PMSCs have transformed from “historically ubiquitous mercenaries” to highly corporatised firms that have dominated the conduct of every major American military operation in the post-Cold War era, and they appear to be making yet another professional evolution. PMSCs have drawn a considerable amount of criticism in recent times and as such have been labelled by some as a negative phenomenon that has eroded political accountability and democracy, as well as states’ control over violence and other traditionally held responsibilities.
The contracting of PMSCs and other military service providers by different states has also been seen as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the responsibilities to human rights that most are obliged to uphold as signatories to the Geneva Convention. PMSCs, as non-state actors, are not impelled to abide by these regulations, and are criticised for being able to operate outside of these moral boundaries. This was seen on a number of occasions throughout the Iraq War where PMSCs such as Blackwater, Titan Corp., KBR, DynCorp, CACI, and Aegis Defence Services acted at times with impunity and a complete disregard for the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). In the same way that mercenaries of the 20th century earned themselves a complete distrust based on their professional and personal conduct, history appears to have repeated itself with PMSC involvement in events such as the Nisour Square massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
With their reputation and perceived trustworthiness steadily on the decline, PMSCs have focused their efforts on branding and carefully selecting the types of operations they are conducting in order to reverse the ever-growing public scrutiny. As with any business, corporation, firm, or publicly traded company that operates on a ‘for-profit’ basis, negative public perception can adversely affect their reputation and, ultimately, their profits. PMSCs have reverted to again filling capability gaps, but this time they are applying a humanitarian approach to the services they are providing. Private military firms are forging very close alliances with more traditional humanitarian actors and non-government organisations in order to soften their image and to distance themselves from the damaging reputation that contemporary PMSCs earned during the height of the Iraq War.