A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2017


While there are some appealing arguments in favor of the United States employing mercenaries, there are also arguments against this position. One obvious set of arguments is composed of those that focus on the practical problems of employing mercenaries. These problems include broad concerns about the competence of the mercenaries (such as worries about their combat effectiveness and discipline) as well as worries about the quality of their equipment. These concerns can, of course, be addressed on a case by case basis. Some mercenary operations are composed of well-trained, well-equipped ex-soldiers who are every bit as capable as professional soldiers serving their countries. If competent and properly equipped mercenaries are hired, there will obviously not be problems in these areas.

There are also obvious practical concerns about the loyalty and reliability of mercenaries—they are, after all, fighting for money rather than from duty or commitment to principles. This is not to disparage mercenaries. After all, working for money is what professionals do, whether they are mercenary soldiers, surgeons, electricians or professors. A surgeon who is motivated by money need not be less reliable than a colleague who is driven by a moral commitment to heal the sick and injured. Likewise, a soldier who fights for a paycheck need not be less dependable than a patriotic soldier.

That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles. This is not to say that a mercenary cannot have higher principles, but a mercenary, by definition, sells their loyalty (such as it is) to the highest bidder. As such, this is a reasonable concern.

This concern can be addressed by paying mercenaries well enough to defend against bribery and by assigning tasks to mercenaries that require loyalty and reliability proportional to what the mercenaries can realistically offer. This, of course, can severely limit how mercenaries can be deployed and could make hiring them pointless—unless a nation has an abundance of money and a shortage of troops.

A concern that is both practical and moral is that mercenaries tend to operate outside of the usual chain of command of the military and are often exempt from many of the laws and rules that govern the operation of national forces. In many cases, mercenaries are intentionally granted special exemptions. An excellent illustration of how this can be disastrous is Blackwater, which was a major security contractor operating mercenary forces in Iraq.

In September of 2007 employees of Blackwater were involved in an incident resulting in 11 deaths. This was not the first such incident. Although many believe Blackwater acted incorrectly, the company was well protected against accountability because of the legal situation created by the United States.  In 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator signed an order making all Americans in Iraq immune to Iraqi law. Security contractors enjoyed even greater protection. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows charges to be brought in American courts for crimes committed in foreign countries, applies only to those contracting with the Department of Defense. Companies employed by the State Department, such as was the case with Blackwater, are not covered by the law. Blackwater went even further and claimed exemption from all law suits and criminal prosecution. This defense was also used against a suit brought by families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq.

While there are advantages to granting mercenary forces exemptions from the law, Machiavelli warned against this because they might start “oppressing others quite contrary to your intentions.” His solution was to “keep him within the laws so that he does not overstep the mark.” This is excellent advice that should have been heeded. Instead, employing and placing such mercenaries beyond the law has led to serious problems.

The concern about mercenaries being exempt from the usual laws can be addressed simply enough: these exemptions can either be removed or not granted in the first place. While this will not guarantee good behavior, it can help encourage it.

The concern about mercenaries being outside the usual command structure can be harder to address. On the one hand, mercenary forces could simply be placed within the chain of command like any other unit. On the other hand, mercenary units are, by their very nature, outside of the usual command and organization structure and integrating them could prove problematic. Also, if the mercenaries are simply integrated as if they are normal units, then the obvious question arises as to why mercenaries would be needed in place of regular forces.

Yet another practical concern is that the employment of mercenaries can create public relations problems. While sending regular troops to foreign lands is always problematic, the use of mercenary forces can be more problematic. One reason is that the hiring of mercenaries is often looked down upon, in part because of the checkered history of mercenary forces. There is also the concern of how the local populations will perceive hired guns—especially given the above concerns about mercenaries operating outside of the boundaries that restrict regular forces. Finally, there is also the concern that the hiring of mercenaries can make the hiring country seem weak—the need to hire mercenaries would seem to suggest that the country has a shortage of competent regular forces.

A somewhat abstract argument against the United States employing mercenaries is based on the notion that nation states are supposed to be the sole operators of military forces. This, of course, assumes a specific view of the state and the moral right to operate military forces. If this conception of the state is correct, then hiring mercenaries would be to cede this responsibility (and right) to private companies, which would be unacceptable. The United States does allow private armies to exist within the country, if they have the proper connections to those in power. Blackwater, for example, was one such company. This seems to be problematic.

This concern can countered with an alternative view of the state in which private armies are acceptable. In the case of private armies within a country, it could be argued that they are acceptable as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of the state. So, for example, an American mercenary company would be acceptable as long as it operated under conditions set by the United States government and served only in approved ways. To use an obvious analogy, there are “rent-a-cops” that operate somewhat like police. These are acceptable provided that they operate under the rules of the state and do not create a challenge to the police powers of the state.

While this counter is appealing, there do not seem to be any compelling reasons for the United States to cede its monopoly on military force and hire mercenaries. Other than to profit the executives and shareholders of these mercenary companies, of course.

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6 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 28, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I considered becoming a mercenary when I got out of the Army. I had the training, I was in great shape, I was young, and I was single. At the time, during 1980, being a mercenary was a shameful occupation. It wasn’t something people would be proud of. To make a long story short, I didn’t become a mercenary and I’m glad I didn’t. Fast forward to today and being a mercenary is a heroic occupation! The media never calls such people ‘mercenaries,’ instead calling them a ‘former Navy SEAL’ or a ‘former Green Beret’ or something like that. For anyone getting out of the Army today, the attitude toward mercenaries is totally different. Today it’s regarded as an honorable, even heroic, occupation. As long as you’re shooting toward ‘the terrorists!’ The Cult of the American Sniper https://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/the-cult-of-the-american-sniper/

    • WTP said, on July 28, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      The term “mercenary” back in that day, rightly or wrongly, implied a “have gun, will travel, no questions asked” profession. As the term is more commonly used today, in regard to former special forces people working for corporations and such, the job is to protect American and other western nationals who are doing jobs in lawless or nearly lawless countries. Not saying that the term does not apply to both, but the emphasis/perception in today’s parlance is definitely different. Also, the military in general was more despised/looked down upon as a profession back then due to hold over in attitudes from the Vietnam error. Not to mention socialist propaganda. Ironically, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. For some things, anyway.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      True; the difference between heroes and villains is often just a matter of public perception.

  2. TJB said, on July 28, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Mike, maybe you are just too much of a skinflint to want to pay soldiers what they are really worth?

  3. nailheadtom said, on July 30, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    “That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles.”

    Money is the primary motivation of all modern Americans. If Putin took over the country tomorrow he’d have no problem with the bureaucracy as long as they continued to receive negotiable paychecks.


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