A bizarre take on the history of private military forces


If you're writing a hot take on the use of private military forces in conflict, it probably pays to check your history before doing so. Such is the case of Daniel Couch's recently published piece on The Spinoff. Along with demanding questions be asked, and answers given, about National Party leadership candidate Mark Mitchell's past in this field - which is a fair enough concern, Couch makes the absurd claim that:

"Private military and security contractors have become a fundamental part of war. They have been instrumental in creating the increasingly murky and ethically bankrupt landscape of modern warfare."

The above two sentences border on the ridiculous, insofar that their central premise is claiming that the intertwining of private military forces and conflict is somehow a product of the late 20th and early 21st century, and that modern warfare is somehow more murky and ethically bankrupt than warfare throughout history.

The use of private military forces, whether called mercenaries, foreign volunteers, or private military or security contractors, has been a feature of conflict for all of recorded history from Ancient Egypt right through to the modern day.

Likewise, war - whether modern or otherwise - has always been murky and largely ethically bankrupt, regardless of whether private armies are employed. The notion that somehow war would be somehow more ethical and less murky if mercenaries weren't used is laughable. 

The simple reality is that private armies have always had a role in conflict, largely performing roles that the belligerents in a conflict are either unwilling, or unable to do. Whether it's supplementing conventional forces on the battlefield, conducting security services in rear areas away from the front line, or providing analysis and advice on the strategic level, you'll find the use of non-state actors throughout all of history.

Couch makes much of Mark Mitchell referring to an article David Shearer wrote about the use of private armies in conflict. While Shearer does acknowledge that private armies have always been part of warfare, I believe Shearer does err in attributing their changed role in warfare over the past three centuries. Shearer's basis for the assertion is that the rise of the nation-state and associated birth of nationalism meant that "the idea of fighting for one’s country rather than for commercial interests gained currency" and that as a result, mercenary forces which used to make up a significant percentage of the actual combatants in a conflict, markedly declined.

The shift in the balance of forces employed by belligerents - from being heavily reliant on private armies to conscripting their own citizens - has less to do with notions of nationalism motivating people to fight for their country, than it does with the ability of states to equip, feed, and transport ever larger numbers of people.

The industrial revolution, with its resulting ability to cheaply produce more rifles, more canons, more ammunition, more uniforms and kit, and transport vast numbers of soldiers via railways, or via first steam or coal turbine powered ships, was the primary change away from private armies playing such a high profile role in conflicts. The cost effectiveness factor that mercenaries offered belligerents - supplying as they traditionally had their own uniforms and equipment - was reduced very quickly.

The role of nationalism as a motivation for soldiers to fight for their country, as referenced by Shearer, was largely a by-product of the use of nationalism to create internal social and political cohesion within nation-states. Nationalism in itself wasn't the reason why private armies as front line combatants declined.

Yet private armies, whether explicitly as mercenary corps, or euphemistically called foreign volunteers, still continued to play important roles in conflicts throughout the past three centuries. While the French Revolution abolished the use of mercenary forces, Napoleon reinstated their use extensively as he sort to mobilise enough manpower for his wars across Europe and France's colonial empire. Both the Union and Confederacy actively recruited and accepted foreign volunteers to bolster their manpower during the American Civil War - volunteers solicited on the promise of pay glory, and citizenship, both the Prussians and French made use of them during the Franco-Prussian War (most famously the French Foreign Legion effectively operates as a mercenary force with France as its exclusive employer), and the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Spanish Civil War, all saw the use of what were effectively mercenary forces, under the guise of being foreign volunteers.

Shearer also argues that the use of mercenaries declined over this period because states were worried about potential damage to their perceived neutrality by having their citizens participating in someone else's conflict. This argument isn't borne out by facts. Germany objected profusely when American volunteers formed the Lafayette Escadrille and flew for the French in the First World War, primarily on the grounds that by allowing the citizens to go to France and be paid, equipped, and fed by the French army, the U.S. was abandoning its policy of neutrality. To appease the Germans, the French changed the name of the volunteer corps.

A similar situation prevailed in China in 1940/41 with the Flying Tigers, effectively backed by the United States Government, operated as mercenaries in support of the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese.

Worries about neutrality have always played second fiddle to larger strategic priorities when it comes to these situations.

The notion that the use of mercenaries is somehow a new issue in conflict with regards to their employment in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan simply isn't backed up by the facts.

My next issue with Couch's article is when he somehow manages to equate Mark Mitchell, when he was Defence Minister, calling for New Zealand companies to bid for New Zealand Defence Force contracts as part of the 15 year, $20b investment in upgrading and overhauling New Zealand's defence infrastructure and capabilities, as somehow meaning that New Zealand money will be "promoting further violence."

Who does Couch think supplies the equipment that the New Zealand Defence Force uses? Of course it's private companies. Whether it's their uniforms, the food they eat, the kit they carry with them, the weapons and ammunition they use, it's all virtually all provided by private companies, and it makes perfect sense for it to be.

Mitchell's press release as Defence Minister made perfect sense for a Defence Minister to say. It's much more preferable if New Zealand companies are able to, where practical, supply the equipment and facilities that our defence force needs to perform its roles, rather than sending that money offshore.

Couch's attempt to somehow conflate private military forces or security firms, like the Threat Management Group founded by Mark Mitchell, and a call for New Zealand firms to tender to supply equipment and build infrastructure for the NZDF, is truly weird.

As I mentioned at the start, there are questions that it'd be good to get some answers around Mark Mitchell's background. But Couch's article, very nearly descending into moral and ethical panic as it does, adds little of value to the discussion.