United States of Whatever: An Interview with P.W. Singer
April Fool’s Day, a $100
million U.S. government contract will be awarded to a lucky
corporation in the mercenary business. In return, that corporation
will supply security forces armed on the ground in Baghdad’s
Green Zone — the mission sensitive area that houses U.S. government
employees and a gaggle of private contractors.
mercenaries is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians did it. Roman and
Carthaginians did it. The USA does it. But there’s a disturbing
difference about the latest wave of private operators in warfare.
Today, fighting, training, advising, managing supply chains, and
handling logistics in war can all be handle by corporations. Think
of it this way: our military is being outsourced and
our tax dollars diverted into the private
sphere. With a growing corporatized distance between citizen
and country, there may be no need for a national call to arms in
the future. A corporate call to arms may be all that is needed.
is the new face of war — a subject that P.W.
Singer, National Security Fellow at the Brookings
Institution, knows well. His book, Corporate
Warriors, examines the proliferation of Privatized Military
Firms (PMFs). According to Singer, privatization may increase capabilities
and efficiencies, but the profit motive in warfare raises troubling
questions for democracy, ethics, human rights, and national security
(not to mention presidential campaigns). Mike Kaspar and I spoke
with him on our KUCI radio show Weekly
we’re seeing in the 21st century is that the rules of the
game have been changed,” Singer said. “Our image of
warfare is outdated. We think of warfare as men in uniform fighting
for their nation state and fighting for political causes. Well,
guess what? Warfare in the 21st Century not only involves men as
soldiers, it involves women and children
soldiers around the globe. The causes they fight for are religious,
social, political and economic. The organizations they fight in
are everything from nation state armies to private companies to
rebel groups to terrorist groups to ethnic groups to warlord groups
is the use of PMFs on the rise?
US military is about 35% smaller than it was during the Cold War,” Singer
said, “but it’s much, much, much more burdened; much
more greatly deployed. Unfortunately, the military has been called
on to do so many things that it cannot fulfill, that it has to
turn to these private companies.”
can't say mercenary without thinking Dick Cheney. Cheney was CEO
at the world's most famous PMF, Halliburton, until he stepped down
(or sideways, if you prefer) to become George W. Bush's running
of interests aside, Cheney received a $1 million deferred compensation
from Halliburton last year and still owns more than 433,000 stock
options in the company. Meanwhile, thousands of Halliburton employees
are working alongside US troops in Kuwait and Turkey under a PMF
package deal worth close to a billion dollars. It’s the kind
of arrangement that inspired Democratic Presidential candidate John
Kerry to declare, “Halliburton
is guilty of shameful war-profiteering, and they need to be held
I asked Singer, if a presidential debate about PMFs would help sort
these things out, he questioned the logic of politicizing the issue.
kind of debate is difficult to have in an election year,” he
said, “particularly when you have companies that are linked
to people in government. It has become a real partisan issue. Democrats
are slamming Cheney’s connections. The Bush administration
is lining up very tightly with Halliburton. In the long view, this
could be unfortunate because we’re talking about something
that’s far more important than Democrats versus Republicans.
We’re talking about national security and soldiers’ lives
and welfare at stake when they interface with PMFs. Halliburton
and a number of other companies provide infantry roles that protect
key installations, escort convoys, and protect the reconstruction
teams in Iraq. They’re armed on the ground. That’s
been a major concern of a lot of our forces there."
things. First, PMF operators are not beholden to our chain of command.
They’re making their own decisions — getting involved
in their own situations. Second, local Iraqis are sometimes unable
to make a distinction between who is an official US soldier and
who is a private soldier. The cover of my book has a picture of
PMF operators. They’re wearing US fatigues; the only thing
different is that the insignia is gone."
the contracting of PMFs in these situations violate military code?
official doctrine of the US Military related to contractors and
their use on the battlefield has two blanket rules. First, they’re
not suppose be in mission critical areas — places where the
success of the operation is hinging on. Second, they’re not
supposed to be carrying weapons. They're not supposed to be taking
over those roles where they might be confused with active-duty
the justification used by the Bush administration for running contrary
are a real discomfort in our military right now,” Singer
said. “But the military feels like it doesn’t have
a choice. It’s deploying in so many countries that without
PMFs we would have to reinstate the draft and
call up more National
Guard and reservists. This adds a political price to our operations
and begs the question of whether or not we should have been involved
in the operations in the first place.
problem in Iraq right now is that we went in too small. We don’t
have the proper number of troops on the ground. That’s been
a major complaint coming out of army officers in the field and
also back here in DC. The result is that you have about 15,000
private contractors on the ground in Iraq and they’re handling
everything from logistics’ tasks — helping to feed
and supply our troops — to training the post-Saddam police,
paramilitary forces and army. This training is a mission-critical
role. If we don’t get these forces trained, then we don’t
get out of there.”
to this point, Singer’s responses were deliberate, reserved
and politically guarded. His employer, The Brookings Institution
is "an independent, nonpartisan organization." It says
so in their mission
statement. Singer was playing by the nonpartisan rules. But
when I asked him if there's any hope that the Bush administration
would consider getting in line with military code and regulating
PMFs, without a beat, Singer broke into laughter.
said — trying to hold back another chuckle. “No. I
don’t foresee that happening. We live in a world where we
regulate everything. We even regulate what goes in to Oreo cookies.
But there is minimal to no regulating of the private military industry.
That’s stunning when you consider it does about $100 billion
dollars a year globally, operates in 50 different countries and
is at the very nature of national security. Lives are at stake.
Yet, there are no international laws that have been found to be
fully applicable to the industry — laws that control who
the companies work for or who can work for them."
needs to happen to make things right?
needs to be an effort to build international law to regulate and
oversee these firms on an ongoing basis. That’s going to
take a lot of political will. At the same time, individual nations
need to update their laws to better control PMFs. As bad as the
US laws are, we have some of the best out there. But we need to
update those laws to close loopholes and expand their jurisdiction
into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. We need to update our laws
pertaining to who these firms can work for. And finally we need
to ask if there are some roles that are too important to turn over
to private companies.”
private companies would argue that PMFs save the government money.
Those savings, like Wal-Mart discounts, are passed along to us,
the taxpayers. I asked Singer, is there any truth to that argument?
there’s never been a study that’s proven that PMFs
save money,” Singer said. “This industry is different
than any other because the client — the US taxpayer — is
paying the corporation for the training that he, the client, paid
for earlier. In other words, the human capital — the military
personnel— was created by the client. The client – the
US taxpayer — trains up the soldiers. When the soldiers retire,
private companies hire them at two to ten times more than what
they were paid when they were in the military. That gets passed
along to the client.
sounds like the old “socialize the payment, privatize the
profit” routine. Are there any other economic fallacies in
the pro-PMF argument?
government-contracting realm often has minimal to no competition
between the firms," Singer said. "As a result, you don’t
get the best deal on the market. That’s been one of the allegations
about the Halliburton
also, the military often isn’t very well equipped to do oversight
over these contracts. It doesn’t have the troops to protect
the installations in Iraq, let alone to do the accounting and be
the eyes and ears over these contracts. So something has to give,
and often it’s the oversight.
Iraq you have about $18 billion worth of contracts right now. The
last report is that we had 14 guys doing oversight. That 's about
$1.3 billion worth of oversight per person. That’s just stunning.
I work in a think tank that has a budget of about $20 million.
We have about the same number of people doing oversight… and
we’re not operating in the midst of warfare with all the
difficulties that that entails.”
will the US military look like in 2010?
a longer-term concern about PMFs and the trends they bring to bear.
Right now the rough standard of the industry is that it pays somewhere
between 2 and 10 times the amount that a soldier can make in his
or her national military. That means US soldiers, depending on
their specialty, can make around $100,000 a year. An ex-Green Beret
can make $300,000 in Iraq. So when someone serving in the US military
is questioning whether they’re going to re-up or not, these
companies approach them and say ‘Look, you can do the exact
same thing and make 2 to 10 times the amount with us.’ When
this happens, it should be a major concern to the general public
because recruiting is extremely important to the United States
having a successful volunteer army.”
a future, with war on the open market and contract soldiers working
for the United States of whatever, we may have a CEO with his hand
on the red button. Wait a second. Isn't that we have now?
the short term,” Singer says, “I don’t see the
world becoming more stable. The supply of PMFs is small and the
demand is great. But over time the public will wise up to this
huge industry. That’s how we’re going to get regulations.”
— Nathan Callahan,
March 25, 2004
an overview of privatized military firms read War, Profits
and the Vacuum of Law by P.W. Singer (here,
in pdf format).