“The Modern Mercenary,” by Sean McFate, attempts to build a thesis about private security contractors that has been largely neglected within academia and journalism. Most pundits, reporters, and professors talk about private security contracts as if they are something new and unique, a byproduct of Dick Cheney and George Bush’s out-of-control administration. These types of people are passionate about what they believe, but their analysis unfortunately exists inside a knowledge vacuum that is devoid of historical context.
McFate’s book sets out to correct this fallacy by taking readers back to medieval and renaissance-era Switzerland and Italy to show us that privatized war fighting is far from new. According to McFate, we are entering a period of neo-medievalism, in which private military companies are once again coming to the forefront as the state loses its legitimate claim to the monopoly on violence. The de-institutionalization of violence has opened the door to ambitious war entrepreneurs. However, it is important to recognize that it is actually the United States that has created the market for privatized force.
But what is neo-medivalism? McFate defines it as:
“A non-state-centric and multi-polar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances…states will not disappear, but they will matter less than they did a century ago. Nor does neomedievalism connote chaos and anarchy; like the medieval world, the global system will persist in a durable disorder that contains rather than solves problems.” (McFate, 6)
To break this down a little bit, McFate is saying that governments will not be as influential as they were in the past, nor will they be able to monopolize the legitimate claim to the use of force. Rather than living in a world of superpower(s), we will instead live in a world where many different countries are global players from the United States, Russia, China, and India, to sprawling regional economic confabs that may swallow up numerous countries like the European Union. In neo-medievalism, non-governmental organizations, private military companies, terrorist organizations, trans-national corporations, and drug cartels will also rival state power. But this won’t lead to global chaos; rather, these various actors will crash against each other, often violently, and settle into a balance that will sometimes, but not always, include physical fighting. However, the potential for open war to break out will be constant and will exist all over the globe.
“The Modern Mercenary” cites numerous historical examples of mercenaries and military entrepreneurs, directly comparing the medieval-era mercenaries to modern-day security contractors, showing how they are the same and how they are different. McFate manages to take a political-science view of his subject matter without being for or against private military companies. Rather, he shows us their advantages and disadvantages. Also helpful for those looking to know more about this industry are some case studies that walk the reader through how a security company wins a contract with the U.S. government to provide services such as mobile security (bodyguards for CIA or State Department officials) or even larger contracts to train the military of an entire West African nation. By doing this, McFate helps to demystify the industry, an industry under constant scrutiny for being alleged shadow warriors with sinister agendas.
On that note, the author poignantly explains another detail that almost all other authors miss. Security contractors are portrayed as sinners while our military troops are worshipped as saints in the media. Neither narrative is true of course, and this is exactly according to plan. Governments can shunt their own failures off on contractors since they are not uniformed soldiers. The use of PMCs provides policymakers and elected officials with plausible deniability. Contractors often work in a gray world as quasi-soldiers, and politicians like it this way.
McFate walks the reader through the history, economics, and some of the insider baseball surrounding privatized force, but he does make a few errors along the way. For example, he writes that Executive Outcomes was dissolved by South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act in 1998 (p. 38), however, the company’s founder and CEO, Eeben Barlow, made it clear to SOFREP that, “Executive Outcomes had a South African government license to operate—something no journalist wanted to mention.”
Another, more humorous faux pas occurs when McFate points to other books about security contractors as being sensationalistic, such as Jeremy Scahill’s and Robert Young Pelton’s books on the subject. He calls these books “distortions of the industry [that] are more inflammatory than informative” (p. 10). Whether this is true or not, it is pretty odd to find it written in a book titled “The Modern Mercenary,” featuring a Kalashnikov rifle and a battle axe on the cover.
Despite a few small errors, I would highly recommend reading McFate’s sobering view on privatized force. His conclusions and projections for the future are worth contemplating, such as understanding how America created the market for private military companies like the world has not seen in hundreds of years. This opens up the flood gates, and although we have not even seen countries like China or India enter into this industry in any serious way, we will in the future. We will also see the Third Country Nationals (from Nepal or the Philippines) we hired as security contractors in Iraq go into business themselves, replicating the American model for privatized force that they are familiar with.
The author is quite right in pointing out that just because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down for coalition troops does not mean that the market for privatized force is just going to go away. Like any other market force, it will morph, change forms, and find new business in new places and in new ways that we probably haven’t imagined yet.
(Featured image courtesy of Matt Moyer)