Friday, 10 August 2007

Branch Meeting: Private Armies

Last night at our Socialist Party branch meeting, comrade N led off with the growing employment of private military contractors by the US and UK governments, among others.

Mercenaries, as they're better known, comprise a large chunk of the army of occupation in Iraq. At present there are 360 companies working under US army contracts. Their 180,000 employees outnumber the 120,000 military personnel. Most of these are non-combatants, hired predominantly from Iraqis themselves to play the back room support roles, ranging from doing the laundry to maintaining US trucks, personnel carriers, etc. But of these employees, around a quarter (48,000) are mercenaries.

It's easy to understand why there are so many mercenaries. Typically they can earn $650 a day, sometimes going up as high as $1,000. This is far more than what the regular troops earn, by the way. And they are seeing active service. But given the high price for their "labour power", what's the rationale for their use? One factor is the propaganda war. Around 900 of these have been killed during the course of the occupation, and very conveniently go uncounted in the US military casualty statistics. And then there's the alleged trickle-down. 118,000 of the contractors are Iraqis, therefore it can be argued the infrastructure of the occupation provides them with jobs, which theoretically helps stimulate the local economy (needless to say, they are on a lot less then the fees demanded by the mercenaries). Nevertheless, these contractors have a stake in continuing the occupation.

The use of private armies is the outcome of conscious policy decisions by Bush and his Neo-con coterie. Since 2004, the federal government has spent $750 million on contracts for diplomatic security. One such mercenary firm to have benefited from this bonanza is Blackwater (now the subject of a book and increased scrutiny). Forget your zog-obsessed survivalist militias. This firm owns two military facilities, possesses 20 helicopter gunships, has 21,000 reserves and is currently building the capability to produce its own range of armoured vehicles. All of this is taking place in the middle of the US heartland. It is packed to the gills with former US military and intelligence operatives, and is run by Erik Prince, a Christian fundamentalist, and coincidentally a source of funds for the Republican party.

Before opening the discussion out, N asked whether there were dangers in military outsourcing. After all, you can take the classical Marxist position that the state, the general committee of the ruling class ultimately rest on having the monopoly of violence. The military serves bourgeois interests, so do the likes of Blackwater, Aegis, Dyncorp. Should it make any difference from a socialist point of view?

J came in over the question of political accountability. She suggested it enabled our political masters to put distance between themselves and the more dubious operations mercenaries will undertake at the occupation's behest. She also said that the US government has a pedigree of equipping and funding proxy forces, such as the contras in Nicaragua. Handing out contracts to militarised corporations is just an extension of what's gone before.

M took up the point about statistics. By keeping the number of official troops low, war weariness isn't as likely to reach that critical boiling point. In fact, by employing more mercenaries and getting them to fulfil the role played by regular US and UK forces, the governments can argue that they're actually scaling down the occupation. But also, the contradiction between capital and labour comes into play in a way it doesn't with sovereign armies. If Blackwater contractors are receiving $650 for a day's active duty, how much is the firm creaming off in surplus value?

Because of this, P noted the historical experience of mercenary forces. Armies deployed by nation states tend to be highly regimented and structured fighting machines. Discipline, codes of honour, regimental identity and patriotic fealty combine together to give them a common bond even before they hit the battlefield. The loyalty of mercenaries on the other hand only go as far as their next pay cheque. As their relationship to their superiors is governed by the cash nexus, what's stopping them from leaving if the situation gets too hairy? Therefore the different conditions and the greater material rewards available to them could lead to episodic tensions with regular troops, and contribute to a decline in morale.

A argued that for the reasons outlined above, there would be a certain limit to military contracts. He suggested the German ruling class lost control over the Nazis - their state developed at times complementary, at times distinct interests vis a vis the German bourgeoisie. In this process the military apparatus of the German state came under control of the Nazi party, and as a result led Germany to ruin. The lesson the ruling class have drawn from this experience is to not allow their monopoly on the means of violence be usurped by another force. Therefore it's very unlikely private military firms will play anything other than an auxiliary role.

Summing up N agreed with all these points. He suggested that the clients of these firms won't necessarily stop at states. What's to stop other corporations from offering Blackwater et al contracts to clean up their messes? For instance, no doubt Shell wouldn't be averse to hiring a few platoons to keep their Niger Delta operations secure. Also there are attempts by these firms to have their combatants covered by the same legal protections covering conventional personnel. What this amounts to is yet another bulwark, another fall back position the ruling class could rely on if their grip on power is seriously challenged. Socialists would ignore these developments at their peril.

1 comment:

Leftwing Criminologist said...

there's been a lot of privatisation in the criminal justice system too (i blogged about it in relation to prisons quite a while ago). it's unaccountable and less subject to public pressure than true state forces, and it can be a rich source of profits for these companies. I don't think its a tendency that will become dominant (ie. the state becoming wholly reliant on private contracters), but it's certainly an excellent auxilliary for them.