It's a bad time to be a mercenary. Not financially, of course, as we have all read in the news about how much "security contractors" are earning to protect US diplomats, facilities, and convoys in Iraq, but in terms of the odor that is now attached to them as a result of reported violent excesses and their apparent exemption from Iraqi, US military, or US civil law.
Mercenaries have always been viewed in this country with a mix of wary suspicion and quiet envy. The Hessian troops who fought for King George III during the American Revolution were, of course, mercenaries and despised by the American colonists. More recently, I have vague memories of a late-50's era television show called "Soldiers of Fortune" which documented the adventures of a pair of mercenaries (although they weren't called that, and were good guys), and Frederick Forsythe wrote a popular novel titled The Dogs of War which told the story of a group of mercenaries hired by a billionaire businessman to overthrow the government of an African nation with valuable mineral deposits. Mercenaries fought in the Belgian Congo (as it was then known) in the 60's, and even today there are magazines which cater to professional soldiers for hire (or wannabes who imagine themselves leading such a life).
The United States government has been forced to rely on "mercenaries" of all sorts to run the war in Iraq. Many years of downsizing the armed forces have forced reliance on contractors to drive trucks in supply convoys, cook meals and provide other noncombat services, and provide security - all because of a lack of soldiers to do those things. One might, depending on the breadth of one's definition, call me a mercenary because I work as a contractor in support of the US Air Force from my small and cluttered desk in the Pentagon. The major reason for the proliferation of "security contractors" such as the much-maligned Blackwater USA, of course, is the shortage of combat troops assigned to Iraq.
Blackwater is currently in trouble because of the alleged random shooting of Iraqi civilians by some of its employees in Baghdad, and the Iraqi government is threatening to revoke the company's permission to operate in the country. This has serious consequences for the State Department, because Blackwater personnel provide the security for American diplomats when they travel to the very dangerous areas outside Baghdad's Green Zone. Combined with the withdrawal of British forces from southern Iraq, it tremendously complicates efforts to provide security, suppress violence, and bring a semblance of order to Iraq.
So, what do we do about the mercenaries? The US can't operate in Iraq without them unless it's prepared to deploy many thousands of additional troops to the country...which, obviously, isn't going to happen. Clearly, more control needs to be exerted over their activities, and while there may be valid reasons for not making them subject to Iraqi law (and that's a long topic for another day in itself), they should at least be subject to the same standards of conduct as US military personnel. Commentator Ralph Peters, in a somewhat hysterical article in the New York Post titled "Lose the Mercenaries," argued that all the mercenaries should be withdrawn from Iraq, and that their employment reflects failed military and civilian planning for the war - a valid point. Nevertheless, Mr Peters goes far over the top in his unfair mocking of the performance, integrity, and valor of State Department personnel assigned to a very difficult and dangerous post.
So what do we do? We can't live with the mercenaries, and we can't live without them. The first, obvious, move is to bring them under strict legal supervision and oversight, holding them to the same standards as our troops. The second is to tie payment to performance (I'm not sure this is actually being done). And the third is to make sure we know who we're hiring - while I'm sure most of the people hired by the firms are solid citizens, the very nature of the business - the application of violence - argues that there will be some very bad men drawn to the hiring office.
We have enough problems in Iraq without shooting ourselves in the moral and public relations foot with out-of-control mercenaries. It's past time to bring them under control, for our sake and the sake of innocent people caught in the crossfire.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.