“It means you must hire what you cannot inspire. Remember that.”

by Joshua Foust on 11/19/2008 · 8 comments

Danger Room gave Robert Young Pelton a chance to talk about his craft: namely, hyping himself as he hangs out with dangerous men in dangerous situations. The result, as TLC might say, is really damned unpretty. Does the military not “hire” people by offering truly astounding financial incentives to “inspire” people to sign up? Maybe he forgot those $40,000 enlistment bonuses, free college education up to a PhD, enough hazard pay to fund a BMW, and so on. If only it were that simple.

If Obama took it upon himself to ditch his security detail and hang out at a local bar to gather wisdom, I would give him the benefit of my two decades with mercenaries, security contractors and paramilitaries. I would ask him point blank if war should be a business — whether a posse for hire should determine the life and death of a family who doesn’t stop at a traffic circle in time and whether our diplos should be guarded by a praetorian guard whose biggest penalty is a ticket home. “Window or aisle” cannot replace “guilty or not guilty” in this or in any other country.

Assuming you could unpack Pelton’s meandering syntax, I believe he is saying there is something dishonorable, or unnatural, about people getting paid to participate in a war. This, along with the baseless assertion that “mercenaries” (a general, pejorative, and somewhat meaningless term) are “above the law,” forms the basis of his argument for… I guess more soldiers? Because that’s sort of what he’s saying.

Reading this, I must conclude Robert Young Pelton knows nothing about warfare, history, or contemporary contracting. For the record, I have been suitably galled at the ways in which companies like KBR, Halliburton, and Blackwater have existed in environments seemingly outside the law. However, these are unique situations—in the case of Blackwater, one that was fixed in relatively short order (i.e. Blackwater employees definitely do not exist outside AMERICAN law now, and it is doubtful that they ever did exist outside the UCMJ).

Moreover, I’m curious when Pelton—given his decades of experience with these people, mind you—thinks warfare ever existed without mercenaries, freelancers, contractors, privateers, or whatever you call them. It never has. Plus, given what I know of security contractors in Afghanistan (see, for example, Free Range International), pretending like “hired guns” are the problem just happens to miss the problem (which is strategy, and not the mere presence of armed non-soldiers performing tasks the DOD cannot).

So… why did Danger Room run this drivel? It’s neither new thinking, nor is it innovative (or readable). It’s just tepid.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 8 comments }

RYP November 20, 2008 at 11:09 am

Thanks for the love Joshua.

You completely missed the point. The Bush administration dove headfirst into the free market model of warfare and it doesn’t work. Strip mining military skills to prop up the military is a self licking lollipop that soon hits dry stick.

The solution? Don’t fight wars you can’t win or understand the inherent need for defense is a burden all citizens must bear. The downside? You won’t see much foreign adventuring by presidents when soldiers come from a more representative segment of our society.

My observations are based on over a decade on the ground with contractors, mercenaries, security contractors and OGA people. Its not pretty and its time our citizenship gets in sync with the extraordinary sacrifices our military makes. If you want to get upset just hang out with those $30K a year young marines living in plywood boxes holding the wire in crap Humvees watching $180K contractors blast by in their SUVs on their way to premium cable, scotch and 90 day rotations. its not right and it has warped what people think about our goals and commitment means in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can pee in my pool all you want… but jeez man pay your respects to the military and understand the difference between a career soldier’s benefit to sacrifice ratio vs the contractors we hire to support them.

And finally (cuz its all about self-promotion… right?:)) why not read my books or articles and watch my docs. You would sound a whole lot smarter if you did. Security contracting is an area that needs a whole lot of attention paid to it. having being the only outsider to spend a month with Blackwater and time with many other groups I can confirm that the industry needs its Wilfred Brimley moment to sort out the champs from the chumps.

I enjoy your site for breaking news on my least favorite region but I build my credibility and career by being out there and telling people what I see and experience. I don’t have an agenda (or syntax) so perhaps you could actually react to what I wrote, not what you think I said. And please don’t ever quote TLC and diss my writing on the same web page… :)))))

Peace out

RYP

Helena Cobban November 20, 2008 at 12:52 pm

Joshua, Pelton’s piece may not have been the most brilliantly argued text of all time but I really respect him for having written it. Fwiw I share nearly all the sentiments and judgments he expresses there. Also, he honestly does know a lot about that whereof he writes. And though I respect your judgment on a large number of issues I think in this case you have a lot less experience than RYP and I think you are wrong both in the substance and the denigrating tone of what you write this time.

Michael Hancock November 20, 2008 at 5:34 pm

I gotta agree with Helena on this one, Josh. You’re being a bit too harsh. Disagreement comes off better when it’s more civil and doesn’t include a statement like “Reading this, I must conclude Robert Young Pelton knows nothing about warfare, history, or contemporary contracting.” That just sounds dick-ish, and you are above that stuff.

Joshua Foust November 20, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Mr. Pelton,

First off, thank you for commenting! I appreciate more than my tone in this post perhaps conveys. Which is a fair point for Michael to make — I was snarking, and it might not be necessary.

HOWEVER, I do think you’re coming down way too hard on contractors in general, and yes even PMCs. I certainly don’t have your depth of experience, but I have worked the vast majority of my adult life in and among DOD contractors, and while I would never argue that the industry itself is squeaky clean, I also wouldn’t accuse them of something as petty as privateering (or whatever).

That being sad, I agree with you that in Iraq in particular, the situation got out of hand. But it has been reined in to a certain degree, and the fact that, say, contractors are now tried by the DOJ in federal courts from crimes committed in-country I think speaks to that.

In a similar light, I wouldn’t discount the financial incentive. I recognize that there are serious issues involved with private soldiering — I am a huge fan of your books, honest! — but it is also not a universal bad. In my more limited experience, these sorts of firms exist to handle short-term, “surge” needs for the government. So if they can’t devote the resources needed essentially to hire someone for life (when you factor in things like VA care, an individual soldier or even DOD civilian represents a pretty huge investment and obligation), you hire someone else, and then absolve yourself of responsibility after.

Does it get at the heart of war ethics? Yes. But is the idea of a government supplementing its armed forces with mercenaries a modern invention? Quite the opposite.

That — along with, let’s be honest, the trope of buying Barack Obama a beer — is more what I am reacting against. I have a public record of questioning the accountability and ethics of PMCs (and I’m pretty familiar with what little academic literature there is on the topic, even if I avoid Soldier of Fortune magazine), but I just think that post was over the top.

And… I will not throw in gratuitous and unnecessary references to grrrlpop when discussing this topic in the future 🙂 Either way: having a conversation about this is a good thing, I think. Even if it starts with attitude. I stand by my base assertion that you’re painting with far too wide a brush, and not really placing the blame where it needs to be.

Laurence Jarvik November 21, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Josh, Thanks for starting this argument…RYP, Thanks for joining in. Personally, I’d like to see an end to contracting out of both military and diplomatic responsibilities. IMHO, PMCs and NGOs represent two sides of the same coin; that is, the privatization of government functions which has led to something less than victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the collapse of American power and prestige, not to mention our domestic economy…This really began to take shape under Clinton, not Bush, as far as I can tell…

Laurence Jarvik November 21, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Josh, Thanks for starting this argument…RYP, Thanks for joining in. Personally, I’d like to see an end to contracting out of both military and diplomatic responsibilities. IMHO, PMCs and NGOs represent two sides of the same coin; that is, the privatization of government functions which has led to something less than victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the collapse of American power and prestige, not to mention our domestic economy…This really began to take shape under Clinton, not Bush, as far as I can tell…

Eric Johnson November 25, 2008 at 11:57 pm

So, I am new to the site. Just met Josh a few weeks back. Great guy and very intelligent. I, on the other hand am one of the knuckledragger military types you are talking about. I’ve done 13 months in the Stan conducting Psyops.

I have worked with contractors of all different persuasions, but by far the most professional group has been Blackwater. Most are ex-Snake Eaters who have taken the opportunity to make some extra money in order to take care of their families. Like most civilian types — (ie. corporate America) they went where the money is. I can’t blame them for that. But don’t be so harsh on them. The vast majority are very Patriotic and follow the Rules of Engagement and have high moral character. Unfortunately a few bad apples have given the misperseption that all of them are miscreants. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Also, as Josh pointed out, there has never been a war where mercenaries weren’t involved. Sorry but that is the face of war past, present and future.

Now as for assumptions of $40K bonuses and incredible college funds; I have to totally disagree. Yes, enlisted personnel can receive up to $40k for re-enlistment, but the $40k requires a six year obligation and is paid in annual sums. I don’t know about you, (I am a Reservist) but at Dell, where I work as a Global Commodity Manager, my bonus per year far exceeds a ~$7k kicker on an annual basis.

Finally, be careful when someone assumes they know where recruitment comes from. There are several studies on the subject. One in particular can be found at: http://www.heritage.org/research/nationalsecurity/em987.cfm

I am sure someone will bust on the conservative nature of The Heritage Foundation, but the data they used came from a government report. Finally most recruitment is solidly upper middle class and white. Sorry if I shattered some misperceptions….

Joshua Foust November 26, 2008 at 8:55 am

Eric,

Thanks for the comment. The only reason I included the bits about college and bonuses is personal experience — not from myself, but from the dozen or so people I know who have signed up for the USMC, Army, and Navy, specifically for those bonuses and education stipends. A few choose to stay on after, but a surprising number of them have quit the moment they get the chance.

I’m not saying that as a pejorative — frankly, I’m happy there is a GI Bill, it’s one of the least things I think we can do for soldiers — but I also don’t think it’s as unattractive as you might see it.

And like you I reject the charge that the military targets poor minorities. It’s possible that might be where those economic incentives have more sway, but literally all my serving and deployed friends are middle/upper-middle class (and most of those are white, too). Heritage or no, I think the GAO is pretty unimpeachable in terms of research.

Anyway, great thoughts, and if anyone else has some more perspective I’d love to hear it.

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