Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

Nevertheless, there is a basic terminology to sort out the different functions that these PMFs perform. Broadly, they can be slotted into the categories of “provider firm” (actual, boots-on-the-ground fighting forces, like Airscan, DynCorp, and Executive Outcomes), “consulting firm” (providing everything but combat troops, including training, intelligence, and logistical planning; see MPRI, Ronco, and CACI), and the “support firm” (logistics such as transportation, maintenance, and catering; see KBR, Serco, and General Dynamics). While the categories are relatively firm, their companies are not – most have sub-units, spinoffs, and subcontractors that define themselves fluidly and often shift between functions.

Singer performs an admirable job of pointing out obvious absurdities in the way contracts are awarded and over the very functions that are now being outsourced and privatized. When the ostensible point of outsourcing to private companies is to save money, it makes little sense to award no-bid contracts, or to ask for bidding when less than a handful of companies exist that are even capable of performing the job. As Singer notes, “such arrangements forget that the efficiency of privatization comes from greater competition, rather than simply that it is private.”

A good amount of space is devoted to some of the less obvious problems that arise from private militarization. Instead of a traditional arms race, the Ethiopian-Eritrean War saw an actual bidding race, as both sides rushed to secure the most in-demand services before their opponent could do the same. In this sense, more than any military build-up might be, a PMF race between adversarial nations represents a truly zero-sum situation. Whereas a country can attempt to increase spending, conscription, and overall arms procurement to match another country (such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), every PMF that is hired by one party leaves one less to be hired by the other. This, Singer warns, can have serious unforeseen and destabilizing effects on future conflicts.

Other surprising issues are at stake. One such example of PMFs and the civil-military balance is particularly fascinating, and deserves to be quoted in full:

Given the checkered history of the soldiers who had served in the elite units of the apartheid-era South African military [and who now worked for PMF Executive Outcomes (EO)], the new African National Congress (ANC) government in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela had a particular incentive to see that these soldiers stayed out of domestic trouble, especially during the first multiracial elections in 1994. This may in part explain the lack of sanctions when EO first fought in the Angolan civil war. In public, the Mandela government was decidedly against the firm’s activities, as EO was acting in contravention of the “new” South Africa’s attempt to become a responsible regional power. However, in private, it quietly tolerated and even facilitated early EO recruitment of these forces. The rationale was the government’s belief that “it would remove from South Africa a number of personnel who might have had a destabilising effect on the forthcoming multiracial elections.” The ultimate outcome was the the South African elections went off without a hitch, while hundreds of potential agitators, with high levels of military skills, were kept busy making money abroad.

Another hitherto unforeseen situation is the potential for “good” NGOs and humanitarian groups to hire a PMF. Singer writes that during the early days of Rwanda, the United Nations at one point considered hiring mercenary groups to avoid a prolonged negotiation between its own member countries as to the composition of a peacekeeping force, and because a PMF could deploy much sooner. Groups like Worldvision in Sierra Leone and other agencies of the UN (including the High Commission for Refugees) have hired firms for protection and security advice. The world of private military capabilities is a complex one, and there are both objectively “good” and positive contingent outcomes that are hard to predict in advance.

While a book on the private military industry written on the eve of the invasion of Iraq might seem like it would be woefully outdated, it’s held up surprisingly well. This is helped, of course, by Singer’s new 2007 postscript – “The Lessons of Iraq” – which makes a compelling case for his own arguments. Sadly, the moderation and careful consideration he proscribed in his earlier conclusion was nowhere in sight during the following decade, and in fact the his most dire assessments of the real dilemmas with private military contracting were somehow outdone by reality. Vast quantities of money were funneled to contractors with little-to-no oversight, much of which simply vanished. Contractors were unaccountable, belonging neither to the military chain of command (and thus subject to the UCMJ) nor to civilian courts – always walking away free.

Singer’s final proscription is that perhaps we had best take a step back and ask ourselves whether some of the functions we are now privatizing would be best left to our own military. Are we losing core functions and capabilities to the private sector? And are we paying the cost of training soldiers, only to see them leave and sell those same services back to us at twice the cost? Until such questions are answered publicly and definitely, the hazy, murky world of military contracting will continue to flourish. And while that in itself may not be a bad thing for now, if left to grow rampant and unchecked the blowback will become more than we can possibly imagine.

Corporate Warriors sought to analyze a new and growing trend, and since its writing that trend has increased exponentially. Like Singer’s other work, it found a military development on the edge of mass awareness and firmly planted itself in the public mind. He foresaw the problems with PMFs and anticipated their logical extreme, to which they went in the five years after initial publication. Let us hope that in the future, if his next books contain such dire predictions, that they are wrong on those counts.

Buy Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry at