Book Review: Sean McFate’s The Modern Mercenary

The Modern Mercenary—Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, Sean McFate, Oxford University Press, 2014.

George Orwell is often credited with the quote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” He didn’t say it of course. Famous people almost never said the things that are attributed to them, but the quote resonates because of its fundamental truth: Most of us cannot protect ourselves and depend on a network of rough men—police, military, etc.—to allow us to sleep soundly.

One particular group of rough men, mercenaries, occupy an outsized place in our mythology. Whether it’s Kurosawa’s ronin or Sturges’s Magnificent Seven or Forsyth’s Dogs of War, the less violent among us cling to the idea that when all else fails we can call on the services of a group of hard but principled men who will step in and save us from those who would do us harm. Interestingly, based on the number of Web sites and periodicals devoted to becoming a mercenary, it appears that almost as many dream of being those rough men.

It’s nonsense of course. The truth is that mercenaries are, by definition, willing to do violence for whoever pays them the most money. Period. “Our behalf” is pretty much wishful thinking. And that’s not all the wrong thinking we have about mercenaries, as this excellent book by journalist and ex-mercenary Sean McFate details. Among his revelations: Most mercenaries don’t themselves fight, but instead spend their time writing training manuals or typing purchase orders into a computer. Of the ones that do fight, most are involved in personal security rather than military operations. Most aren’t American or European, but come from a smorgasbord of countries and armies. But most of all, perhaps, almost none talk like Yul Brynner and work for poor Mexican villagers desperate for relief. For the most part, they have cracker or South African accents and work for the U.S. government, secondarily for large corporations and when the paycheck is late in coming, for themselves.

McFate works in a think tank, the Atlantic Council, teaches part-time at the National Defense University and Georgetown and his book is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s not surprising that it has an academic tone with appendices, footnotes and nearly a thousand citations in the bibliography. Nonetheless, McFate writes a clean sentence and can turn a good phrase, so it’s highly readable, even for those of us with a limited background on the topic.

McFate’s first big argument is that the private military business is a large and growing industry that can be expected to grow larger in the future. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that private military forces are more cost effective and rapidly deployable than traditional military, which means it will be easier to deal with horror shows like Rwanda. (Mercenary firm Executive Outcomes offered its services to the UN in the early days of the Rwandan civil war. The UN disdainfully turned them down, at an eventual cost of 800,000 lives. Executive Outcomes is the same firm that helped stop the Sierra Leone civil war.)

The bad news, obviously, is that “war for profit” is an idea fraught with complications, not least of which is that during an industry slump, idle mercenaries can create their demand. If sales of shampoo drop, Procter can’t force consumers at gunpoint to use more Pantene. However, mercenaries effectively can, just by starting a new conflict, which will require the other side to hire its own army to retaliate.

What McFate does best in this book is to add structure and sobriety to the discussion by classifying different types of mercenary services and firms, and to carefully and dispassionately lay out the arguments for and against a “free market for force.” Because of the mythology surrounding this industry, it’s easy for even the most thoughtful observer to get caught up in the romance of the thing and the derring-do of semi-legendary characters like Mike Hoare, Bob Denard and Simon Mann. McFate does a service by leading the reader through the secretive and byzantine industry in a methodical and unemotional way. He’s a military guy, and gore and guts isn’t emotional stuff to him, just all in a day’s work.

If this book stopped there, it would be a fantastic achievement. But it doesn’t. It tries to explain the growth of the modern mercenary using several different frames—economic (not McFate’s forte), historical, political, and finally settles on a largely historical one, hinting that we’re headed for a period of neo-Medievalism much like 13th century Italy, a time of multiple competing authorities, weak nation-states, and freebooters wandering the countryside offering violence by the pound. The cornerstone of the argument is that due to globalization and technology, the basic Westphalian construct of strong nation-states who have a monopoly on the legal use of force is breaking down, and we’re headed to a period of chaos.

Westphalian Sovereignity was established in 1648 through a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years war. Before this a number of organizational entities claimed the right to wage war—churches, military orders like the Knights Templar, private armies, etc. The treaties outlawed all of this and said only nations were legitimately allowed to use violence to achieve their means. For all intents and purposes, it gave nation-states a monopoly on war. Now, goes the argument, this is breaking down as non-states grow in power and the power of states diminishes. We are slow to recognize the paradigm shift because we’re so used to strong nation-states that we accept this as the way things are, not recognizing it’s a relatively recent turn of human events.

This is a trendy and hip argument these days, and on the face of it, very appealing. As with all appealing arguments, there’s a lot of anecdote to support the argument. We certainly have seen an explosion of NGOs and an increase in their power, from corporations larger than countries to muscled-up UN peacekeeping forces to al Qaeda. Globalization and technology are enabling communities that span geographies and diminish the ability of the state to control its citizens. And because television and the Internet make battlefield casualties immediate and visceral to the populace back home, countries increasingly seek to wage “wars without tears,” using mercenaries, drones, etc.

The problem is we should by now have learned that any prediction of the future based on historical-political science arguments is almost always wrong. It wasn’t long ago that Francis Fukuyama was predicting that all governments would soon be democracies or that Dick Cheney was arguing a single super-power world. Past history is simply a lousy predictor of future history, and political science is an oxymoron.

Specifically, because the piece parts of the argument are true doesn’t necessarily mean that the conclusions are true. The power of states could diminish and yet remain very strong. There’s quite a gap between where we are and the chaos and fragmentation of 13th century Italy. Monopolists are very protective of their monopolies, and so far efforts of mercenaries to be more autonomous have met with swift and violent repudiation by nation-states, e.g., Equatorial Guinea. Nor has Westphalian Sovereignty ever been the norm except in Europe and the Americas. Tahseen Bashir has correctly characterized the Middle East as “tribes with flags.” Nor should we write off the idea of land-based organizations too quickly. The ambition of some of the more aggressive NGO’s like ISIS is state-hood and command of territory. Even virtual armies need places to sleep.

So if a total breakdown in Westphalian order is not driving the rise in private armies, what is? As it turns out, there are plethora of less grandiose elements at work—the end of conscription in the U.S., U.S. military overextension, etc. Indeed, there’s a general trend toward use of outside resources occurring in every organization worldwide that has nothing to do with the military, e.g., the explosion in the management consulting industry.

Maybe the move to private armies is due to some grand sweep of history, and maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just a confluence of a number of smaller factors. Maybe it will continue and maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s cyclical—it’s been with us since the dawn of history and waxes and wanes due to the conditions at hand. We simply don’t know, and pondering 13th century Italy isn’t going to tell us.

But even if this is cyclical, and even if it doesn’t signal a breakdown in the nation-state, it’s still scary as hell and worth watching. McFate’s book does a terrific job of helping us do that.

4 replies »

  1. i am not a writer and engish is my worst subject so bear with me. the cia has used them for ever to hide the governments involvement. war is instigated by the rich to make money. it also helps the economy, what a trade off. we lose our best men fighting in countries for years that have been fighting for thousands, and change nothing. no matter how you fight a war there is innocent death and destruction. we are not the police of the world and certainly can not afford it now. these wars, hell i thought we learned our lesson in nam. how stupid or greedy are we.

    as far as the police are concerned if you are expecting them to protect you, the courts have rule they have no responsibility to do so. there is only one person responsible for protecting you and it is you. it is a hard fact but true. should the police happen to help great but do not expect it. that is the problem with everyone they want the government to care for them instead of take their own responsibility for doing so.

    the super rich have their own mercenaries and that is why most want to eliminate guns from the rest, it makes them safer. guns are hear to protect you and your family, the police are nothing more then glorified janitors. they will clean up the mess and try and find who made it. everyone needs to take responsibility for their own protection. the crazy thing is it does work. the fbi statistics show that the amount of guns has increased 10 fold and crime has gone down. criminals are not brave they are opportunists. do not give them the opportunity, because most will kill for a very small profit.