I could not have written the following 20 years ago, when the number of books on the modern private military and security contracting sector could be counted on one’s fingers with digits left over, but there are now so many books that it constitutes a veritable library; some much better than others.
The latest entry is by Laura Dickinson, a law professor at Arizona State University who has been writing on the legal aspects of contracting for years. Happily, her book is one of those that is clearly better than others.
Professor Dickinson’s focus is on the legal and public policy reforms that might increase accountability of private military contractors (PMC). By accountability she also explicitly includes the public values of human dignity, public participation, and transparency
One of her first points, which seems at first arguable given the now voluminous legal literature on private military contractors, is that international law scholars have not addressed outsourcing in a comprehensive way. By that she means that while scholars have applied international legal norms to non‐state actors in general the category is too broad because a private contractor is far different from a guerrilla soldier.
Her book surveys four broad mechanisms of accountability: pursuing litigation under international and US domestic law; reforming both the contracts themselves and the entire contract oversight and enforcement regime; fostering public participation; and addressing organization structure and culture.
It is the second mechanism, in her view, which shows the most promise, although the last one, in which she outlines ways in which the organizational structure and culture of private firms might be reformed, similar to the ways in which military lawyers in the Judge Advocate Corps (JAG) strengthen the development of organizational constraints, is exceptionally insightful, drawing as it does on extensive interviews with JAG members. Indeed, she believes that drawing on organizational theory private entities can develop internal norms of behavior.
But there are also a number of other points, mentioned casually, that bear emphasis. Notably that for the US, even though their numbers were officially small, private contractors were an important part of the Vietnam War. Back then, “outsourcing of military operations appears to have been a way for government officials to try to evade accountability by decreasing outside oversight of military and intelligence operations”.
In actuality the numbers were far larger than appreciated. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese and other nationals, organized in units like the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, were essentially hired by the US government to fight the Vietcong. At the very least they could be considered “quasi‐contractors”.
Although the program was initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency it was turned over to Army Special Forces to run who, ironically, gave it much more oversight than you see in contemporary military contracting. Yet the rational for their use matches up almost exactly with what one hears today. Dickinson writes: