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Dogs of War: The founding contractors

By DAVID ISENBERG   |   July 7, 2008 at 3:31 PM
WASHINGTON, July 7 (UPI) -- While many commentators acknowledge that private military and security contractors are not mercenaries, some of them still contend that their use, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is a new phenomenon, something that emerged full blown from free market apostles like Ronald Reagan, George Bush (senior and junior) and Bill Clinton.

But any fair-minded reading of history should quickly expose such a view for what it is: namely nonsense.

Private contractors are as American as apple pie. In fact, without private contractors there would not have been an America. Or, to paraphrase Genesis: In the beginning, God created private contractors.

Private contractors helped set the stage for what would become America. Consider that Capt. John Smith was hired by the Virginia Co. to provide security and conduct military operations for the English settlers at Jamestown. He led the 1606 expedition to Virginia and was elected head of Jamestown colony.

Massachusetts is another state whose existence is inextricably liked to a private contractor. Its state seal bears the image of the arm of a private contractor brandishing a sword. The arm and sword, according to an official National Guard history, are those of Capt. Myles Standish, guardian of the Pilgrims. Standish was an English soldier hired by Merchant Adventurers to accompany the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and lead the military defense of Plymouth Colony in 1620.

The private militia of the Massachusetts Bay Co. in 1636 is the ancestor of the Massachusetts Minutemen, who became the first units of the U.S. Army in 1775. Nowadays its descendants are such units as the 181st and 182nd Infantry, 101st Field Artillery, and 101st Engineer Battalion of the Massachusetts National Guard.

As an article in Serviam magazine, an industry trade publication, noted, privately capitalized companies ran the early American colonies and usually financed their self-defense forces on their own, though legal authority still came from the British government. Essentially, the crown outsourced the defense of the colonies to the colonists themselves.

Indeed, going back over a century before that, a Genoese Italian by the name of Christophorus (Christopher) Columbus was essentially working as a private contractor for the king and queen of Spain when he made his famous voyage in 1492 and subsequent ones that started the process of Spanish colonization, which foreshadowed general European settlement of the "New World."

Last year Professor Alexander Tabarrok, at George Mason University, traced the history of private contractors in a study published by the Independent Institute. He showed that public navies and armies only began to displace private contractors in the 19th century, as governments became more powerful and better funded.

And a just published book, "Patriot Pirates" by Robert Patton, grandson of Gen. George Patton, details how more than 2,000 privately owned warships were commissioned by Congress to attack the enemy and seize transports and sell their cargoes for money during the American Revolution. Sailors made more in a month than they might otherwise earn in a year. Does that sound familiar?

Judging by the numbers, those privateers were far more effective than the fledgling Continental Navy. According to the U.S. Merchant Marine, during the six years of the American Revolution, the Continental Navy consisted of only 64 ships. The Continental Navy had an arsenal of 1,246 guns aboard its boats and ships; the privateers had 14,872. The Continental Navy captured 196 enemy ships compared to the privateers' 2,283.

If current private military firms had a record like that, nobody would ever question their claims of cost effectiveness. Indeed, their actions were so vital to the creation of the country that private contractors are even referenced in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which concerns the right of Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal to attack enemy shipping. Today's private military firms can only look enviously at testimonials like that.

This wartime privateering was essentially a conflict between business and morality, and has been central to the way America thinks about military and war issues since the country's beginnings.

Incidentally, the role of private maritime contractors did not end with the American Revolution. They served the United States in the nation's first foreign war, from 1801 to 1805, against the Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean, who plundered U.S. merchant ships and sold American crewmen and families into slavery.

And they fought the British again in the War of 1812. No less a personage than famed U.S. naval geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized that the nation's fleet of private warships "cooperated powerfully with other motives to dispose the enemy to liberal terms of peace."

Speaking of the Revolution, it owed its success in part to men like John Paul Jones, originally from Scotland. Although he was not a privateer, after the American Revolution he worked as one for the Russian navy, where he obtained the rank of admiral.

And, on the ground, it was a private businessman who, before the start of the Revolution, offered to build a thousand-man army at his own expense, if the Continental Congress, of which he was a member, failed to fund a standing military. That was a far more financially risky endeavor than anything a private security firm like Blackwater has ever attempted. That entrepreneur was George Washington. By the way, Washington himself invested in at least one wartime privateer.

And, of course, there were the French Marquis de Lafayette and Prussian Baron von Steuben, two of the most celebrated foreigners who helped the Continental Army fight for independence. Lafayette, however, would not be much of a private military contractor by today's standards, as he offered to serve as a volunteer at his own expense.

Private contractors like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided intelligence for the Union and personal protection for President Lincoln during the Civil War and, in the Flying Tiger, flew on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek in World War II. And there are many more examples.

The bottom line is that private contractors, like death and taxes, have always been with us.

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(U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a correspondent for Asia Times and the author of a forthcoming book, "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq." His "Dogs of War" column, analyzing developments in the private security and military sector, usually appears every Friday.)

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