The "it" being the hiring by a nation of someone other than their own countrymen to pick up a weapon and fight on their behalf.
Such people have been called many things throughout human history: soldiers of fortune, condotierri, free companies (which is the root of the modern term freelancers), and, thanks to William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, dogs of war.
The history of their formation and use is a long and complex one that can't be covered here. Though it is worth noting that the formation of mercenary companies in the Middle Ages was, in some senses, the earliest antecedents of what we would now call the private sector. Let's just say that war and business are very familiar and intimate partners.
Nowadays, people tend to label anyone who carries a gun and isn't a member of a regular military establishment a mercenary. Such people are supposedly uncontrollable rogues who commit unspeakable atrocities and wreak havoc.
Well, war is war and violence is an inextricable part of it. But even the worst of classical mercenaries from ancient times or the Middle Ages would have a hard time rivaling the record of human and physical destruction achieved by regular military forces.
Mercenaries did not invent concentration camps, firebomb cities from the air, use chemical or biological weapons, and did not use nuclear weapons on civilian cities. In fact, the bloodiest century in recorded human history was the twentieth, courtesy of regular military forces. Not even the most bloodthirsty mercenary of centuries past could have imagined committing the kind of carnage that contemporary regular military forces routinely plan and train for.
Nowadays, various countries, most notably the United States thanks to its invasion of Iraq, but hardly the only one, have brought the role of what is nowadays euphemistically called the private security or military sector back into the spotlight.
To cite Shakespeare again, it is a sad fact that much of the debate over private military and security contractors is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The tale is made worse by the fact that much of those doing the telling, both against and for their use, have highly partisan axes to grind. Because so many people, at least in Western nations, are relatively unfamiliar with military affairs, the concept of people willing to place themselves in harm's way, primarily in pursuit of profit, means only one thing: mercenary.
That explains why popular if highly sensationalistic and wildly misleading books like the one last year by Jeremy Scahill can spend 378 pages accusing Blackwater of being a mercenary firm, without every defining the term.
Defining a mercenary is a bit like defining pornography; it is frequently in the eye and mind of the beholder. From the viewpoints of accountability or regulation, words that have been cited innumerable times over the past few years in regard to private security contractors, the only definition that counts is the legal one.
The most widely if not universally accepted definition is that in the 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. Article 47 puts forward six criteria, all of which must be met, for a combatant to be considered a mercenary. Accordingly, a mercenary is any person who:
(a) is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
(b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
(c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
(d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
(e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
(f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.
So why wouldn't someone working for a private security contractor in Iraq, for example, not meet that definition. Well, for starters, a majority of those working for private security contractors are Iraqi, and as such are a national of a Party to the conflict, so they don't qualify.
Second, not all of them take a direct part in the hostilities. There are at least 200 foreign and domestic private-security companies in Iraq; from major firms such as Aegis Defence Services, ArmorGroup, Blackwater USA, Group, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy to far smaller ones. Not all of their employees are out there toting guns. Some of their consultancy services are extremely white collar, such as sitting in front of computer consoles at Regional Operations Centers and monitoring convoy movements.
But the fact that someone working for Blackwater or any similar firm isn't a mercenary doesn't mean we should be altogether comfortable with their use, either.
There is another side to the use of private military and security contractors that few people care to talk about publicly. The reality is that private contractors did not crawl out from a rock somewhere. They are on America's battlefields because the government, reflecting the will of the people, wants them there.
The reason is simple. Even though the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is a historical memory, the United States still reserves the right to militarily intervene everywhere. This, however, despite the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld championed, is a highly people-powered endeavor. And most people have decided that their children, much like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War, have "better things to do."
So, given the downsizing the U.S. armed forces had undergone since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the military turned to the private sector for help.
If people don't want to use private contractors, the choices are simple. Either scale back U.S. geopolitical commitments or enlarge the military, which will entail even more gargantuan expenditures and even, some argue, a return to the draft down the road.
Now that would be a debate worth having. Instead, we bury our heads in the sand and bemoan the presence of private contractors.
That is a waste of time. They are, after all, just doing the job we outsourced to them. And, like them or hate them, they are going to be around for a long time.
(U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military analyst. His "Dogs of War" column, analyzing developments in the private security and military sector, appears every Friday.)
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