Over the years, I’ve read a number of books on the private mercenary industry and the use of military contractors in the so-called “War on Terror.” Most often, these books have focused on one or two companies–for example Blackwater–and used them to draw conclusions about the industry as a whole.
Rolf Uesseler’s Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict takes a different approach and focuses on the industry as a whole and uses short case studies of specific companies in order to illustrate broader points. Instead of focusing solely on the “War on Terror” and the most recent wars of the United States, Uesseler takes a much broader view and looks at private military companies around the world. This may owe to the fact that the book was translated from German, but whatever the reason, it offers a welcome break from the typically U.S.-centered literature on the topic.
Uesseler examines how governments, intelligence agencies, private companies, warlords, drug cartels, and rebel groups have come to rely on private military companies to support a wide variety of activities. Private corporations use them to support resource extraction and to police sweatshops, states use them to prop up weak governments and enforce their rule, and intelligence agencies use them to facilitate illegal arms trades. States also use private military corporations to circumvent national laws. For example, a state can hire a private military contractor to fight a war or support one side in a war without needing to officially enter the conflict.
Through all of these activities, private military companies often operate in a legal gray area. The pursuit of profit is their main goal and all other concerns–including law–are often superseded by this goal. That is why in countries like Iraq we see mercenaries run amok–all the companies really care about is the constant flow of lucrative contracts. In many cases, there are no local laws that govern the conduct of mercenaries–as was initially the case in Iraq when they were granted immunity from prosecution–and the countries that send contractors often have little legal oversight of their activities. Moreover, in many cases private military companies subvert democratic notions and are able to conduct their activities with limited oversight and transparency.
In addition his examination of the contemporary activities of private military corporations, Uesseler also includes a brief overview of the historical evolution of mercenaries. He looks at their origins in Ancient Greece through the French Revolution when they largely went out of favor. However, with the end of the Cold War, they have experienced a resurgence. This resurgence is owed to many factors, among those Uesseler highlights a security vacuum with the collapse of the Cold War, conflicts in the Third World, a national energy policy in the United States that demands access to oil regardless of the cost, the increasingly technological orientation of warfare and militaries’ inability to keep up with the technological advances of the private sector, and similar technological gains in the intelligence sector.
Overall, Servants of War is one of the most comprehensive books on private military corporations. It’s very thorough and well-researched, and while that is good, it does make for reading that is a bit on the dry side of things. You will certainly walk away having learned a lot, but there are sure to be times when you wished the author wrote in a more engaging style. Nevertheless, it’s an important book that deserves to be read, especially by those who consider themselves anti-war.
Rolf Uesseler, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, (Soft Skull Press, 2008).