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Justice and the Use of Private Military and Security Contractors

Transforming war into a capitalist imperative, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

The following reflection is an abbreviated account of Burroughs’s chapter, “Contracting Justice? Private Military and Security Contractors and the Commodification of War” in The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.

Over the course of the last generation numerous developments have dramatically changed how wars and similar conflicts are waged. Among the most consequential, yet also among the least visible, has been the growing role of private military and security contractors (PMSCs). Offering a wide array of services from logistical support to armed security to military training, PMSCs have operated in scores of countries. Their employers include non-governmental organizations, corporations, and states that range from the comparatively weak to military superpowers. And yet, no party has been more central in the rise of PMSCs than the United States, which has been both a key supplier of PMSCs and the largest consumer of their services. This makes the US an illuminating example of the ethical issues involved in the use of PMSCs.

At times, egregious incidents—above all the September 16, 2006, massacre in which Blackwater contractors opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, killing 17 civilians and injuring at least 20 more—have cast limited light upon the role of PMSCs in the United States’ recent military interventions. Viewed in isolation, however, what such episodes do not reveal is that these incidents are part of a broader shift in how the United States staffs its wars—and, increasingly, how other states do so as well.

Although use of military contractors is by no means novel in US history, the nation has never before relied upon them to such a degree. While regular soldiers outnumbered contractors by significant margins in previous wars, in the US’s interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, their proportions have generally equalized. At times those proportions have even reversed with contractors outnumbering soldiers by a margin of 3-to-1 (5). At its highest point, in March 2010, the United States’ Department of Defense (DoD), State Department, and Agency for International Development (USAID) combined to employ 262,000 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan (20). And contractors have increasingly been entrusted with critical tasks (14–16), including armed security, military training, intelligence gathering and analysis, and even overseeing other PMSCs.

As these facts suggest, private military and security contracting is big business. Accounted in 2017 US dollars, DoD contracts alone in Iraq and Afghanistan surpassed $25 billion each year for seven consecutive fiscal years, from 2007-2013 (12).

Viewed from a Christian perspective, however, the current regime of PMSC use, especially as exemplified in the US but also as practiced more broadly, should occasion significant moral reservations and even objections. Transforming war into a capitalist imperative for an increasingly influential industry, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, shifts the risks of war to disempowered populations, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

Evading Democratic Accountability
The increased reliance upon PMSCs fits as part of a larger privatizing trend in which a number of nations have entrusted the provision of previously public functions—including utilities, medical care, transit, and airport operations—to private enterprises. Thus, even as the rise of PMSCs most obviously marks a shift in military affairs, it more broadly constitutes a shift in political and economic affairs. Much like privatization more generally, the utilization of PMSCs has promised greater efficiency and cost savings by eliminating redundancies and replacing long-term investments with short-term contracts. And yet, a Christian account of power provides reason to worry that as the tendency for governments to privately contract military force expands, the prospects for justice contract, most of all because it makes authorities’ ability to exert power increasingly difficult to check.

A central problem with PMSCs is their lack of transparency. Given the promiscuous potential of PMSCs, in many instances even determining on whose behalf they are acting can be difficult. Furthermore, legal protections accorded to PMSCs in the US have shielded crucial information about their operations from public inquiry. Among the information generally hidden from view is the number of PMSCs killed or injured in areas of conflict, a number that even the Commission for Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan had difficulty determining (31).

Policymakers can exploit such lack of transparency to pursue strategic objectives while evading democratic checks. For example, Peter Singer, one of the foremost scholars of PMSCs, has argued that the administration of George W. Bush used PMSCs in Colombia to evade congressional limits on military personnel (206–211).

The opacity that clouds US employment of PMSCs has led to a situation in which citizens—and even their congressional representatives—often find themselves in the dark on key matters of foreign policy. Not only do they remain oblivious to the true costs of those policies in blood and treasure, but they are often uninformed about the very policies themselves. As it shifts power from the legislative branch to the executive, such an arrangement does not merely diminish democratic debate and accountability but potentially obviates them entirely.

Commodification and the Loss of Tragedy and Anguish
A second crucial worry Christians should harbor about the growing utilization of PMSCs is that this shift further transforms war into a capitalist imperative essential to the profitability of an industry with significant political influence.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the influence of the PMSC industry is found in Dick Cheney, who served as US Secretary of Defense from 1989–93 before becoming the CEO of Halliburton. Originally an oil services firm, Halliburton during Cheney’s tenure became the parent company of KBR, one of the US government’s most significant military contractors. Following Cheney’s election as US Vice President in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he vigorously used his bully pulpit to make the case for war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When the US ultimately went to war, KBR received contracts totaling $40.8 billion between 2002 and mid-2011, profiting immensely from the decisions Cheney influenced. Although Cheney pledged to donate to charity all deferred compensation from Halliburton, the prospect of a high government official pushing for a war that leads to a huge payday for his former corporation should be troubling as it suggests the possibility for government and corporate interests to coalesce in a way that generates a dangerous inertia towards war.

Such a transformation seems insufficient to appreciate the tragedy and anguish of war that is central not only to Christian pacifism but also to just war conceptions. In a locus classicus of the Christian defense of justified war, Augustine writes that one who is truly wise will “be readier to deplore the fact that he is under the necessity of waging even just wars” because “this is misery” (City of God XIX, vii). Moreover, “if anyone either endures [wars] or thinks of them without anguish of the soul, his condition is still more miserable.”

Such insights present poignant questions to PMSCs and their clients, which in a real sense includes all US citizens as well as the citizens of many other countries. Can one fully appreciate the misery and tragedy of war and call out to God for deliverance from war while building companies and industries whose profitability depends upon it or that proactively plan to capitalize upon it? As war becomes a capitalist imperative, at what point is it transmogrified from a tragic necessity thrust upon us into an apparent good—though finally an illusory good that results in the ultimate immiseration of ourselves and others? And might such a transmogrification quench the anguish that should accompany our contemplation of war and without which we are, in Augustine’s words, “still more miserable” for having “lost all human feeling”?

As war becomes increasingly commodified and its human costs obscured from view, we must invariably struggle to experience commensurate anguish over its tragic character.

The Global Rescaling of Military Recruitment of the Exploitation of Military Contractor
In the words of Maya Eichler, the use of PMSCs has effected a “global rescaling of military recruitment” (606) and in the process redistributed the risks of war from US citizens to disempowered populations on the periphery of the global economic order in a way that must raise worries about exploitation. Such rescaling results from PMSCs’ preference for hiring local nationals and third-country nationals—that is, respectively, persons from the country in which a conflict is taking place and those who hail neither from that country nor from the country legislating the war. (For example, in the Iraq War, local nationals would refer to Iraqis while third-country nationals would refer to citizens of nations other than Iraq, the US, and official US allies.) PMSCs prefer local nationals and third-country nationals for a number of reasons. Most of all, it costs significantly less to employ them than US citizens. Moreover, the preference for local nationals and third-country nationals reduces the likelihood of political resistance within the US and other contracting nations.

But the same disempowerment that undergirds these dynamics also makes local nationals and third-country nationals ripe for exploitation. The Commission on Wartime Contracting recorded a number of such instances from just one fact-finding mission, including the story of a Ugandan security contractor for Triple Canopy whose base was so ill-equipped with cold weather gear that he ultimately shot and killed himself (92-94). Other offenses involved firms preventing third-country nationals from returning home after completing their contract, forcing them to work 12-hour shifts and 72-hour weeks, and denying promised time off.

In the case of US contracting, the preference for local nationals and third-country nationals results in no small part from the fact that US citizens tend to have a lower regard for the suffering of local nationals and third-country nationals than that of US soldiers. Nevertheless, central themes of the Christian faith should correct the myopic vision that so commonly excludes citizens of other nations from moral concern as it teaches that all persons belong to the community of humanity created by God and that bears the divine image. All, then, exist within what should be the ambit of Christians’ moral concern. To disregard the mistreatment or deaths of PMSC personnel is thus to betray allegiance to God and God’s beloved community, which reaches out to those from all nations.

Preventing Military Contracting from Contracting the Role of Justice Can we prevent the growth of military contracting from further contracting the role of justice in determining military engagements? Questions of this sort are especially pressing for Christians who defend the possibility of justified war. Few have identified the central difficulty of that strand of thought more succinctly than Paul Ramsey, who posited that within it “the chief problem facing us is not what are the moral limits upon the just conduct of war, but where are those principles, i.e., where are the men [sic] in whose minds and where is the community of men [sic] in whose very ethos the propelling reason for ever engaging in war also itself lays down intrinsic moral limits upon how the defense of civilized life is to proceed?” (xxii–xxiii). Although the cultivation of such persons is never easy, the increasing use of PMSCs promises to make it even more difficult as personnel decisions by PMSCs have show a tendency to privilege profitability over capability—let alone justice.

Nevertheless, it is especially incumbent upon Christians to consider how or even whether war could be conducted in a manner that does it justice and what role PMSCs might play in such conflicts. For in a faith that teaches us that all are our brothers and sisters, war is always an affair of immense gravity and can never be just business.

Christian Ethics and the “Problems” of Business and War

Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking.

Justice and the Use of Private Military and Security Contractors

Transforming war into a capitalist imperative, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

Transformative Justice is Resistance to the Military-Industrial Complex

By working to abolish policing and prisons as we know them today, prison and police abolitionists are engaging in the kind of activism that can resist and dismantle these interconnected evils at the same time. In other words, transformative justice and prison abolition are ways to resist the military-industrial complex.

Response: The Business of War, the Labor of War

A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible.

Response: The Inversion of U.S. Society’s Militarism

A transformative justice approach with restorative mechanisms works to break this logic of de-humanization and build more humanizing social processes. Accountability, as distinct from punishment, is about better understanding the harm, growing in empathy, acknowledging responsibility, and moving in the direction of changing harmful behavior.

Response: Frameworks of Meaning, Identity, and Resistance

The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.

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