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The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order

The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order

By Sean McFate

Oxford University Press, 2014, 248 pp.

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.

A private security contractor at the scene of a bombing in Baghdad, October 2007.
Ceerwan Aziz / REUTERS
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 no doubt change, especially because the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has only increased the importance of security contractors in those countries. And as other countries, including China and Russia, get into the private-contracting game, the world will start to see a freer market for force.

The result, McFate predicts, will be a return to the Middle Ages, when private warriors determined the outcomes of conflicts and states stood at the sidelines of international politics. This “neo-medieval” world will be characterized by “a non-state-centric, multipolar international system of overlapping authorities and allegiances within the same territory.” Yet it need not be chaotic, he reassures readers, since “the global system will persist in a durable disorder that contains, rather than solves, problems.”

Scottish mercenaries during the Thirty Years' War, circa 1630. 

How can the world avoid replicating the problems generated by hired guns in the medieval era? The answer, according to McFate, is to rely less on mere mercenaries and instead foster “military enterprisers.” The former sell their skills to the highest bidder; the latter “raise armies rather than command them” and thus contribute to stability. During the Thirty Years’ War, military enterprisers included such figures as Ernst von Mansfeld, who raised an army for the elector palatine, and Albrecht von Wallenstein, who offered his services to Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman emperor.

But in sketching out a strategy for dealing with a world of privatized power, McFate is too quick to jettison the state-centric principles that have served the world so well since the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The biggest challenges to U.S. security in the years ahead, from climate change to terrorism to cybersecurity, will require more state-to-state collaboration, not less. And U.S. support, tacit or otherwise, for a free market for force will only serve 
to exacerbate these problems.


McFate offers two in-depth case studies of modern contractors: in Liberia, where they played the role of military enterprisers, and in Somalia, where they acted as mercenaries. Some of his stories have never been told before, which makes the book particularly valuable. Readers learn that after the second Liberian civil war ended in 2003, the State Department wanted the U.S. military to raise a new army for the country, since the old one had been complicit in the conflict. But the Pentagon, busy with Afghanistan and Iraq, balked. The choice thus came down to seeing Liberia have no viable military whatsoever or having the U.S. government outsource training to the private sector. To do nothing would have meant conceding defeat in Liberia, where the United States had helped fortify the military since its inception in 1908. 

So the State Department chose DynCorp to reconstruct Liberia’s armed forces. According to McFate, who served as a principal architect of the program, the decision marked “the first time in two centuries that one sovereign nation hired a private enterprise to raise another sovereign nation’s armed forces.” To date, McFate reports, the program has worked: Liberia’s new army has maintained the peace at home, remains loyal to the government, and even sent peacekeepers to Mali in 2013, ten years after the end of Liberia’s own civil war.

The biggest challenges to U.S. security in the years ahead, from climate change to terrorism to cybersecurity, will require more state- to-state collaboration, not less.

McFate credits several of DynCorp’s innovations for the outcome, including the vetting of new army recruits to make sure they had not committed human rights abuses in the past, the addition of civics lessons to basic training, and the pressure DynCorp placed on the Liberian government to issue an executive order mandating the demobilization of the old army, which legitimized the firm’s work. For McFate, Liberia offers an example of how military enterprisers operating in a “mediated market for force”—one in which the government and contractors form a public-private partnership—can serve as a powerful tool for stability in an otherwise neomedieval world.

In contrast, the use of contractors in the failed state of Somalia provides a “tragic” example of neomedievalism. After the UN withdrew all peacekeeping forces from the country in 1995, politics became radically localized. Puntland and Somaliland, semiautonomous regions within Somalia, hired private security companies to help fight piracy on their coastlines, as did Somalia’s weak central government. (According to McFate, at least one of these firms, the South Africa–based Saracen International, also started secretly shipping military equipment on cargo planes into Somalia, in violation of arms embargoes.) The United States entered the fray, too. As McFate explains, the State Department hired DynCorp to train, equip, and deploy peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi and “indirectly financed” Bancroft Global Development to train African troops to fight the Islamist terrorist group al Shabab—all without leaving an obvious U.S. footprint.

In Somalia, the problem was that no real state existed, so the United States and other countries were unable to raise a legitimate national military, as they had in Liberia. Puzzlingly, McFate simultaneously praises and condemns U.S. policy in Somalia. On the one hand, he writes that “Somalia’s free market with mercenaries contributed to instability rather than resolving it.” On the other, he finds a “durable disorder” in the country that might hold insights for stabilizing other failed states. But surely, the victims of al Shabab’s April 2015 deadly attack on a university in neighboring Kenya would find nothing durable about the disorder in Somalia.

Surveying the world, McFate sees an emergent neomedieval order that must be channeled in the right direction. A laissez-faire approach to the private military industry is likely to encourage the worst outcome: a free market for force, akin to the situation in Somalia or the predatory mercenarism of medieval Italy, which prompted Machiavelli to urge the prince to always rely on his own arms. An unmediated market for force is a recipe for unending conflict, since war pays. “More war means more mercenaries, which gives private armies more resources to ply their trade, fostering more war,” McFate writes.

The desired outcome is a mediated market for force, where military enterprisers dominate the market. But McFate provides no blueprint for how such a market might be encouraged, except to say that military enterprisers must predominate. As he himself acknowledges, any military enterpriser is just one step away from doubling as a mercenary, since knowing how to raise and train an army is not far from knowing how to deploy one. And so he never answers the question of which factors might foster a mediated market for force and which might undermine it.


Perhaps an answer can be found by reconsidering why private armies were abandoned at the close of the medieval era. After the Thirty Years’ War devastated Europe, diplomats met in Westphalia to forge norms that would contain the violence inherent in medieval life. The resulting treaties enshrined three principles of international stability: that power should be vested in states, that states must recognize one another as equals, and that states should not interfere in others’ internal affairs. Afterward, governments gradually monopolized the market for force by investing in their own standing armies, loyal only to them, and outlawing armed nonstate actors. There were moments along the way when expediency threatened to unravel the Westphalian system, such as when Great Britain hired some 30,000 Hessians to help it fight American revolutionaries, or when various governments issued so-called letters of marque to legitimize privateers in the fight against piracy. Yet state-centric principles won out and became the foundation on which collective-security enterprises such as the UN were built. 

The use of contractors in the failed state of Somalia provides a “tragic” example of neomedievalism.

Those principles also guided the American superpower. It was in the spirit of Westphalia, for example, that the United States launched the Persian Gulf War, kicking Iraq out of Kuwait with the overwhelming support of the international community and the backing of the UN Security Council. But the wars Washington pursued thereafter exchanged Westphalian principles for human rights and democratization. The interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all presumed that state sovereignty was no license to conduct atrocities against one’s own people. Similarly, drone strikes against terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and the deployment of security contractors across the world in the pursuit of U.S. objectives all presume that the state does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in its territory. The United States has gone from upholding Westphalian norms to undermining them.

Why did the United States start relying so heavily on privatized warfare? In part, it did so because of policymakers’ faith in the power of free markets. Indeed, maintaining a standing army is an expensive proposition, and letting contractors provide surge capacity can significantly lower costs. But Washington was also in some sense forced to outsource its fighting. The move to an all-volunteer force and Americans’ aversion to a draft made security contractors an attractive way to plug the gap between the demand for soldiers and their supply—with the added benefit of providing plausible deniability when things went wrong.

Yet even though security contractors may save money in the short 
run, the long-term costs are significant. On-demand military services make it easier and more tempting 
to go to war in the first place, as the American people do not have to be mobilized in support of private ventures. They also create a moral hazard, since the U.S. government makes the decision about how much risk to take, yet the company bears the cost when things go badly. It was the State Department that chose to hire Blackwater to provide much of its security in Iraq, but it was Blackwater whose reputation suffered as a result. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, has said that he regrets ever signing a contract with the State Department. He now works for China.

Contract dispute: Blackwater guards with the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, March 2006.

That Prince is on the payroll of another government illustrates a worrisome unintended consequence of privatizing war, as well as the strategic challenges that are likely to arise in a free market for force. U.S. firms currently face no substantial restrictions on working for foreign clients, other than the powerful disincentive that doing so will lose them any hope of securing future U.S. government contracts. As Prince’s trajectory illustrates, becoming persona non grata in Washington does not mean unemployment. With so much money to be made, it is no wonder that the United States’ reliance on private security has spawned imitators on both the supply and the demand sides.

Indeed, American private military contractors are just the tip of the iceberg, as the experience of Afghanistan illustrates. Even when U.S. firms held the prime contracts there, they hired locals under the “Afghan first” strategy. But that decision ended up undercutting state capacity in Afghanistan, since Afghans chose the higher paychecks of private work over serving their country in the army or the police force. By 2010, at least 90 percent of private security contractors operating in Afghanistan were Afghans, leading President Hamid Karzai to attempt, unsuccessfully, to expel all private security firms from the country. Subcontracting to locals and third-country nationals creates other problems, too. When the contracts end, the newly trained soldiers must look for work. As was the case in the Middle Ages, unemployed former mercenaries often turn into marauders, preying on the weak to survive and wreaking havoc on ordinary citizens.


Since McFate finds that private security contractors bolster stability in a mediated market while degrading security in a free market, he ends with a halfhearted call for the UN to do the mediating. In lieu of regulation, he prefers a market-based approach that would incentivize the right behavior among private contractors. Yet he also wants the UN to operate a licensing and registration regime that would establish best practices. He finds a role for Washington, too: as the industry begins to bifurcate into a mediated market with military enterprisers and a free market populated by mercenaries, McFate argues, the United States should use its overwhelming market power to shape industry standards. Elaborating in The New York Times in April, McFate said that he believes “superclients” such as the United States and the UN could shape best practices through self-regulation. In his view, the private military industry is not going away, so every effort should be made to harness the good and limit the bad. When he calls for “a market approach blended with regulation,” however, he never articulates just what balance should be struck between these two impulses, nor does he articulate who should serve as the legitimate regulator. 

Even though security contractors may save money in the short run, the long-term costs are significant.

A balanced approach sounds sensible, given that the privatization genie is out of the bottle. But McFate is wrong that “excessive concerns over mercenarism are a Westphalian bias”; a little more Westphalian bias is exactly what U.S. policymakers need. McFate clearly sees the world reverting to the Middle Ages, but his conclusion ignores two enormous differences between then and now: first, powerful states already exist, the United States being first among equals, and second, the UN, which has to date resisted the siren song of privatized security for good reasons, is on the scene. Both are forces for order that were absent in medieval times, and it makes little sense for either to promote its own demise. The potential stabilizing power of the UN is part of the reason McFate wants it to help mediate the market for force—but the UN is nothing if not a gigantic manifestation of the Westphalian bias McFate condemns.

It’s important to remember that the Westphalian taboo on mercenaries set up precisely the distinction that makes terrorists illegitimate and state armies legitimate. A blurring of that line is just what terrorists want. To be sure, globalization and the information revolution have contributed mightily to the fraying of the Westphalian order, but the policies that the United States has pursued have also accelerated the process. It is hard to construct an argument that these have served the country’s long-term interests. “We did it because we could” is not a rationale that wins friends or influences other states, let alone one that sets an example for others to follow. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea because he could, and it was no accident that he used so-called little green men rather than Russian troops to do so.

Westphalian norms can provide the foundation for a “durable disorder” with greater staying power than anything neomedieval strategies might provide, and they can do so for the same reason they proved so powerful in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War: states can agree on their usefulness without agreeing on much of anything else. Today, China, Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States all share an interest in the state-centric principles that came out of Westphalia. Rather than acquiesce to the demise of these principles, the United States should reinforce them. When it comes to contractors, that would mean launching an initiative among the world’s great powers to establish limits on the deployment of private armies. As was the case with nuclear weapons, the United States’ early adoption need not preclude the country from leading an effort to restrain the destructive forces it itself unleashed. Otherwise, McFate’s mediated market for force will be unattainable, with the only beneficiaries being nonstate actors such as al Shabab and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

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  • 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.
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