The Return of the Mercenary
How private armies, and the technology they use, are changing warfare
Gilsinan: In the book you raise the point [that private armies lower] the cost of war—and drones do a similar thing when they’re employed by national armies—but that lowering the cost of war could make it more likely.
McFate: The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.
“The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And that creates moral hazard, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.”
Look at what’s going on in Nigeria right now. If those mercenaries hired by Nigeria that killed Boko Haram are actually succeeding—and it looks like they are, according to reports—and there’s not a whole lot of backlash in the international community, I can imagine somebody saying, well let’s do this against al-Shabab [in Somalia]. And I could also imagine private military actors showing up and saying, you know, when you hired those mercenaries in Nigeria, they were really effective but they were really expensive. I can do the exact same thing they did at one-tenth the price by using this fleet of 200 drones that are armed. So I can see a situation of arms escalation, trying to get to price points that make sense for consumers, if you will. I hate to commodify conflict that way, but that’s kind of what this industry’s about.
[Private armies] also can maybe do things that the national army maybe can’t do. So they offer plausible deniability to policymakers. They can go and commit human-rights violations, frankly. This is a common attraction about hiring private military companies or mercenaries—that they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government.