In July 2014, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, claimed that Ukraine wasn’t fighting a civil war in the east of the country but rather was “defending its territory from foreign mercenaries.” Conversely, rumours abounded earlier in the year that Academi, the firm formerly known as Blackwater, were operating in support of the Ukrainian government (which Academi strongly denied). What is interesting is not simply whether these claims are true, but also their rhetorical force. Being a mercenary and using mercenaries is seen as one of the worst moral failings in a conflict.
Regardless of the accuracy of the claims and counterclaims about their use in Ukraine, the increased use of mercenaries or ‘private military and security companies’ is one of the most significant transformations of military force in recent times. In short, states now rely heavily on private military and security companies to wage wars. In the First Gulf War, there was a ratio of roughly one contractor to every 100 soldiers; by 2008 in the Second Gulf War, that ratio had risen to roughly one to one. In Afghanistan, the ratio was even higher, peaking at 1.6 US-employed contractors per soldier. The total number of Department of Defense contractors (including logistical contractors) reached approximately 163,000 in Iraq in September 2008 and approximately 117,000 in Afghanistan in March 2012. A lot of the media attention surrounding the use of private military and security companies has been on the use of armed foreign contractors in conflict zones, such as Blackwater in Iraq. But the vast majority of the industry provides much more mundane logistical services, such as cleaning and providing food for regular soldiers.
Does this help to remove the pejorative mercenary tag? The private military and security industry has certainly made a concerted effort to attempt to rid itself of the tag, given its rhetorical force. Industry proponents claim private military and security companies are different to mercenaries because of their increased range of services, their alleged professionalism, their close links to employing states, and their corporate image. None of these alleged differences, however, provides a clear—i.e. an analytically necessary—distinction between mercenaries, and private military and security companies. After all, mercenaries could offer more services, could be professional, could have close links to states, and could have a flashy corporate image. Despite the proclamations of industry proponents, private military and security companies might still then be mercenaries.
But what, if anything, is morally wrong with being a mercenary or a private contractor? Could one be an ethical mercenary? In short, yes. To see this, suppose that you go to fight for a state that is trying to defend itself against attack from a genocidal rebel group, which is intent on killing thousands of innocent civilians. You get paid handsomely for this, but this is not the reason why you agree to fight—you just want to save lives. If fighting as a private contractor will, in fact, save lives, and any use of force will only be against those who are liable, is it morally permissible to be a contractor? I think so, given the import of saving lives. As such, mercenaries/private contractors might behave ethically sometimes.
Does this mean that we are incorrect to view mercenaries/private contractors as morally tainted? This would be too quick. We need to keep in mind that, although the occasional mercenary/private contractor might be fully ethical, it seems unlikely that they will be in general. There are at least two reasons to be sceptical of this. First, although there may be exceptions, it seems that financial considerations will often play a greater role in the decision for mercenaries/private contractors to take up arms than for regular soldiers. And, if we think that individuals should be motivated by concern for others rather than self-interest (manifest through the concern for financial gain), we should worry about the increased propensity for mercenary motives. Second, although it may be morally acceptable to be a mercenary/private contractor when considered in isolation, there is a broader worry about upholding and contributing to the general practice of mercenarism and the private military and security industry. One should be wary about contributing to a general practice that is morally problematic, such as mercenarism.
To elaborate, the central ethical problems surrounding private military force do not concern the employees, but rather the employers of these firms. The worries include the following:
- that governments can employ private military and security companies to circumvent many of the constitutional and parliamentary—and ultimately democratic—constraints on the decision to send troops into action;
- that it is questionable whether these firms are likely to be effective in the theatre, because, for instance, contractors and the firms can more easily choose not to undertake certain operations; and
- that there is an abrogation of a state’s responsibility of care for those fighting on its behalf (private contractors generally don’t receive the same level of support after conflict as regular soldiers since political leaders are often less concerned about the deaths of private contractors).
There are also some more general worries about the effects on market for private force on the international system. It makes it harder to maintain the current formal constraints (e.g. current international laws) on the frequency and awfulness of warfare that are designed for the statist use of force. And a market for force can be expected to increase international instability by enabling more wars and unilateralism, as well as by increasing the ability of state and nonstate actors to use military force.
These are the major problems of mercanarism and the increased use of private military force. To that extent, I think that behind the rhetorical force of the claims about mercenaries in Ukraine, there are good reasons to be worried about their use, if not in Ukraine (where the facts are still to be ascertained), but more generally elsewhere. Despite the increased use of private military and security companies and the claims that they differ to mercenaries, we should be wary of the use of private military and security companies as well.