Outsourcing Military Tasks

There has been much scrutiny in the press recently about the U.S. outsourcing military missions to private companies like Blackwater. P.W. Singer pointed out many problems with this trend in yesterday’s Washington Post. The most important from my point of view is the weak link between the American people and warmaking:

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has sought to ensure that there’s a link between the public and the costs of war, so that good decisions will be made and an ethos of responsibility fostered. With about half our operation in Iraq in private hands, that link has been jeopardized.

Perhaps we live in a new world that I do not understand, but it seems to me that the past several hundred years of Western history have shown that a people at war can create a far more powerful political and military force than anything a cabinet can muster on its own. If the war in Iraq is so important, this country’s citizens should be more directly involved, for they are the real basis of American power. But they are also a brake on the reckless use of military force. They will only mobilize for compelling reasons. One of President Bush’s mistakes was to go to war with only enough public support to begin it. There is no such thing as war on the cheap. Private contractors are expensive in mere dollars, but they have helped the administration to avoid seeking a more solid domestic political foundation for the war—or accepting the consequences if it is unable to do so.

Framing his piece as an open memorandum to the secretaries of defense and state, Singer devotes most of his attention to how counterproductive private military forces are on the ground. This line of thought is more likely to gain an audience than the more immediate focus in the media on the accountability of men working for outfits like Blackwater. Yes, Congress needs to implement a legal framework for these men who stand outside both Iraqi law and the United States’ own Uniform Code of Military Justice, but a strong concern for the rule of law and human rights has not been this administrations’ strong suit.

We also need to hear more about the organizational culture of Blackwater. Since it hires men with prior military experience, this requirement includes learning more about the military cultures whence they came, especially since Blackwater hires people of diverse national backgrounds, including people with experience in outfits with less than stellar human rights records. The question of military culture brings me back to the initial point about the weak link between the American people and the violence being done in its name in Iraq. The U.S. Army and Marines have their own organizational cultures, but these include a strong link to values in American civilian society. Can we say the same thing about our hired guns?

Of course, the abuses at Abu Ghraib show that our own military culture has some problems, though I suspect that the atrocities committed there had much to do with the inexperience of National Guard troops, a different culture in the CIA, the use of civilian defense contractors, and some troubling signals being sent from the highest levels of our civilian government, not to mention unclear lines of command and accountability.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date. The Abu Ghraib link has been updated.