, and tactical combat. Basically, every activity available to state militaries can now be, and is, performed also by PMCs. P.W. Singer, in a 2005 interview with the Carnegie Council notes that one of the reasons we rely on the private military contractors is that the conduct of warfare itself has become so complicated that private soldiers simply do not have the expertise necessary to engage the level of technology used in modern combat

”If you were a US Navy sailor serving aboard a guided missile destroyer during the Iraq war,” notes Singer, “serving alongside you would have been twenty contractors from six different companies. They were the ones operating the air defense system, because it has gotten so sophisticated that we can’t keep people in the military to operate it. So we’ve turned to the private market.”

Singer also notes the size of the industry—approximately $100 billion per year in revenue on the global level, operating in over fifty different countries. The biggest client is the US.

“During the ten years leading up to the current Iraq war, the Pentagon entered into over 3,000 contracts with private military companies. . . Just one company in the military support sector, Halliburton and its KBR Division, just that one company has pulled in—depending on who does the accounting—somewhere between $13-16 billion worth of revenue related to the Iraq war. To put that figure in context, $13 billion is 2.5 times what the U.S. government spent (in current dollars) on the entire 1991 Gulf War.”

According the US Department of Labor, there were over 500 PMC deaths in Iraq as of September 2009. That number is way over1000 if you include Afghanistan.

The use of PMCs raises a host of ethical issues with towering implications for how we formulate a contemporary just war doctrine. The Just War Theory (JWT) provides rich normative categories with significant historical precedent with which to analyze the ethics of war. Typically, JWT is divided into two areas–ius ad bellum and ius in bello, the ethics of going to war and the ethics of fighting in war, respectively. Ius ad bellum requires that the war has a just cause, namely, self-defense; that the war is waged by a legitimate authority, typically the head of state; that the war has a high probability of success; that the intention of going to war is to establish a just peace; that the war is a proportional response to the threat at hand; and that the war is the last resort, namely, that the head of state declaring the war has attempted a number of other means of peaceably resolving the conflict.

If all other recourses fail, and a state goes to war, ius in bellum requires that the mode of combat is proportional, meaning that military attacks cannot be excessive in relation to the threat they face (no atomic bombs, e.g. against a developing nation without adequate combat technology) and most importantly, that non-combatants be granted protection. The principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants ensures that only soldiers be included as military targets.

From the normative perspective of JWT, there are a number of ways with which to analyze the ethical implications of PMCs. One might argue that the use of PMCs violates the principle of just intention, namely, that PMC’s intention for going to war is not the establishment of a just peace but rather financial gain. This raises larger practical problems. A soldier who goes to war fights in obedience to the state in pursuit of the intentions delineated by the state. PMCs go to war because they have been hired to do so. They are bound not by obedience to the military, but obedience to the contract. Ass Tony Coady argues, “someone who hires his gun to the highest bidder or, less dramatically, fights predominantly for money will typically lack the motive appropriate to war, as specified by just war theory.” James Pattison calls this the “mercenary motive.” This is not to say that PMCs might not have very good motives, like patriotism, for going to war, but under the normative guidelines of JWT, the presence of an unsuitable motive (i.e. financial gain) seems objectionable as just according to ius ad bellum guidelines.

Additionally, the use of PMCs raises serious ius in bello questions such as how the principle of noncombatant immunity may apply in a war of contractors operating alongside military. Whereas state-sponsored soldiers are subject to legal measures that restrict the conduct of warfare, PMC personnel operate largely outside the effective jurisdiction of national and international law. Additionally, the status of PMCs under international humanitarian law is ambiguous. It is unclear whether PMCs can legally be defined as “combatants,” raising further questions about whether they can be granted prisoner-of-war status under Article 4 of the third Geneva Convention. James Pattison writes,

The problem is that this lack of effective legal accountability results in impunity. In Iraq, for instance, a number of PMC employees have been implicated in human rights abuses of civilians, but almost none have been prosecuted. More specifically, in his testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee, the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill claims that while there have been sixty-four courts-martial of regular soldiers on murder-related charges in Iraq, only two private contractors have faced criminal prosecution.

This brings us to the article mentioned in the first paragraph of this post regarding Blackwater’s responsibility for 17 Iraqi civilian deaths. The normative force of JWT is that it should limit as much as possible the horrors of war by limiting the moral and legal right to wage war and by limiting the way in which war can be conducted. The use of PMCs, despite some advantages, does exactly the opposite of what the JWT strives to do—it opens up the possibility for more, not less, warfare.

First, the use of PMCs makes it possible for states to wage more wars. Despite the decline in the size of most state militaries, a potential disincentive to going to war, states now do not only have to rely on military might in order to successfully wage war. This makes it more likely that a state will choose to go to war rather than seeking alternative means of resolving conflicts that do not put military personnel in harm’s way.

Second, soldiers are strictly limited legally and morally in what they can and cannot do during warfare. Soldiers wear the uniform of the US and thus they represent not only themselves, but also their country. The morality of their acts reflect the morality of the nation they serve. In winning the hearts and minds of a conquered nation in and after warfare, it is critical that military personnel behave inscrutably, and they are given multiple incentives and disincentives to do so. PMCs have no such allegiance, and no such limitations to their behavior. They do not wear the US uniform, or necessarily even serve under the US flag. They represent only themselves, and not necessarily a greater collectivity, in their operations during warfare. Thus, they are less likely to limit the sort of actions they engage in, as we see in the Blackwater case.

Last, the use of PMCs blurs the lines of command in battle. The military’s strict hierarchical structure and protocol guarantees that in the stress of battle, each individual knows who he is accountable to. The use of PMCs, especially in cases where PMCs are hired for their technical expertise, raises the possibility of soldiers having to choose between two authorities in the heat of battle. The collapse of protocol leads to chaos, and in war, chaos leads to death.

As with most ethical inquiries, there is no clear-cut right or wrong. The use of PMCs in contemporary warfare is advantageous for many reasons that I did not lay out in this post. But when it comes to the ethics of warfare, the spirit of JWT is to limit warfare, largely by rendering the decision to go to war, and the possibility of fighting a war, as inefficient as possible. PMCs are directly contrary to that spirit of JWT. While there may be circumstances in which their use could be justified, I think that JWT theory demands we conclude that their general use is not just.

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8 comments so far

  1. dad on

    Private contractors have played a major role in warfare throughout history. Men and armies with no allegiance have hired themselves out to the highest bidder and in some cases may have been instrumental in changing history. During WWII the convoys that kept Great Britain supplied with material to fend off the Nazi invasion was manned mostly by civilian sailors. They were paid well, were not associated with a military and suffered dearly in the numbers that were lost. After the aircraft carrier Yorktown was damaged early in the war in the Pacific, it was brought into Pearl Harbor for emergency repairs and went back out to sea to engage the Japanese with civilians on board to complete repairs and train sailors on how to effectively use the new technology instruments of war. When the Marines in the South Pacific were engaging in an air war against a superior force, it was Charles Lindbergh, a civilian, who trained the Marines in how to extend the range of their aircraft and even flew missions, shooting down enemy planes before he was sent back to the United States.
    Civilian advisors were used in Viet Nam from the 60’s until the final pull out. They too suffered and had no rights under the Geneva Convention as “soldiers of a military” and thus no protection from horrible atrocities and torture.
    I have many friends who are currently serving overseas in a “PMC” capacity. Do they get paid well? Yes and deserve it. They are serving in jobs that are critical to keeping the military safe and moving forward. They train soldiers in techniques such as how to fight and survive in close quarters and door to door fighting; how to recognize and deal with improvised explosive devises (IED’s); how to get the most out of new high tech equipment like the unmanned aerial observation/attack aircraft and so much more.
    Are they “mercenaries”? No. They would not fight for the other side no matter what the money. They are Americans and most have served prior in the military and would again. They may be too old or have medical issues that would not let them qualify for active military service but, yet they serve.
    I applaud them and thank them for their service. They choose not to sit back in a warm, safe (for now) home and criticize how we are fighting an ideology that commands the slaughter of babies, innocent children and anyone who will not believe as they do. Make your money, teach our boys and ladies how to kill the enemy and then, come home safe.

    • everydaythomist on

      Dad,
      You are right to bring up many of the positive dimensions of PMCs that I neglected in my brief essay. Two of the most important jobs that PMCs engage in are consultants (who don’t fight but who train the military in how to do the job better) and support (who don’t fight but take care of the logistics and tech aid necessary for a contemporary military operation to succeed.) You are also right that many, perhaps most, PMCs are brave, loyal, dedicated individuals who are completely committed to a US military success abroad. I in no way meant to denigrate the work of these individuals.

      But (and there is a big “but” when it comes to PMCs), many US PMCs have much more questionable pasts. Some PMCs have worked for warlords, dictatorships, drug cartels, and even Muslim jihadists themselves have been contracted on several occasions by our military to provide military support.

      Moreover, there are too many cases in my opinion of unethical acts of violence by PMCs. Take the case of Zapata Engineering, which was contracted to blow up old Baathist party ammunition, explosives and other weapon stockpiles left over from Saddam’s reign. Zapata hired its own military protection, which has been accused by the US Marines, nonetheless, of firing on civilians. Eventually, the Marines kicked Zapata out of the country. Now, Zapata says they are innocent, the Marines say they are guilty, and Zapata is not allowed back into Iraq to do the important work they were commissioned to do. Had they been US Marines, the Zapata folks would have been court-martialed.

      Even if we accept the overall morality of PMCs, we need to at least admit that there needs to be greater legal protection and regulation of these sort-of-civilians, and some sort of government oversight committee. In 2005, when the Zapata issue was taking place, and we had just lost a bunch of contractors in Fallujah, there were only 14 people in the entire Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) working on contract oversight in Iraq. And even today, four years later, we are still trying to figure out how to prosecute PMCs for crimes committed in Iraq. In 2005, when there had been over 60 military court martials in Iraq, zero PMCs had been prosecuted for crimes committed abroad. Clearly, legal oversight is falling short.

      There is another issue which should matter a lot to you. Our government’s financing of PMCs actually has a negative impact on our own soldiers. Halliburton, for example, was a contracted group receiving millions of dollars from the US military. With the money we spent on Halliburton, we could have bough 2.3 million sets of body armor, or 10,000 up-armored Humvees, preventing IED deaths that have taken such a toll on our military. The evidence is clear that our soldiers were not provided proper body armor and vehicular protection, but we had the money to do so. We just spent it on contractors.

      I think you are right to point out that most PMCs are good, decent folk, but I think the system is flawed and needs repair. A system that cannot hold individuals accountable for firing on civilians is not a system I want to have any part of.

  2. Scott Haile on

    To me, private citizens serving the military in a training capacity seems to make a lot of sense. Private citizens wielding weapons in another country seems horribly wrong. Maybe most of them are honorable, but there needs to be formal accountability as well.

    But on a larger scale, I’m a big believer that if you make war profitable for businesses, you *will* see some of those businesses manipulating the course of events to prolong the war or even harm the U.S. effort to make more money. Having honorable people on the ground doesn’t really solve the problem when the business executives at the top of the company know they can make billions of dollars as long as the war continues. Just look at what happened when Enron intentionally orchestrated an energy crisis in California so they could charge more for electricity–sure some of the executives eventually went to prison, but in the meantime people suffered. Then imagine some of those same business executives playing a key role in our national defense.

    Using private contractors also means that the most talented people will serve in the private sector rather than our military, since they can make more money there. It would seem to make a lot more sense for the U.S. military to offer more money to its own members to gain the necessary expertise. That way we pay for the services we’re using, without a corporation skimming off the top.

    Certainly there’s a great threat to the USA from people whose ideology aims to destroy us. But there is *always* a simultaneous threat to any nation from self-interested business people who would seek to manipulate us from inside.

    • everydaythomist on

      Scott,
      You are certainly right about PMCs providing incentives for our most talented and dedicated folk to leave to the military and enter the private sector. One of the companies I looked up leased about 60 up-armored Humvees, the most secure vehicle available. They actually leased the Humvees from a company that made up-armored vehicles fir rap stars. They were able to offer more protection for their workers than the military was able to offer its soldiers.

      PMCs also have the finances to recruit the best of the best. Our US military is now compelled to offer bonuses of over $100,000 for soldiers to re-enlist because we basically have to bid against ourselves in order to keep the most talented individuals in the military.

      In some cases, PMCs and US military do not even consider themselves allies. The Zapata case I mentioned in response to Dad involved allegations against the US Marines of torture in abuse during detainment. One Zapata employee described the US Marines as “dogs” that had been sicced on Zapata personnel. Another Zapata employee reports a Marine asking, while beating him, “How do you like that contractor money right now?”

      What this boils down to is that private and military groups who are supposed to be fighting for the same cause are fighting amongst themselves. Is this how we want to represent ourselves to the Iraqis, who we are trying to win over?

  3. ScottS on

    Note that PMCs are also fixing computers or dilivering groceries on our bases over seas. Blackwater is a special case since they are one the few that actually are armed in their service. The military cannot afford to use a trained soldier to restock bubble gum.

    Was Blackwater bribing people or simply increasing their marketting budget. There are many ways to spin this.

    • everydaythomist on

      Scott,
      You are right that many, if not most, PMCs are not directly engaged in combat. Still, as I mentioned to Dad above, their legal status is still ambiguous, which is both dangerous for the PMCs and dangerous for Iraqi civilians if and when PMCs do something illegal while on duty. Establishing the legal rights and accountability measures of PMCs is a necessary prerequisite to sending private contractors abroad to do business of any sort during wartime.

      As for Blackwater, the evidence seems to point to bribes. Do you have any sources indicating otherwise?

      • ScottS on

        I don’t have much time to dig into topics these days… If BW were to offer bribes then they would basically lose everything. Congress seems to take the usage of contractors very seriously. Plus, in the past year the company has had a lot of turn over at high levels including the CEO.

        I felt this article with little less anti-war spin was better than most on the main news sources: http://www.military.com/news/article/blackwater-reportedly-okd-iraq-bribes.html?ESRC=topstories.RSS

        I also found this CBO document very informative. You have probably seen something like it or maybe a more recent version. This one is dated August of last year.

        http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/96xx/doc9688/08-12-IraqContractors.pdf

        Your post raises some great questions.

      • Scott Haile on

        After watching the movie about Enron, and then the meltdown of banks in the past year, I put exceedingly little stock in the idea that corporate executives wouldn’t take certain risks because of what they have to lose. High stakes business grooms people specifically to take huge risks when there’s a big $$ payoff on the other side. And when the U.S. Military can’t function without you, you know your corporation isn’t going to really lose anything even if you get caught. Just learn the lesson from the banks — they could take absurd risks because they knew they’d get bailed out even if they failed.

        If a person commits a crime, you can punish him or her, throw him in jail, and he’ll have to stop committing the crime. With corporations, there’s no way to provide this kind of accountability. If you punish the CEO, the rest of the corporation can keep on with business–all they have to do is learn from their mistakes and hide their illegal doings better in the future.

        In other words, you can always try to punish the individuals who broke the law. But with a huge corporation, there’s no reason to assume that punishing individuals will stop the corporation from breaking the law again. The only accountability for a corporation like that is for the U.S. government to simply stop employing them once something like this happens. And I’m betting Blackwater is more than willing to call our bluff, if we threaten that, since we evidently can’t fight the war without them.

        Does anyone think we’re going to completely blackball Blackwater now? Neither do I. Does anyone think Blackwater is going to stop breaking the law since they got caught once? Neither do I.


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