When you hear the name Blackwater, you think of gung-ho, well paid, trigger-happy military contractors who cause international incidents. This isn't entirely inaccurate, but it's not the full story, which is told through a new book by Sean McFate: The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.

Since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and other nations have begun to use Private Military Companies (PMCs) to supplement or augment their forces. This shift in acceptance, argues Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council, marks a radical change in how modern wars are fought, and foretell a shift in the balance of power in the world. In The Modern Mercenary, he examines the long history of soldiers for hire and how their presence on the battlefield are an indication of a new political trend: neomedievalism, in which power traditionally reserved exclusively for a central government is spread out among numerous other non-state players.

Top image: AP/Khalid Mohammed

The collective, public experience with PMCs are complicated: on one hand, there are the images from Nisour Square in Baghdad, where Blackwater Security Consulting contractors killed 17 civilians and injured 20. On the other, private companies entering the battlefield to assist regular military forces in a non-combat capacity is a practical reality: sustained conflicts are simply not feasible for US military forces. McFate, a former contractor with DynCorp International who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, brings his own experiences with the military to this book, and presents a complicated and detailed look at the state of privatized warfare.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Armed contractors are usually in the minority when it comes to the whole of services PMCs are contracted to undertake: they range from trainers to support staff, in addition to armed security personnel. Get used to them, McFate explains: PMCs are here to stay, if the modern world is going to wage large-scale wars like Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming decades.

McFate outlines a number of reasons for this: since the fall of the Soviet Union, the 'market for force' has exploded, with numerous private companies organizing and marketing their personnel and abilities to nations, NGOs and other places.

While the word 'Mercenary' has considerable connotations, McFate notes, their use can be beneficial in a number of ways. He cites one example early in the book of where Blackwater Security Consulting was asked to look into deploying to Darfur at the height of the fighting there, expressly to rescue civilians in the line of fire. In another case study, he looks at how two private companies were contracted by the US State Department to dismantle Liberia's military and rebuild and retrain it. Other uses include that of security forces for international shipping and diplomatic protection.

Sponsored

What isn't covered is how these companies can really fall, and how individual actions can cause incredible international incidents. I had a hard time lining up the higher-level view that McFate reveals with the anecdotes that I remember reading from in Ray MeMoine and Jeff Neumann's account of their time in Iraq, Babylon by Bus.

Additionally, PMCs have several inherent characteristics that can aid them around the world. They can hire from a wider pool than that of the military, and for specific situations or countries. In several combat zones around the world, the United States has hired local PMCs to take on work in the Middle East and Africa, with personnel who are intimately familiar with the location that they're operating in. This does have some drawbacks, McFate notes: one company in Afghanistan took money from both the US and Taliban, playing both sides in a sort of balance of power. Additionally, McFate makes the argument that a PMC as a private entity, can innovate and adapt to combat situations faster than a national military can.

While McFate discusses the modern marketplace for PMCs, he looks back at the historical context for how these companies existed and operated, and makes the argument that the historical model for a PMC is one that's coming back. As he does so, he makes some intriguing points about the history and nature of warfare. The main point that he makes is that PMCs have a long history: at one point, they were considered the norm for armed forces throughout the Middle Ages. Their return, he argues, is an indication that we're living in a neomedieval world.

McFate points to the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which drastically changed the balance of power in the Western world. Power, once spread between numerous agents across the land, was consolidated into nations. Among their political powers, armed force was reserved exclusively for the state. Mercenary companies emerged as a major threat to the sovereignty of the state's monopoly of force. Since that point, warfare has been an occupation of nations, evolving to peak with a series of world-wide conflicts in the 20th century.

Advertisement

This is a high, strategic level of the battlefield, and The Modern Mercenary proves to be an interesting work on military history and how warfare has evolved in the modern world. There's a prevalent Generational theory about how warfare has evolved (1st Generation: Massed manpower, 2nd Generation: Rifles and indirect fire, 3rd Generation: speed and maneuvering), which has culminated in a theorized 4th Generation that speaks to decentralized warfare and the introduction of civilians to the battlefield. McFate's theories should fit into this model, but it's led me to question the idea that technology is the key driver of warfare evolution. Instead, McFate seems to make the point that it's politics and international relations that force changes.

Accordingly, it's the end of one of the major Westphalian conflicts, the Cold War, that has led to the return to a pre-Westphalian world. McFate points to the complicated breakup of power across the world resulting in a world that resembles a Medieval configuration. The breakdown of post-Soviet Bloc countries, the withdrawal of colonial powers from Africa, Asia, South America, the rise of international corporations, narco-states and rise of PMCs all contribute to a larger threat against the monopoly of power reserved by states.

Advertisement

This is the biggest revelation that The Modern Mercenary poses, and it points to what the future likely holds for international relations and warfare: a complicated world where political power (and accordingly, armed force on behalf of a state) is split between agents.

This isn't a book that examines the ins and outs of daily life or even the real downsides to the work PMCs do: for that, you'll probably want to consult Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill or other, similar books. McFate looks at the issue of PMCs from the stratosphere, and in doing so, covers the range of implications for what privatized warfare means, and follows those implications to logical end points. In the end, it's a thoughtful, interesting read, that may turn out to be scarily prescient in the years to come.

Amazon | Powell's | Books Inc. | BN


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.