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A Blackwater World Order

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s most profound legacy could be that it set the world order back to the Middle Ages.

While this is a slight exaggeration, a recent examination by Sean McFate [1], a former Army paratrooper who later served in Africa working for Dyncorp International [2] and is now an associate professor at the National Defense University, suggests that the Pentagon’s dependence on contractors to help wage its wars has unleashed a new era of warfare in which a multitude of freshly founded private military companies are meeting the demand of an exploding global market for conflict.

“Now that the United States has opened the Pandora’s Box of mercenarianism,” McFate writes in The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order [3], “private warriors of all stripes are coming out of the shadows to engage in for-profit warfare.”

It is a menacing thought. McFate said this coincides with what he and others have called a current shift from global dominance by nation-state power to a “polycentric” environment in which state authority competes with transnational corporations, global governing bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), regional and ethnic interests, and terror organizations in the chess game of international relations. New access to professional private arms, McFate further argues, has cut into the traditional states’ monopoly on force [4], and hastened the dawn of this new era.


McFate calls it neomedievalism, the “non-state-centric and multipolar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances.” States will not disappear, “but they will matter less than they did a century ago.” He compares this coming environment to the order [5] that prevailed in Europe before the domination of nation-states with their requisite standing armies.

In this period, before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended decades of war and established for the first time territorially defined sovereign states, political authority in Europe was split among competing power brokers that rendered the monarchs equal players, if not weaker ones. The Holy Roman Emperor, the papacy, bishoprics, city-states, dukedoms, principalities, chivalric orders–all fought for their piece with hired free companies, or mercenary enterprises of knights-turned profiteers.

As progenitors of today’s private military companies (PMCs), free companies were “organized as legal corporations, selling their services to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit,” McFate writes. Their ranks “swelled with men from every corner of Europe” and beyond, going where the fighting was until it wasn’t clear whether these private armies were simply meeting the demand or creating it.

In an interview with TAC, McFate said the parallels between that period in history and today’s global proliferation of PMCs cannot be ignored. He traces their modern origins to the post-Cold War embrace of privatization in both Washington and London, both pioneers in military outsourcing, which began in earnest in the 1980s.

By the time the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and stay there in 2003, its smaller peacetime military force structure could not withstand the burden. The Pentagon increasingly relied on contractors to support and wage the war.

“Policy makers, when they started the war in Iraq, they didn’t think it would last beyond a few weeks. They had three terrible choices – they could withdraw prematurely, they could institute a Vietnam-era draft … or they could contract out. So they chose to contract it out,” McFate said. “That is why you have it now and why it is not regulated.”

The U.S. used contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan more than it had in any war in its history: in 2010 there were more contractors deployed to war zones (207,000) than U.S. servicemembers (175,000). In World War II, contractors only made up 10 percent of the military workforce, according to McFate.

From 1999 to 2008, at the peak of the wars, Pentagon spending on outsourcing alone increased from $165 billion to $466 billion a year. Attempts at oversight have been pathetic, as documented by the government’s own inspectors general [6] time and again. Success at regulating or imposing codes of conduct on contractors has proven elusive, too. The industry remains as opaque as it has been unassailable where it really counts—the pocketbook.

“The industry is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere,” said McFate a former employee of Dyncorp, which cut its teeth in Bosnia [7]. Dyncorp thrived as one of Washington’s primary contractors for both security and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq despite intermittent accusations of overbilling and underperformance on the job.

Perhaps the most infamous of all contractors was Blackwater [8], which deflected charges of fraud, violence against civilians and murder for years before it was forced to “rebrand.” Four of its former guards [9] were convicted of murder in October, however, in connection with the massacre of 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.

Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince has dipped and dodged his way through several incarnations of his company (no longer “Blackwater,” it was renamed “Xe” and is now “Academi”) [10], and has been successful at running a number of other so-called shell companies and international security operations inside and outside of the U.S. government trough, including anti-piracy enterprises in North Africa.

In his post-American days (Prince left the U.S. for Abu Dhabi [11] in 2010 amid a series of federal charges and lawsuits dogging Blackwater), Prince perched himself “at the top of the management chain” at Saracen International, a security group made up of hard-core mercenary veterans hired in 2009 to train indigenous forces in Puntland, Somalia, and to serve as a security detail for the embattled president of the fragile central government in Mogadishu.

Saracen was officially kicked out of Somalia in 2011 after accusations were made that it was violating the country’s arms embargo. According to Jeremy Scahill’s seminal “Dirty Wars” [12], however, by 2013 it was not clear that Saracen had ever left, and it was likely still operating in Somalia at the time with a handful of other international PMCs, including Dyncorp.

This is the world that Prince has both made and has thrived in. According to McFate, “‘irregular’ warfare is more regular than the ‘regular’ warfare,” as the number of internal conflicts have tripled while interstate wars have dwindled in number since a peak in 1965. As a result, PMCs have been used increasingly over the last 15 years by countries, NGOs, and corporations alike to protect ships on the high seas and oil fields in the deserts, to secure humanitarian missions, to raise armies against insurgencies, and to serve as security details at embassies, military bases, and palaces across the Middle East and beyond.

On the darker side, many of the multinationals once on the U.S. dole as PMCs in places like Iraq have since started their own enterprises and taken their skills to clients no matter the mission. They are hard to track, and impossible to rein in.

For example, before Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi was killed, he hired mercenaries from across Africa, “to brutally suppress the popular revolt against him,” McFate points out. Likewise, papers reported in 2011 [13] that one of Prince’s companies, Reflex Responses, was hired to raise a force of several hundred guards for the emir of Abu Dhabi, to “assist the UAE government with intelligence gathering, security, counterterrorism and suppression of any revolts.”

By no means has the U.S. stopped using PMCs—they are protecting diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq, training foreign militaries, and conducting intelligence. At this point they are more agile and better equipped to do this work overseas than even their military paymasters, McFate argues, and their use prevents the public angst—and scrutiny—that accompanies putting American soldiers into harms way.

“The argument about private militaries being here to stay – that is the truth or unfortunate truth depending on your position,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow for the Future War project at the New America Foundation and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry [14].

“For those who thought this would all be over with the end of Iraq 2.0 or Obama’s presidential victory, the facts just don’t bear that out,” he told TAC in an interview. Singer agrees with McFate’s assessments in Modern Mercenary, which he said
“mixes the analytic and academic side with his own personal experiences working for one of the firms; that combination is rare in this space.”

McFate details for the first time in public how he was hired by Dyncorp on behalf of a secret U.S. contract to help prevent a group of Hutu rebels, the Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), from sparking another genocide of the Tutsis during the ongoing civil war in Burundi [15]. McFate was tasked at one point with guarding the president of Burundi from impending assassination. The president remained safe, and the civil war was brought to an end by 2005.

McFate said he wrote about this, and Dyncorp’s training of the Liberian army in 2011, to show in part that PMCs can be used to positive ends. But he is not naïve. He is clear about where they can fail, invite mission creep, or seize power for clients through violence. By their very nature, PMCs profit from conflict and are always at risk of creating and expanding it for their own benefit. McFate cites numerous examples throughout history in which mercenaries have played both sides, only to come out with full pockets.

In addition, private armies live by no rules of war or international conventions; here, Erik Prince is the best example. PMCs can hide in countries with the lowest standards and norms. They have access to a global arms trade and the latest military technology, including drones. They are a risk to civilian populations, and their operations are never transparent. “You can FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) the CIA, you can’t FOIA this industry,” said McFate.

So what to do? McFate suggests that banning PMCs or trying to regulate them into submission won’t work because it would only drive them underground and into the realm of rogues. He suggests letting the market work to “incentivize desirable practices by making them profitable” might be the best course. He notes, however, that when the U.S. military had “market power” and was in the best position to set price and practices at the beginning of its wars, it “failed to do so.”

Whether the cons of private contracting outweigh the pros is a debate McFate chooses not engage, and his background as both soldier and contractor figure heavily in the tenor of his book. “I leave it deliberately up to the reader,” he said. “The book is not an argument; it’s more about exploration. There is a big global trend happening right under our feet. I think we are in the precipice of a big decision.” That decision is how to deal with the privatization of war effectively, if at all.

It will not be easy. U.S. agencies knowingly hired companies with spotty records. They used private contractors for controversial secret operations, including the detainee interrogations [16] at Abu Ghraib, and a covert CIA assassination program [17] involving Blackwater. It will take a lot more trust in Washington to believe that “best practices” in this industry can genuinely come from government itself.

“In an idealized world the companies with the best practices and best performance records would end up with all the contracts, and the bad actors would be eliminated from the field,” said Singer. “That hasn’t happened in regular business, much less when you cross regular business with what you call politics.”

Or war. Get your seat belt on, because if McFate is right, it is “back to the future,” and any choice we might have had in the matter is long gone.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter [18].

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "A Blackwater World Order"

#1 Comment By Winston On February 6, 2015 @ 3:21 am

Just another example of crony capitalism.

#2 Comment By Derek Leaberry On February 6, 2015 @ 8:26 am

If he gets fired, perhaps Brian Williams could find work with Blackwater. He’s already battle tested.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On February 6, 2015 @ 8:39 am

Private armies whose allegiance is to the highet bidder. We are assured that they won’t go rogue, but who knows? The use of contractors allowed Bush & Co. to wage various wars of dubious value. Who controls these mercenaries? What if some wealthy gangster uses them to seize control of a country?

Lots of questions, but very few answers. The use of private contractors was a huge mistake, brought on by lies and deception, which is to be expected from Bush & Co.

#4 Comment By steve in ohio On February 6, 2015 @ 10:51 am

My family has supported the Christian ministry Focus on the Family over the years. Erik Prince’s parents were on the Board of Directors (if I am remembering correctly) and Erik was a generous donor. I always thought most evangelical Christians supported the neoconservative FP position, because they saw it as supporting Israel–God’s chosen people. Now I am wondering if money is also a factor in keeping the Christians onboard

#5 Comment By The Wet One On February 6, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

Honestly, you’d think some folks hadn’t read their Machiavelli.


#6 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On February 6, 2015 @ 12:26 pm


“Just another example of crony capitalism.”

No kidding. Just try and start a private army without close friends in the state and see how far you get.

#7 Comment By Jack On February 6, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

Great photo. The fool Bremer with his absurdly out of place pocket square being shielded by guns for hire. Ah, the good old days of the Bush administration!

#8 Comment By Spengler On February 6, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

Are not mercenaries considered the same dregs as pirates? Enemies of all mankind?

#9 Comment By Jim Henley On February 6, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

This is a typically great Baker Vlahos article, but [19], it’s not such a great lede: as the article’s own dates imply, the last period of mercenary-company dominance was more the Renaissance and Baroque eras, not the “Middle Ages.”

#10 Comment By mojrim On February 6, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

I have been saying for ten years that this is the worst element of the Bush II legacy. I happen to remember a time when mercenaries were considered criminals subject to execution. God help us all.

#11 Comment By jdm On February 6, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

Nothing new here.

For a good read about the business of war, read “War Is A Racket” by Major General Smedley Butler, USMC.

It’s from 1935. Things haven’t changed.


#12 Comment By Alex On February 7, 2015 @ 2:13 am

Yeah, but Renaissance has very positive connotations so it wouldn’t make much sense as a head line with no context.

Back on topic, this just shows why we should start slashing the military and ending overseas operations.

We managed to create numerous dictatorships, terrorist organizations, drug cartels, and now roving mercenarybands with our foreign policy.

We are truly the criminal’s indispensable nation.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 7, 2015 @ 2:15 am

With the abolition of the draft there is no longer a citizen army that is accountable to the will of the people. The “all-volunteer army” is a misnomer – it is not made up of volunteers, but paid mercenaries doing their work of choice for hire for political operatives whose policies are made by self-interested financial elites. At one time, it made some sense to gratefully “support the troops,” because as draftees pulled from their regular civilian careers, they were indeed sacrificing on behalf of the citizens’ interests. They are hardly giving up anything now when they are doing a job just like any other government or corporate employee, particularly when war has become a privatized business driven into seeking new markets for Wall Street shareholders.

#14 Comment By anon On February 7, 2015 @ 9:02 am

They have access to a global arms trade and the latest military technology, including drones.


Drones, PMCs, “Narcotecture” & the Nutmeg state

#15 Comment By the lion On February 7, 2015 @ 11:48 pm

I am aware that at least one Australian Police service considers anyone that worked as a contractor in Iraq or Afghanistan is in fact a mercenary and that includes US AID and associated entities, they also have legal advice that such people may if they carried weapons be in fact War Criminals under both the Hague and Geneva conventions!

#16 Comment By Mon Plaisir On February 8, 2015 @ 10:51 am

I don’t see why these companies can’t be shut down fairly easily.

Many of those who work for them are the kind of filth you can lock up more or less anytime you like, involved in torture, drug and sex trafficking and other human rights violations (e.g. Abu Ghraib). Some work directly or through shell companies for organized crime cartels, and some moonlight for enemy states. So the “security firm” or “military contractor” fig leaf is easily stripped away, both legally and as a practical matter, like the legal fronts of any other criminal gang. The relevant Hague and Geneva protocols may need some sprucing up, but the legal basis is there. And these days it is laughably easy to identify, locate, and apprehend them.

What’s missing is a government or international organization with some teeth willing to round them up. But in an age when the US president routinely ignores national sovereignty and targets people for assassination anywhere he likes, we can hardly claim that international law or national boundaries prevent us from shutting down “military contractors”, or “security services”. The idea that they can effectively hide from us merely by registering their businesses in some third world hellhole is ludicrious.

#17 Comment By queen woof On February 10, 2015 @ 9:43 am

What this article ignores is the generation of men ruined to participate in civil society because they pursue this type of “career”. The social cost to us when they have to come home and re-integrate into the real world is a high high price that we ALL pay. Meet anyone who’s spent a decade running and gunning for Dyn Corp, Triple Canopy etc.? Give them wide berth for they are likely honor-less dirtbags.

#18 Comment By Mark On February 10, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

It’s not just that the US army couldn’t handle the burden. Our army could have scaled up, for a fraction of the cost.

It’s that mercenaries provide a layer of plausible deniability for official actions, and a firewall against following laws of conduct, etc.

#19 Comment By cornel lencar On February 10, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

Italian city states were brought to bankruptcy by the mercenary companies in late 1300, early 1400. Most famous ones were the English ones, e.g the White Company:

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders
Faber, 366 pp, £17.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 571 21908 X
‘The greatest mercenary of an age when soldiers of fortune flourished,’ says the cover flap of Frances Stonor Saunders’s biography of Sir John Hawkwood (c.1320-94), one-time leader of the White Company made famous by Conan Doyle’s historical novels. The 14th century was indeed an age of opportunity for military adventurers, and for mercenary soldiers in particular. Independent companies, led by seasoned captains, and with their own internal discipline and organisation, came to constitute effectively an independent factor in the warfare and politics of an age when states had not as yet learned to maintain standing armies. Ready to hire themselves out to any prince, city or lord prepared to pay for their services, such companies could make their paymasters militarily very formidable. Their martial skills were matched by their skills in pillaging, looting and burning, and in bullying towns and often whole regions into paying exorbitant tributes to be left in peace. Their activities were one of the most intractable political and social problems of the period.

The confused fighting in the Hundred Years War between England and France offered adventurers eager for gain a fine apprenticeship in fighting and plundering, and spread freebooter companies across much of the French kingdom, reducing rich provinces to economic ruin in the course of the 1340s, 1350s and 1360s. Italy offered even more enticing opportunities. Its wealth was an obvious magnet, and the rivalries of city republics and of local signori, and the territorial ambitions of the popes in their central Italian patrimony and of the Visconti of Milan in Lombardy, made sure that there would never be a shortage of employers interested in engaging their services. The business of hiring mercenaries, and their business of hiring themselves out under carefully negotiated contracts (condotte, whence condottieri) developed into what was in effect a specialized branch of Italian diplomatic activity.

The leaders of mercenary companies came to be well-known figures on the political scene. Chroniclers such as Froissart (for France) and Villani (for Italy) furnish us with a host of names, once formidable but now largely forgotten: Seguin de Badefol, le Petit Meschin, Conrad Landau, Jacopo dal Verme. A handful rose clear of the ordinary run of successful adventurers to higher influence and more lasting fame. No 14th-century mercenary captain rose as high as Francesco Sforza did in the 15th century: he married the only child and heiress of Filippo Maria, last of the Visconti of Milan, and used his condottieri companies to secure his own succession as duke three years after his father-in-law’s death. But there were spectacular achievements in the earlier age, too. Roger Flor, leader of the Catalan companies that overran Frankish Greece, married into the Byzantine imperial family and was hailed in Constantinople with the title ‘Caesar’. Bertrand du Guesclin, the Breton adventurer who led a mixed host of French, Gascon and English free soldiers into Castile to destool King Pedro the Cruel in favour of his bastard brother Henry, rose ultimately to be constable of France.

A good many English captains made considerable names for themselves in France under Edward III and the Black Prince, and independently on their own account: Robert Knowles and Hugh Calverley for instance. But none achieved quite such fame or rose quite so high as Sir John Hawkwood, the ‘diabolical Englishman’ of Stonor Saunders’s book, did in Italy. His military achievement and reputation carried him steadily forward to the edge of the princely aristocracy, with his marriage in 1377 to Donnina, illegitimate daughter of Bernarbò Visconti; to the title of gonfalonier of the Church, for Urban VI; and to the office of captain general for the proud republic of Florence, whose grateful citizens honoured him with a state funeral.

#20 Comment By old.frt On February 14, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

To cornel lencar,
Thank you for writing a comment which was historically detailed. Rarely do comments reach the level you’ve set.

One has to be uncomfortable about the return of these private warriors: which entities will they work for next?
Or will they just go rogue like Japanese Samurai.

#21 Comment By Hexexis On February 20, 2015 @ 9:58 am

“He suggests letting the market work to “incentivize desirable practices by making them profitable” ”

These guys always appear semi-rational, until they start waxing philosophic about markets, “incentivizing”; all those “best practices”: then they sound just as delusional as your friendly neighborhood cable news host or resident expert.

#22 Comment By Hexexis On February 20, 2015 @ 10:05 am

Pic here says it all about our state of affairs on the world stage: mercenaries guarding L. Paul Bremer; the one guy almost single-handedly responsible for turning the 2003 Iraq invasion from a 6-wk-long incursion into an 8-yr-long occupation. Yeah, boy: he needs protectin’, alright.

#23 Comment By Will On February 26, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

These guys are bodyguards, not mercenaries. Some of you sound like you’ve been watching too many movies.