THE CASE OF Colonel Ted Westhusing is getting a good deal of attention in the U.S. media. Colonel Westhusing was an idealistic lecturer in ethics at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq because he believed it would make him a better teacher. While there, his task was to oversee one of the many private security companies doing work for the Pentagon. He reportedly came across so much corruption and greed that his illusions of the nobility of service were destroyed. In despair, he apparently took his own life.
The family, understandably, has expressed doubt it was a suicide, especially since he died while on the base of the same company he had reported for its violations. But nobody questions that Colonel Wethusing was on to something troubling.
Scholars have been watching Iraq carefully as a test-case for what many see as a new form of warfare. Up until the late eighteenth century, fighting in Europe had been a business. Noblemen ran mercenary armies whose services they would sell to kingdoms whenever the latter went to war. But in the nationalist period - widely seen to have begun in the French Revolution - things changed. A new doctrine emerged. It held that armies should henceforth be patriotic. That is to say, they would be drawn from among the citizens of the nation, who should be motivated by duty rather than profit.
So it continued until the modern day. While some armies did recruit a minority of troops from abroad - the British kept their Gurkhas, the U.S. recruited non-citizens - the basic idea was that the nation's young men (and, occasionally, women) should be the ones who defended its soil.
Things began to change quickly with the end of the Cold War, though. The 'peace dividend' led the superpowers to scale back their militaries, massively so in the case of Russia. But the infrastructures that had supported the military buildups of the past remained in place. So, weapons-builders needed new buyers. Demobilised soldiers went looking for work.
In some places, they gravitated towards organised crime. In others, they joined private security companies, or what were in effect mercenary armies. These companies sold their services to private bidders, such as mineral companies in dangerous places like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, the enlistment of private firms in Iraq represents one of the most ambitious and possibly disturbing - developments in post Cold-War conflict. For the U.S. administration, private armies offer advantages. Their casualties are not generally reported in the U.S. death toll, which reduces the political fallout of war. Equally, because they are not governed by military rules, they can be used for 'dirty deeds.' Not surprisingly, private security firms showed up in the investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Apart from the fact that they operate in a grey zone beyond military control and accountability, private security firms are also raising eyebrows for their motives. Duty and honour cannot be expected to rank highly among the goals of a company that has to report to its shareholders at the annual general meeting. Of course, neoliberal theorists maintain that the profit-motive is the best incentive for the provision of efficient, satisfactory services.
However, Colonel Westhusing, among others, found that private security firms were sometimes cutting costs to raise their profits. In the process, they were arguably stealing from U.S. taxpayers while imperilling both Iraqi and American lives.
But, we should probably get used to it. In ever more countries - and ours is no exception - there are now more private security agents than police. For better or worse, the privatisation of conflict is now a fact of life. The mercenaries have returned.
John Rapley is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona