Modern Mercenaries: Unaccountable Opportunists or Tools for the Public Good?

March 4, 2015

Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order (Oxford University Press, 2014)


On September 16, 2007, security contractors working for Blackwater Worldwide were accompanying a U.S. convoy passing through Baghdad’s Nisour Square. They opened fire, killing 17 civilians. Before the killings, Blackwater was little-known outside U.S. government circles. After the events in Nisour Square, Blackwater “came to symbolize American power run amok,” according to the New York Times. Following international outrage over the incident, Blackwater lost its $1 billion annual contract with the U.S. State Department. Four Blackwater guards were convicted last October of murder, manslaughter and weapons offenses.

Blackwater may have disappeared, but as Sean McFate makes clear in his new book, private military companies have become a permanent part of the international security landscape. McFate, a former U.S. Army officer, has first-hand knowledge of this emerging environment, having worked in post-conflict Liberia for DynCorp, one of the world’s largest security contractors. The United States, despite its vast military power, is unable to go to war without such firms. Part of the explanation is cost — in the long term, hiring private security is cheaper than maintaining uniformed personnel. But as McFate argues persuasively, this “commodification of armed conflict” is part of the broader decline of the state-centric Westphalian system itself.

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Armies obviously continue to march under national flags. But states no longer have a monopoly on organized violence. Across the developing world, warlords, gangs, militias and other non-state or quasi-state forces have become as important as national armies. From Colombia to Nigeria to the Philippines, governments, communities, ethnic groups and neighborhoods have turned to armed groups to provide the security the state is unable or unwilling to deliver.

A great strength of The Modern Mercenary is the broader historical context it provides for understanding this secular trend. McFate’s discussion is richly informed by his knowledge of what he calls the “medieval market for force” that flourished in pre-Westphalian Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In a time when political sovereignty was fragmented among popes, kings, emperors and city-states, there was no taboo associated with hiring or serving in mercenary armies — a popular occupation for the lesser sons of aristocrats, such as Giovanni de’ Medici. In McFate’s view, the emergence of “neo-medievalism” in the 20th century can be seen as a return to an international order that existed before the centralized state system. Companies like Blackwater (now known by the anodyne brand name Academi) can be expected to operate like their profit-maximizing Renaissance predecessors.

Another strength of The Modern Mercenary is its judicious and measured treatment of a highly contentious subject. Private security contractors are viewed by many as the corporate lepers of contemporary armed conflict. The United Nations and a host of human rights groups have long opposed the existence of mercenaries as unaccountable, opaque and incentivized to promote and prolong conflict. McFate, too, highlights what he calls the “darker side of private warfare,” and in particular, the potential of “moneyed corporations, cartels and individuals” to become a “new kind of superpower” through their use of armed contractors.

At the same time, he offers compelling evidence that these companies can serve as private tools for promoting public goods. In a long case study on post-war Liberia, McFate makes the case that DynCorp was a model of innovation that was largely successful in raising, vetting and training a capable and disciplined new national army. This is in contrast to the public-sector approach that prevailed in other post-conflict environments like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Haiti, were new security forces have proved to be hollow, trigger happy or coup-prone.

The Modern Mercenary concludes with a small number of sensible suggestions. McFate is skeptical about legalistic and regulatory nostrums aimed at reining in private security companies. Instead, he urges the United States — the world’s largest customer, by far — to use its market power to demand from its contractors high performance, reasonable cost, accountability and respect for human rights.

Although published by an academic press, this book is notably well-written and concise, and therefore accessible to non-specialist readers. Although a member of the Washington policy community in good standing, McFate avoids the temptations of think-tankery and the sclerotic prose style that clogs many policy-oriented books. The Modern Mercenary will reward anyone looking for a deeper understanding of market-driven contemporary conflict.


William Rosenau is a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies, CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research institute in Arlington, Virginia.