ALLISON STANGER is Russell J. Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.
In 2008, the actress and activist Mia Farrow approached the private security company Blackwater and some human rights organizations with a proposition: Might it be possible to hire private military contractors to end the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan? Sean McFate, who had just finished working as a military contractor at DynCorp International, was asked to weigh in. “The plan was simple,” he writes in The Modern Mercenary, his thought-provoking book on the rise of private armies. “Blackwater would stage an armed intervention in Darfur and establish so-called islands of humanity, refugee camps protected by PMC [private military company] firepower for civilians fleeing the deadly janjaweed.” The scheme was soon scrapped—it was just too unprecedented and risky—but the very fact that it got so far was a testament to how widespread the use of private military contractors had become. The idea would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier.
What made the notion plausible, of course, were the game-changing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They marked the first time that the United States had contracted out so much of its fighting, with private employees outnumbering uniformed personnel in theater at times in both campaigns. At the height of the Vietnam War, by contrast, contractors represented less than 20 percent of the U.S. presence on the ground. In Afghanistan and Iraq, contractors allowed the U.S. government to scale up its military footprint quickly and cheaply. But they also led to a spate of scandals—most infamously in 2007, when Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians in Nisour Square, in Baghdad. In April 2015, almost eight years after the event, a federal judge in Washington sentenced four former Blackwater guards to long prison terms.
McFate, however, trains his eye on a bigger-picture problem posed by private military contractors: the havoc they are wreaking on world order. For the moment, he writes, the market for force “is a monopsony, where there is a predominant buyer—the United States—and many sellers.” But that will
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