Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, the one-time billion-dollar security contracting powerhouse, has been back in the news. He and Stephen A. Feinberg, the financier who owns DynCorp, another contracting giant, want the Pentagon to hand over the war in Afghanistan to a viceroy on the model of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan after the Second World War, and an army of private soldiers.
This is not a discussion of the merits of delegating authority to what Prince envisions as the modern American equivalent of the British East India Company, which sustained British colonialism in southern Asia for more than a century. (It was tax-free East India Company tea that the Sons of Liberty dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773). That conversation is happening elsewhere in the national security policy community.
Instead, I want to start the discussion around the tendency, often deliberate, to mischaracterize the nature of the high-threat security industry. In criticizing the Prince-Feinberg plan, pundits and even some academics have taken to labeling all private security contractors as “mercenaries.”
They are wrong.
what is a mercenary?
When I worked as director of communications for Constellis, which was at the time the corporate parent of security firms ACADEMI, Triple Canopy, Edinburgh International and Olive Group (Constellis no longer uses some of these brand names), I had two main goals: get reporters to stop saying that “Blackwater changed its name to ACADEMI,” because it’s much more complicated than that, and get them to stop calling our employees mercenaries, because they aren’t.
There are few words as loaded as mercenary. Say it, and most people automatically think of men, many likely unable to adapt from their military careers into “polite society,” who become guns-for-hire, helping African despots take or keep power. The image was solidified in American pop culture through the movies Dogs of War and The Wild Geese, innumerable pulp fiction novels, and Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
However accurate those portrayals are, they do not describe the men — and increasingly, more than a few women — who provide the physical security that diplomats, corporations, and even militaries need to operate in conflict zones. These contractors work within a legal framework, with the oversight of legitimate government entities both at home and in the countries where they operate. Mercenaries do not.
In 1989, the United Nations adopted the “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries,” which lays out exactly what a mercenary is. Under this convention, a mercenary is someone “specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict.” The operative word is “fight.”
A cornerstone of modern society is that the state has a monopoly on violence except in cases of self-defense. Security contractors are guards. Their purpose is to defeat — or preferably, prevent — attacks against their clients. As long as they do not undertake missions to find and destroy the enemy, they have not crossed the line.
there are real mercenaries out there
This is not to say that some companies have not crossed that line. Prime examples include Executive Outcomes, the pioneering South African security firm in the mid-1990s that moved from training and advising armies to fighting alongside and often in place of them in Angola and Sierra Leone, and British firm Sandline International, which fought insurgents in Bougainville on behalf of the government of Papua New Guinea (using EO as a major subcontractor).
The fact that Sandline founder Tim Spicer also founded Aegis Defense Services, which is still one of the major contractors under the State Department’s Worldwide Protective Services program, and the fact that Prince is advocating for the expanded use of a private force is Afghanistan, are not helpful to drawing the distinction between security contractors and mercenaries. It is also not helpful that people who know better, like foreign policy expert Sean McFate (who worked for DynCorp in Africa) write books with titles like The Modern Mercenary.
Further confusing the situation is the U.N.’s decision to expand the mandate of its clumsily named “Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination” to include the use of private security companies. But to its credit, the working group (before which I appeared in 2015) draws a clear distinction in its discussions and reporting between the legal, regulated use of security contractors and the illegal use of mercenaries.
All of this confusion is still no excuse. The incorrect use of the word mercenary when discussing legitimate security contracts is either lazy reporting, or an attempt to delegitimize the industry. Neither is acceptable.