The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries. The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.
While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.
As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.
It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).
The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.
However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.
A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.
While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.
This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.
A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.
While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.
Have you considered that the military may be temporarily overextended, and that the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan may free up troops for the fight against ISIS?
Michael LaBossiere says
Recruit more soldiers. If the military used the money that would otherwise go to contractors to boost pay and benefits for soldiers, I suspect enlistment and retention would increase.
One problem is the training cycle for new recruits vs hiring people that have years of experience already in the desired area. Also, soldiers will always be used in a different manner than civilians, because the military is somewhat maladapted to modern realities.
“There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).”
You left out one extremely significant way in which costs could be cut – “efficiency”. Because the government has a potentially limitless source of revenue via its taxing authority, there is no need to keep an eye on reduplicated agencies or efforts, layers of bureaucracy, and rampant cost overruns. Your argument is valid only if it presumes from the start that the costs of maintaining any government operation are maintained as efficiently as they can be. The Pentagon has been notorious for rampant and uncontrollable cost overruns for decades. It’s not about cutting benefits and using cheaper, substandard materiel.
You list three “stock” arguments regarding the use of mercenaries – cost cutting, the shedding of responsibility and political impact of deaths, and the profit that would benefit the owners and contractors – the effective “funneling of public money” into private hands.
However, you miss the main point – “would it work in terms of producing a successful outcome to the war?”
I think that it is incumbent upon any US administration (or, in Trump’s case, “Regime”) to consider all options when it comes to bringing about a decades-old conflict that has caused an untold amount of damage in terms of human life and limb – American and otherwise, military and civilian alike. It would be an accomplishment that even in the most cynical political terms (a cynicism that I myself hold), would define the legacy of any US President except perhaps Richard Nixon. It would be a classic example of your Utilitarian argument – doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason (hiring mercenaries for one’s own political gain) which results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people (ending a war).
Cynicism aside, in the article you post there is a reference to a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner recommended, titled “The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan”. With the understanding and appropriate caution based on the fact that this piece was written by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the article takes a somewhat less skeptical view of privatization than you do, and at least addresses the potential for a more focused, efficient, and successful conduct of the war. Whether you agree with the article or not, I think that in a discussion about privatization or outsourcing at any level should at least include a point of view that considers the outcome outside of cost savings, political blowback, or profitability.
or, in Trump’s case, “Regime”
Curious why you accept Mike’s use of this word. Did a search for “Obama Regime” and only got one hit where TJ previously called Mike out on this specific term in reference to Trump. Of course out came the clown nose.
I think we need to create a new fallacy for Mike: “the stacked deck fallacy.”
He pretends like he is objectively considering various arguments, but tells like “regime” give him away.
Michael LaBossiere says
I do not pretend to not have views. I can be objective, but still have a position. If you can show I am in error in my arguments, then I will change my view.
It’s fine to have views, but when you consider the opposing point of view you should try to erect “steel men” rather than “straw men.”
Michael LaBossiere says
While I will sometimes sass Trump, I do endeavor to make the opposing arguments as strong as possible. You can also shore up any weak points or flaws you see in the arguments for the positions I do not take.
Yes, TJ. You should endeavor to shore up any weak points or flaws in the arguments for the positions Mike does not take. When you think about it, his reliance on straw men is really your fault.
Oh, wait…Mike must have missed this (along with a nearly infinite number of other points). You endeavored to shore up a weak point here…
Ahh…but that was two weeks ago. Water under the bridge, eh? We must endeavor to discuss other matters.
. If you can show I am in error in my arguments, then I will change my view.
Oh gimme a break. Nearly ten frikken years of discussion here have shown that you consistently react to being cornered in an argument by either abandoning the argument or by bringing out the clown nose. Hell, you gave up speaking to me years ago because I would try to drive you to making definitive statements that could be falsified. You ran away from those. You are not a philosopher unless sophistry and polemics are a philosophical…whole other argument. The most charitable thing I could say is that you’re only fooling yourself here. But it’s hard for me to even believe that.
Just playing the game.
Just playing the game.
yeah, i kinda figgerd.
He pretends like he is objectively considering various arguments, but tells like “regime” give him away.
That right there is the thing I find most tiring. Oooh, I’m objective! Oooh, I’m a philosopher! Oooh, I endeavor to preserve humanity! What crap. It’s all polemics. Which of itself being not much. Everyone is entitled to their own stupid opinion. But to portray oneself as an ethicist. Even so far as to be teaching classes in ethics. Which itself, while a slip down the moral/ethical greased pole, is bad enough but still not entirely 100% unscrupulous. But on top of even that, the fact that the people ultimately paying for those classes are the taxpayers. There’s the real scam. But it’s ok to scam if you aren’t aware that you’re a scammer. Unless of course you’re a conservative and/or republican (not that those terms overlap much anymore). I think such logic was covered here in the past.
I also made a reference to Nixon – that ending a decades-old conflict would be a defining legacy for any president and a worthwhile goal even if, in Utilitarian fashion, the means to that end were only for one’s own political gain. Not for Nixon, though.
Barack Obama was a quintessential example of that kind of Utilitarian means – it was even reported as such. As Obamacare became more and more deeply mired in political battles, the press aptly stopped reporting it as “What’s good for the American People” and replaced that with “What’s good for Obama’s Legacy”. Towards the end, the legislation became a “must do” if only to protect the legitimacy of his presidency.
Aside from a discussion of the ethical considerations of using mercenaries, which I realize this post is about, I think that the series of articles and headlines about this topic really demonstrate how careful we must be to not take the mainstream media at face value, to read the entire articles under the headlines, and to seek out other points of view before forming opinions. We must also be keenly aware of the context of all of the above, so that we don’t just add to the heap of uninformed partisan sniping.
The “American Conservative” headline reads
“Exclusive: Bannon & Kushner Want to Outsource Afghanistan to Mercenaries”
Really? That sounds pretty extreme! However, when one reads the article one finds no such desire on their part. In the first paragraph it’s said that the White House had recruited Erik Prince to “devise alternatives to the Pentagon’s plan”. Asking someone to devise alternatives is hardly wanting what they propose.
No matter where the alternatives come from, it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. As one who teaches creative thinking methodologies, I wholeheartedly support ideation sessions where nothing, no matter how absurd, is off the table – and nothing, no matter how practical it may seem, is accepted on face value. I would look to my President to consider all options – and to depend on my advisors to seek them – but nowhere in the article does it explain the very clear motive on the part of Kushner or Bannon claimed in the headline.
The article goes on to talk about wide differences in opinion on the matter, to the point where discussions broke down quite rapidly – but the motivations and desires of Kushner and Bannon stop short with two statements.
One is a conjecture by a senior intelligence officer, positing that Bannon’s opinion is “They’re all over the place anyway, what the hell, let’s just turn the country over to them”. (A judge or a lawyer would call that “hearsay”).
The other, and perhaps the most factual and strident statement made, was that Bannon and Kushner urged that [National Security Advisor H.R] McMaster read an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Prince, presumably to understand the point of view directly from its source.
The headline would have been much more accurate if it had read, “White House Divided Over Afghanistan, Seeks Alternative Opinions From Controversial Sources”.
The New York Times headline was much more accurate, in my opinion –
“Trump Aides Recruited Businessmen To Devise Options for Afghanistan”,
although the first sentence reveals their own bias: “…recruited two businessmen who profited from military contracting”. The Times goes on to say later that “Soliciting the views of Prince and Feinberg certainly qualifies as “out of the box thinking” (very true, and refreshing!), “but also raises a host of ethical issues …” (Also true). From the numerous articles and opinions I’ve read on this topic, the only thing this administration WANTS to do is consider all options and think out of the box. At least to this point.
So, in the final analysis, I would offer some kudos to Mike in his thesis statement – that the Trump regime (!) “seems to be seriously considering outsourcing”. I would hope that this was said in the context of “seems to be seriously considering a variety of options”, which is as it should be. Of course, the second part of this is just not true – “…outsourcing the war in Afghanistan …”. Regardless of the source, the story is about the fact that the Pentagon has now, for almost two decades, mishandled the war, that Blackwater and other military contractors are already heavily involved, and that the White House is considering options for increasing their role – not, as so many would have us believe, that the White House wants to just subcontract the war out, pay the bill, and wash their hands. That’s just absurd.
I would also offer myself a strong caution – because I tend to believe more conservative news sources like the American Conservative or the Wall Street Journal – and yet, it was those sources that this time were the most inflammatory.
Finally, I want to state that this kind of reportage and political panic are not new – in fact, they are centuries old. In the first half of the 19th century, there was a big movement afoot in this country to repatriate African Americans back to Liberia, to “un-enslave” them. Abraham Lincoln was fairly outspoken in favoring this plan – stating on several occasions in several contexts his belief that Blacks and Whites had little chance of living together in harmony.
Lincoln, however, famous for his ability to hear and consider all sides of an argument before making a decision, met with black leaders to hear their opinions. He met with representatives of both sides of that issue, and listened (and seriously considered) options regarding the end or continuation of slavery from all sides.
(It should also be noted that Lincoln, unlike any modern President of our time, understood and embraced his own limitations as President, and had a much better idea of where to draw the line between his own opinions and his Constitutional authority as Chief Executive).
Headlines of the time might have read, “Lincoln Wants To Ship All Slaves Back To Africa”, or “Lincoln Wants to Free the Slaves, but Keep Them Here”.
While expressing his strong underlying desire to keep the Union together, he wrote in a letter to Horace Greely, (in response to a strong attack by Greely in the Times),
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
Greely, the publisher of the New York Times, had the good sense to read the entire letter and understand Lincoln’s entire message – but he could have had a field day with headlines over that one. I can see many ways of taking excerpts from Lincoln’s letter and publishing them out of context – something that would be common practice today. “Lincoln Wants To Preserve Slavery” might be one headline. As it stood, he published the letter in its entirety.
Of note is the statement by Lincoln, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”, which was an overt nod to the Constitution and the laws of this country. A far cry from “If Congress won’t act, I will!”, stated by one of Lincoln’s more modern counterparts.
The bottom line – read below the fold, and seek out the opinions of those with whom you know you disagree.
With regard to Lincoln’s letter to Greeley, modern liberals seek to do what Greeley would not (or failed to do, in modern editorial fashion) – which is to take his statements out of context and alter their meaning to fit their own agenda. How many times have these statements been quoted in today’s political discourse to “prove” that Lincoln was a racist?
Actually trying to understand what others are saying… an idea so crazy, it just might work!
Actually, in regard to ISIS and such, the more they try to explicitly, clearly, effectively communicate exactly why they hate us, the harder the media/academic/etc Narrative works to not understand. Want or want not. There is no try.
…was looking to see if Mike had any response to his first mercenary post before posting the second one. Hahahaha…as if.
Here’s some utilitarianism. Remember, all for the greater good! Who can argue against that?