Spies & Mercenaries

Erik Prince's proposal to privatize the war in Afghanistan has several drawbacks, one of which is that I don't think it can possibly bring about a successful conclusion to that war. All the same, this article in Politico is ridiculously unfair to Prince and his efforts. It's fine to be against doing this, but be reasonable.
[Prince] insists contractors should not be stigmatized as “mercenaries,” even though he is proposing armed civilians in conflict zones—the classic definition of a mercenary.
I don't know about 'classic,' but there's an in-practice UN definition of mercenaries that does not include contractors.
Instead, he says they are like the Flying Tigers, the popular name of the 1st American Volunteer Group that flew against the Japanese in 1941–42. Here is where his analogy takes a nosedive: The Flying Tigers were not mercenaries.
Prince: 'Contractors are not mercenaries. They're like the Flying Tigers.'

Proposed rebuttal: 'Nonsense! The Flying Tigers were not mercenaries!'

QED, dude.

In fact, the Flying Tigers were contractors paid by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, with kill bonuses from the Chinese government. Thus, Prince is right in his analogy, more or less.
Rather, they were U.S. military pilots who took off their uniforms to fly as civilians, so that FDR did not have to declare war. Once war was declared, they flew as American fighter pilots once again.
That's a war crime, by the way: perfidy. It also made them legally spies that could be shot on sight.
That’s hardly the same thing as contractors being paid, often exorbitantly, to fight a war on our behalf.
Except that they were contractors, paid a fairly decent sum for every kill.
Where will these mercenaries come from? According to Prince, all will be “brave Americans” who are “former Special Operations veterans.” More sales talk. To keep costs down, he will probably have to outsource to the so-called Third World, where military labor is cheap.
So, we're just to assume that he's lying about that? Because that would be a closer parallel to the Flying Tigers than you wanted to allow (some being no longer active duty). Also, the fact that they are citizens of a nation that is a party to the conflict is why they're contractors and not mercenaries under the UN rule.
When I was in the industry, I worked alongside other ex-special forces and ex-paratroopers from places like the Philippines, Colombia and Uganda.
You know who trained those ex-special forces from the Philippines before they were "ex"? American Special Operations forces.
But do we want Filipino, Colombian and Ugandan mercenaries fighting our wars for us, their way?
That is literally why we trained them.
Prince assures us that nothing will go wrong. To avoid Nisour incidents in the future, he wants to place all mercenaries under U.S. military law, known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, this resolves little. Take, for example, jurisdiction: What happens if a Guatemalan mercenary massacres an Afghan family while on an American contract?
That is exactly the sort of issue that a Status of Forces agreement addresses. The government of Afghanistan would have to agree to terms, and those terms would establish these details.

The article closes with a shot at Prince's patriotism for seeking work from the UAE and China, just to ad an ad hominem on the end of a terrible argument.

I still think Prince's approach can't possibly work, but good gracious. Isn't it enough to criticize it on its logistical and practical problems?


Tom said...

Just as a general point, the left often claims people enlist in the US military because they are poor, ill-educated, and don't have any other economic opportunities. This effectively makes them all mercenaries, doesn't it?

Always trying to have their cake and eat it too, I suppose.

I have heard, but haven't checked to see if it's true, that way back when the British were debating going to an all-volunteer force, one reason put forth to oppose it was that it would make all of the enlisted mercenaries, joining just for the paycheck. Supposedly, that's what A. E. Housman's poem was about:

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Larry said...

I'm asking this question because I need help making the distinction. By the UN definition, the Flying Tigers would have been considered mercenaries. The AVG was formed precisely because the US was not a party to the conflict, and could not be seen to be sending American forces to fight the Japanese. They could have been said to be motivated by material gain, although I get the sense from what I've read that many were as strongly motivated by intangibles. How is a contractor different from a mercenary?

Larry said...

I suppose it could be argued that the AVG was given the appearance of a mercenary organization, when in fact it wasn't, but the subterfuge seems to me to expose them to the charge of perfidy.

Grim said...

The UN rule post-dates WWII (as does the UN itself), so it wasn't relevant to the period in any case. They were guilty of perfidy, portraying themselves as a private venture when in fact they were an American effort to aid China's nascent air force against Japan's quite powerful one. They were also spies, under the laws of war: the CIA would have run the program if it had happened a few years later, but the CIA didn't exist either.

Today's Private Military Companies (PMCs) are neither spies nor mercenaries under the law. They aren't spies because they openly wear uniforms declaring their allegiance to whichever party to the conflict is employing them. They aren't mercenaries because a space has been cut out of the anti-mercenary rule just for them. The US isn't a signatory of the anti-mercenary rule anyway, but even if it were it could employ Prince and his contractors without violating the rule so long as the national governments of which the contractors were citizens were parties to the conflict (e.g., members of a US-led 'coalition').

In this way, they most resemble earlier volunteer units such as the local militias that often served in the Civil War. They're not formally part of the US military; they provide their own uniforms, arms, and equipment; but they are formally aligned with, and responsible to, their own national governments.

Mercenaries, by distinction, operate independently without regard to their government's opinion. So, you see, the rule is really about enshrining the authority of the state over its citizens (like many UN rules). A cynic might even say that the rule is not principally about preventing mercenaries, but about punishing independence of thought and action when it conflicts with submission to state authority.