Are contractors mercenaries?

April 12, 2004

Some of the lefty blogs have started calling the “civilian contractors” in Iraq mercenaries. The idea being: they’re mostly ex-military and they’re in Iraq for the big bucks. Guns for hire, mainly.

But my understanding of the term is that a mercenary would fight under any flag in any land if the paycheck is big enough. Does anybody seriously think former Navy Seals are going to hire on for brushfire wars in central Africa or take jobs protecting drug kingpins in Colombia? Could happen, I suppose, but it seems unlikely.

What’s really happening in Iraq is that guys who signed up for enormous risk as U.S. special-ops troops are finally getting some of the monetary rewards denied them by us, the U.S. taxpayers.

Having all these private employees and all their lethal training outside Pentagon control raises any number of worrisome issues, but that doesn’t really mean they’ve become mercenaries in the widest meaning of the term.

So keep an eye out: “mercenary” has a politically charged meaning these days … it’s become a fresh buzzword that we should be keeping out of news copy, except in direct quotes.

5 Responses to Are contractors mercenaries?

  1. Brian D on April 14, 2004 at 12:35 am

    Whether to use “security guard” or “mercenary” is a matter of perspective. It’s not fair to say there is some objective right or wrong. I can’t find any definition of mercenary that says it necessarily implies a willingness to fight “under any flag or for any cause.” You yourself admit that’s just the “wildest meaning of the term.” In fact, if you read their literature, you’ll see that most American mercenaries only fight on behalf of official or presumed US allies.
    Really, what those guys working in Iraq do doesn’t even fit the wildest meaning of the term “security guard” — that term conjures up images of unarmed rent-a-cops. And that is a far, inaccurate cry from these men who actually carry automatic weapons, rockets, etc.
    Also, it turns out the mercenaries may have died in even greater numbers than US soldiers this past week.
    Oh, and you really should look into the long list of seedy jobs former special ops guys have taken throughout the third world, most certainly including the protection of kingpins.

  2. The Sanity Inspector on April 14, 2004 at 9:11 pm

    What kills me about the people who throw the “mercenary” epithet around is that they don’t think about the job that these people are doing. I mean, look: the UN got run out of Iraq twice, before and after the invasion. If they came back in to deliver food, medicine, and such, who do the lefty bloggers think would provide security for the convoys? Red-shirted Star Trek extras? The UN is as much of an enemy in the terrorists eyes as America is, and if the UN comes back they will hire security–maybe even the same guys we’re using.
    As for the misusage of the term, I hope it doesn’t stick. But what with the spectacle of ombudsmen patiently explaining why terrorists are now “militants” and sometimes “guerrillas”, and anti-globo rioters are “protestors” and “activists”, I wouldn’t bet against it.

  3. tom on April 14, 2004 at 10:16 pm

    What you’re seeing in the neutral language is editors trying to avoid use of loaded, hot-button language that inflames certain constituencies.
    My point was that the lefties have appropriated “mercenary” and politicized it in the context of their critique of the Iraq war, so if we use their term, people on the other side of the equation will assume we’ve adopted the language of their rivals, and this causes them to do silly things like cancel their subscriptions.

  4. Niels on April 26, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    I’m not convinced by this argument. First of all, I think that the phenomenon we’re seeing (mercenaries hired by private corporations rather than rebel movements or recognized states) is one that deserves examination, rather that brushing it under the rug. Last time I checked, it was still illegal to keep private armies in the U.S. Yet companies like Blackwater (see URLs below) seem to be doing just that, although they are not running operations on U.S. soil – yet. This has disturbing parallels to the way the Pinkerton detective agency was used by the robber barons to terrorize and murder U.S. union activists 100 years ago.
    Second, how does protecting “certain constituencies” (i.e. the far right) from being offended square with journalistic ethics? If “lefty blogs” are correctly reporting on a developing situation, then that information should be shared with the general public, not hidden because of who is doing the reporting. Few media outlets seem to be able to resist a hot tip from Matt Drudge, despite the fact that his information has often proved inaccurate or falsified.
    Random House’s Webster’s Dictionary offers as a definition of “mercenary”: “Hired to serve in a foreign army, guerilla organization etc.” Given that companies like Blackwater and Executive Solutions are hiring soldiers and ex-soldiers of many nationalities to serve in an armed capacity using funds that are ultimately provided by the U.S. Treasury, it seems that these “contractors” do fall under the definition of mercenaries and should be identified as such.

  5. tom on April 26, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Good points, but none of them change the fact that a well-defined segment of the political spectrum has adopted a definition rejected by another segment. If you’re trying stay in the middle of the road, you can’t adopt one side’s definition w/out opening yourself up to the attacks of the other.
    My main interest is helping news people steer clear of these rhetorical brushfires. They take up too much of our time already.