Commentary

The Presumed and Possible PMC Professionalism

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on March 19, 2010.

Supporters of private military contractors (PMC) have long claimed that one asset that many of them bring is that many, if not most of them, have past military service and thus bring a far greater degree of professionalism with them. The implication is that they are more seasoned, cooler under fire, less prone to make a deadly mistake or do something stupid. This is presumed to be a big asset for their clients, especially the military forces who use them. The idea is that ex-soldiers can still be just as good as serving soldiers, and work just as well with them as when they were on active duty.

And in many, perhaps even most cases, this is true. Although one might wonder why, if people with past military experience are so much more professional, why trade groups, such as IPOA, think part of their mission is to “promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry.” Doesn’t the presumed virtue of past military experience already bring about higher standards?

In truth there has always been an element of unreality about the argument. One would never find military leaders saying about their troops, well, he’s a soldier or marine so I can just trust him. Military leaders understand that part of professionalism means constantly checking and double-checking and training and retraining to ensure that people act the way you want them to. No officer would ever assume that once you achieve a certain degree of professionalism that it stays that way without continued effort.

But even if you accept the industry argument there is always one or even a few in the crowd who are an exception. And when you have literally hundreds of thousands of PMC working around the world it only takes a few screw-up’s to cause significant problems.

Consider Daniel Fitzimons, who worked for British PMC ArmorGroup. Last August, after just three days in Iraq on a third tour as a private security contractor since leaving the British army he killed two of his fellow guards in a drunken brawl.

And in December 2006 an off-duty Blackwater employee, Andrew J. Moonen, who served previously in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army, had been drinking heavily and tried to make his way into the “Little Venice” section of the Green Zone, which houses many senior members of the Iraqi government. He was stopped by Iraqi bodyguards for Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the country’s Shi’ite vice president, and shot one of them, Raheem Khalif, who died from three gunshot wounds.

Are incidents like these just the inevitable death attributable to the fog of war? Or is there something more at work?

A recent article in Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College took a look at this in its most recent issue. The article “Contractors as Military Professionals?” by Gary Schaub, Jr., assistant professor at the Air War College and Volker C. Franke, associate professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University suggests that the military has a different view of what constitutes professionalism.

Membership in the military profession traditionally has been limited to the uniformed personnel employed by the state. Although there is some debate regarding whether all military personnel are military professionals—be they officers, noncommissioned officers, career enlisted members, conscripts, reservists of any rank, or national guardsmen—there is a consensus that persons who utilize or manage violence as employees of private entities are not members of the military profession.

The authors also write that in modern democracies, the military profession derives legitimacy from its license to implement the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force in combination with its subordination to civilian command and control. Submission of the military to civil authority is the sine qua non of military professionalism. Civilian professionals, by contrast, gain legitimacy through commitment to their employer’s or client’s interests. As employees of private firms, security contractors at best have divided loyalties, answering as they do to their employer for their performance rather than directly to their client.

It is important to note that the authors carefully considered the argument that ex-military private contractors can perform to the same professionalism standards as active duty military personnel. They note:

A case could be made that civilian employees of private security firms also share an identity with the military. Many employees are former members of the military (136 respondents or 61.5 percent in our sample), and some are retirees who retain their commission and theoretically could be recalled to active duty. They may belong to the private associations of their former service and feel a kinship to their active-duty colleagues. Apart from this military kinship, some firms quite carefully recruit, train, and even indoctrinate their employees to inculcate a professional identity.

But that said they go on to reject the case.

On the other hand, there is a prima facie case to be made that employees of the security industry do not and likely cannot share a corporate culture given the diversity of firms, clients, and the eligible labor pool. “It is estimated that some 50 private security contractors employing more than 30,000 employees are working in Iraq for an array of clients, including governments, private industry, and international organizations such as the United Nations.” There are a multitude of private security firms. Many are characterized by a cadre structure with a relatively low number of fulltime employees and a reservoir of expertise that can be called upon on a contract basis. Such a structure would appear to undermine any attempt to indoctrinate these employees or to foster a professional, corporate identity.

The authors conclude that:

The boundaries of the military profession are being challenged by the outsourcing of more and more functional tasks that had hitherto been performed by military personnel. Contracting out support functions in particular had somewhat stemmed the civilianization of the military and allowed it to focus more on its core function, the management and application of violence in support of the political aims of the state. The use of civilian contractors as armed security guards, operational planners, and participants in raids by special operations forces, however, suggests that the outsourcing trend now endangers the basic tenets of the military profession itself.

None of the above is to say that the use of private military contractors is inherently bad. Indeed, the authors take care to point out that the majority of contractors are not motivated primarily by financial gain. Instead, most were motivated by a desire to “face and meet new challenges” and to “help others.”

But it does point to some serious differences between the military (client) and contractors. And for the moment the authors think that:

Given the fragmented nature of the industry, its multitude of firms, heterogeneous labor pool, and difficulties in forging a common corporate identity through coherent and consistent indoctrination, training, and educational experiences suggests, however, that armed contractors should at best be considered to be members of a semi-profession. Incorporating contractors into the military profession would dilute its corporate identity, its dedication to a common good, its ability to control members’ entry, promotion, and exit, and would cripple the legitimacy of the armed forces as clearly demarcated and legal agents of the state.
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.