I have memories from my first deployment to Iraq that are unclassifiable: memories that destabilize my certainty about the world. One of the strongest of these is of being on tower guard – which is exactly what it sounds like – and watching American mercenaries roll out of the gate to go on a mission.
Of course they didn’t call themselves mercenaries, but instead used the more neutral term contractor. Most of them had formerly served in the US armed forces. Many had been exactly where we were, looking down from an observation point in a tower, guarding a base, bored from scanning the horizon and having long since run out of things to talk about with the person next to them.
We shared so much in common: Americans in a war zone, sleeping only yards from one another. And yet I had a real animosity for them. Every similarity we shared felt negated by the fact that we were real soldiers, and they were opportunists – paid more than we were for doing the same job. We risked our lives for honor, out of a sense of duty. They fought for money.
The hiring of mercenaries has an ancient, if not entirely venerable, history. Mercenaries were employed by the Roman Empire, of course. The European Middle Ages were rife with troops who were often little more than hired thugs – also known as “contractors,” condottieri. When their employers couldn’t pay them outright, mercenaries were promised plunder, which typically came from the innocents unfortunate enough to live in the army’s path. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that state-run armies began gradually to replace mercenaries. Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and private defense contractor who now teaches foreign policy at Georgetown University, writes in The Modern Mercenary:
By 1650, it was clear that on-demand military services were no longer economical to rulers, given the destruction that mercenaries wrought upon the countryside and the threat they posed to their employers. What was needed was a public army of systematically trained and disciplined professionals, maintained in peace and war, winter and summer, with a regular means of obtaining supplies and replacements. Critically, this military force would be paid by, and loyal to, the state.
This notion carried on into the Enlightenment, as the modern nation-state became inextricably bound up with its military. Immanuel Kant’s 1795 pamphlet Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, often taken to be the blueprint for modern liberal thought, theorizes the eventual eradication of war by the creation of citizen armies. If the decision is left to a coterie of nobles, Kant reasons, then warring is done “without any significant reason, as a kind of amusement.” And mercenaries, according to Kant, are “mere machines” with a vested economic interest in ongoing hostilities. Citizens, on the other hand, would surely only choose to go to war themselves in cases of absolute necessity. As Daniel Moran explains in his book The People in Arms, “Because [republics] were founded upon universal values and the consent of the governed, they could respond directly to mankind’s natural preference for peace and prosperity over war and penury.” Kant’s thinking was that lasting peace would require citizens to have their own skin in the game, so to speak, in order to avoid unnecessary aggression.
Of course, the history of the twentieth century calls into question Kant’s rosy theorizing. With democracies maintaining powerful militaries, wars only got larger and deadlier, with more bodies thrown into the meat grinder. But this sort of political reasoning persists. After all, in a democracy, whether or not they have much skin in the game personally, citizens themselves – via their elected representatives – do influence when we go to war.
To fight for one’s nation as a soldier was honorable. To fight only for money became the ultimate mark of dishonor.
Another vestige of the Kantian ideal is the image of the noble citizen soldier. A soldier fighting for a nation is on higher moral ground than a mere “sellsword.” The ideal of private honor, which in the Renaissance led to the private mini-wars called duels, transformed into the ideal of public honor. To fight for one’s nation as a soldier was honorable. To fight only for money became the ultimate mark of dishonor.
In reality, despite our Enlightenment ideals, most of America’s military excursions haven’t passed the democratic test. Though “private interest” now refers to the profit of corporations instead of local lords, the line between private interest and public resources (soldiers and tax dollars) remains blurred. The distinction became functionally irrelevant during World War II, thanks to the top-secret Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. As Garry Wills writes in his book Bomb Power:
For the first time in our history, the president was given sole and unconstrained authority over all possible uses of the Bomb. All the preparations, protections, and auxiliary requirements for the Bomb’s use, including secrecy about the whole matter and a worldwide deployment of various means of delivery, launching by land, sea, air, or space – a vast network for the study, development, creation, storage, guarding, and updating of nuclear arsenals, along with an immense intelligence apparatus to ascertain conditions for the weapons’ maintenance and employment – all these were concentrated in the executive branch, immune from interference by the legislative or judicial branches. Every executive encroachment or abuse was liable to justification from this one supreme power.
Indeed, the creation of the bomb itself, Wills explains, necessitated a parallel, secret government that could draw on vast public and private resources well out of the watchful public eye. When the war eventually ended, this parallel infrastructure of national defense cannibalized our democratically controlled military, replacing it with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address.
The moral drawbacks of maintaining a public-private hybrid defense system that is untethered from public control bear a direct relation to the material drawbacks. Mandy Smithberger from the Project on Government Oversight explained this to me:
Decisions about where we go to war, what services and weapons we buy, and where we otherwise deploy forces should be based on our national security interests, and ideally the most cost-effective way to advance those goals. When the military and the Pentagon become too close to defense contractors it becomes too easy to conflate what benefits those companies – big budgets, endless war, and reduced oversight – with what is truly in the public interest.
The term “public interest” has been largely emptied of its significance by proponents of excessive defense budgets. In 2015, US military spending accounted for nearly six hundred billion dollars, or 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending. Defenders of big military budgets argue that this contributes to the economic well-being of the country, pointing to its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP). But a 2017 study of one hundred and seventy countries over forty-five years, published in the journal Defense and Peace Economics, undermines this claim. It finds that, across the board, increased military spending negatively impacted a country’s economic growth. And even if high defense spending bolstered GDP, that’s not enough to prove that it is in the public interest. GDP is a notoriously poor tool for assessing the public interest: after all, it counts natural disasters as economic positives while ignoring vital aspects of human flourishing, such as leisure time and equitable distribution of resources. Funneling vast public resources into a military-industrial complex largely sheltered from democratic oversight might cause GDP to rise, but so might an earthquake or a hurricane. This is the wrong way to measure the common good.
Nevertheless, big budgets and endless war have been the predominant experience of the American military since World War II. And as public involvement in war making and intelligence gathering has receded, the trend of privatizing our defenses continues unabated, despite much-publicized scandals. In 2009, according to McFate, the ratio of contractors to US troops in war zones was one to one; it is now roughly three to one. Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire, writes in the New York Times: “These companies are deeply engaged in countries dependent on mining and extractive industries. … Their deployment, coupled with extensive use of intelligence and surveillance contractors, makes it possible for the United States to pursue wars on the sly. Who besides their families keeps track of contractor deaths – estimated at over six thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan – on the battlefield?”
Were the mercenaries just a more honest version of what I was?
Shorrock’s point about contractors in countries dependent on extractive industries reveals another aspect of this trend: mercenary companies employed by the US government for counterterrorism work are often simultaneously hired by the local government, a local warlord, or another private corporation to guard mines and industrial plants. These industries tend to have the worst human rights records, and persistent corruption.
Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private military company Blackwater, seems persistently drawn to these business opportunities: this year, he’s been aiming to go into cobalt mining in central Africa. In a region with no effective national governance, such an enterprise must somehow combine business, private government, and private military: a sort of corporate state, in fact, which Prince claims would benefit those under its hand.
There is an effort afoot to create a firmer border between private firms and our public defense organizations. Yet the difficulty in establishing where this line lies indicates that there is something even bigger and more insidious at play. When the Pentagon is unteth-ered from common notions of when combat is absolutely required and when it is not, its animating logic too often comes to mirror the logic of capitalism itself.
“Most taxpayers seriously think ‘defense’ of the country is the basic task of the military,” John Dolan, who writes military analysis under the pen name Gary Brecher and runs the War Nerd podcast, explained to me recently. “But that hasn’t been the plan for a long time. The US military is de facto an instrument of interventionist foreign policy. Its job is to enforce policy, usually very dumb policy, around the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa and to a lesser extent in sub-Saharan Africa.”
“The big problem for a profit-based military,” Dolan added, “which is what ‘private’ means here, is that it might someday have to fight a real war. And when it does, it will find that profit isn’t much use. Why are we buying the useless, obscenely expensive F-35, when much cheaper planes like the A-10 and F-16 do its jobs much better? Because there’s more money in a bad plane, which will generate far more profit in decades of urgent, price-gouged repairs and refits than even its $1.4 trillion initial price tag.” (Dolan was referring to the official projected cost of the F-35 program over its fifty-five-year lifetime.)
To put it plainly, we have a military whose primary motive is to metastasize, not serve the people. It is here that its resemblance to capitalism is most plain: both are unyoked from any guiding moral principles and constantly seek to move beyond physical or ideological limits.
A striking illustration of this is the new technologies the US military is spearheading. For instance, the Department of Defense is creating prototypes of direct brain-to-machine interfacing, and overseeing trials “using mind-controlled drones for use by the military.” It’s also pioneering new ways for artificial intelligence to predict which people holding security clearances might breach security protocols – a military parallel to the “predictive policing” now employed in several American cities. As Patrick Tucker writes at Defense One, “the goal is not just to detect employees who have betrayed their trust, but to predict which ones might – allowing problems to be resolved with calm conversation rather than punishment.” He goes on to call this the future of human resources.
Capitalism and the military want, for lack of a better term, the same things. Both want intrusive intelligence and data gathering for purposes of control. Both wish to replace thinking with mechanical calculation, meaning and purpose with accumulation. And perhaps most importantly, both want to “reduce humans themselves to functional elements in a system,” as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes. “Capitalist production is aimless,” Han states in his book The Agony of Eros. “It no longer has any concern for the good life.” A military unmoored from any hard definition of necessity, unaccountable to the people it serves, takes on these same nihilistic characteristics.
I surely wasn’t thinking about all these things when I was standing in my guard tower back in Iraq, watching the mercenaries roll out of the gate. I was just awash in strong emotion. I felt disdain at what I perceived was, for lack of a better word, such a dishonorable profession.
But in retrospect, that revulsion was tempered by a barely perceptible notion that perhaps I wasn’t all that different from them. That maybe they were just a more honest version of what I was, and that the oath I took and the creeds I followed only camouflaged the true nature of our endeavor. Maybe I hated them for making it so obvious.