Coming up on nearly six years of contractor presence in Iraq and more than seven in Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to ask how contractors are faring in the book world.
Better than before, if a new book, Private Sector, Public Wars: Contractors in Combat — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Future Conflicts by James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, is any indication. He finds that contractors “make sense — they have been used for centuries and their roles on the battlefield will only expand.”
While a book extolling the use of private contractors by someone working at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy institute that champions policies based on the principles of free enterprise and limited government, is hardly a surprise, it would be a mistake to dismiss it. In fact, especially compared with some of the other books that have come out in the past year or two, this is an outstanding book.
Be warned, however — reading this book is at times like traveling on a historical roller coaster. One takes giant, albeit enjoyable, swoops from 16th century Niccolo Machiavelli to Dwight Eisenhower, to Vietnam to globalization and Wall Street to Hollywood. This is a lot to cover, but, as befits someone who has written extensively on military history, he ties it all together nicely.
In the beginning Carafano explains why it is that contractors get so much bad press. In large part he sees it as a legacy of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he warned the nation “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”
That speech awakened a deep unease among the American public that persists to this day. Carafano finds that ironic, as he thinks the threat never occurred, in good measure because of the efforts made during Ike’s time to prevent turning America into an armed camp. He makes a pretty good, if not completely convincing, case, that at least until the post-Sept. 11 era, the threat had been overstated.
Although he lumps modern private military and security contractors, such as DynCorp, KBR and Blackwater, in with traditional Cold War contractors such as Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), they are very different creatures.
Still, he is exactly right when he writes, “Debating the role of contractors in combat is certainly fair game, but it is hard to hold a fair debate.” He is also certainly correct when he notes that the debate is far more than whether companies are making a quick buck. What it reflects is one of those historical inflection points, when the customary framework for regarding how we use force shifts.
As he notes: “The emerging role of contractors on the battlefield reflects a deeper and deeply significant transition in the nature of armed conflict; a significant rebalancing between the roles the private and public sector play in war. This change is the most significant upheaval in the nature of warfare since the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century. It represents a transformation started long before the invasion of Iraq. Absent a dramatic change in the evolution of the global marketplace, the role of the private sector in public wars will continue to increase long after the Iraqi conflict ends, regardless of the course of American domestic politics.”
One of Carafano’s points is bound to be controversial as it takes aim squarely at centuries-old dogma, which is still cited today by those who oppose the use of contractors. He finds the seeming condemnation of Italian condottieri in Machiavelli’s classic treatise The Art of War never actually happened. He finds it was English translators who made the pejorative term “mercenary” synonymous with any soldier who fought for pay. In addition, the armies-for-hire were far less a danger than the translations, or the book itself, imply. The dominant role of the condottieri in Italian warfare was already in decline when Machiavelli penned The Art of War. They were not the most serious obstacle to the stability of the Italian territories.
He also notes the English word “mercenary” appears to have come into common usage in the 14th century, almost 200 years after armies-for-hire widely emerged as a practical alternative to feudal levies. The original pejorative use of the term did not come from Machiavelli’s contemporaries but from the nobility of an earlier age who saw armies-for-hire as a growing threat to their privileged status quo.
For those who have often shaken their heads at the tenor of the debate over contractors, the most entertaining section, by far, is Chapter 6, titled Why We Hate. Consider what Carafano writes about Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors, regarded as the major scholarly treatment of the subject. Carafano writes, “Singer is a thoughtful and insightful scholar. It is not clear, however, that at the onset of the war, he legitimately represented an authoritative source for commentary in contemporary contracting practices.”
Although Carafano suffers slightly from Ph.D.itis here, the condition that manifests itself as disdainful of any work on a subject that is not the result of a sustained, multifaceted, cross-disciplinary project, he is correct in pointing out that the actual amount of dispassionate research on the subject over the years has been pretty sparse, in compared with all the sound and fury surrounding the issue.
And for those in industry who bemoan negative coverage, Carafano has a simple point to make: Get used to it. He writes, “Expecting the public media to grapple with the serious and complex issue of the private sector in public wars is unrealistic.”