From King George the Third to the Third President George: Mercenaries are Still a Bad Idea

In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson attacked King George for sending hired troop — mercenaries — to occupy his American colonies and help put down the Revolution. Jefferson wrote: “He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.”

Jefferson’s complaint might easily be uttered by Iraqis and others who are skeptical about American policy in Iraq. We learned this week about that murky, previously almost unknown company, Blackwater USA, the largest of a number of firms providing between 20,000 and 30,000 private security guards in Iraq — what Jefferson would have called “large Armies of foreign Mercenaries.”

These guards are heavily armed and appear to have no external authority over them. Their job, loosely defined, is to protect Americans and other westerners in Iraq. They do so with helicopters, armored cars, and serious amounts of firepower. They bully their way through the streets of Baghdad and other cities and drive as fast as 120 miles an hour in convoys. They’ve killed scores of Iraqis and frightened even westerners with their shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics.

Blackwater and the other contractors have in effect created private armies * what Jefferson’s day knew as mercenaries. Congress has ordered that they be placed under the same rules of engagement as United States military forces. But in fact this has yet to be done. Thus the security guards remain armed to the teeth but under no rules of engagement, and they’re not required to obey any military or civilian authorities other than those who’ve hired them. They can’t even be charged under Iraqi law because in 2004, the chief U.S. civilian in Iraq, L. Paul Brenner, III issued Order 17, which, as the New York Times writes, give “security companies working for the United States government immunity from prosecution.”

Iraq is surely a dangerous place. Over one hundred private contractors have been killed there. Blackwater and other companies guard these civilian contractors. They’re the new mercenaries. They wear no national uniform; they’re not subject to traditional military discipline. And, like all mercenaries, they have no loyalty to any government or any interest in the outcome of the conflict in which they are engaged. They have only three goals. They want to survive; they want to guard protect those they’re assigned to protect; and they want to get paid. If someone else offers them more money, they might quit the job they now have and move to a new employer. They would not be “defecting” to the enemy, because they are not soldiers.

The dangers of using a private army are clear. Employees of various companies, including Blackwater, USA, have been charged with senseless, reckless, cold-blooded killings.

The new mercenaries are not merely civilian employees of western contractors. They’ve also been hired by Department of State to be bodyguards for U.S. officials in Iraq, including the U.S. Ambassador. Thus we have the odd situation in which the United States government is hiring mercenaries who are not even under the government’s legal authority to do the job that the American military or federal law enforcement agencies should do. We’ve now outsourced the protection of our more important diplomatic and civilian officials to hired guns.

This policy raises significant questions about the nature of our mission in Iraq. It is also an implicit insult to our own military. Are the U.S. Marines, the traditional embassy guards, no longer able to protect our ambassador to Iraq? Are American forces spread so thin that they can’t spare troops to defend the U.S. embassy and its staff? Or is the nature of the Iraq adventure such that we don’t want marines and soldiers in this kind of “harm’s way.” Do we want mercenaries who don’t have to answer to U.S. or military law to protect the ambassador so that the mercenaries can always use lethal force whenever they wish and not be subject to any legal sanctions?

Jefferson was right to condemn King George for using mercenaries. Nations that fight their wars with mercenaries run the great risk of having their hired guns carry out “Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny” under “circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.” Sadly, the more he sanctions the use of mercenaries and hired guns on helicopters, the more our Third President George begins to look like our nation’s first adversary, George the Third.

Paul Finkelman is the William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School and a writer for the History News Service.

September, 2007