Many years ago, old Uncle Karl foresaw a "withering away of the state" as a prelude to the inauguration of international communism. As history turned out, communism died before the state did. But the state is withering away, as a most interesting development in Iraq demonstrates. Like many aspects of Fourth Generation war, this development is not something new, but something old, from the time before the state’s monopoly on war: mercenaries.
My hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recently dispatched its Friday!Magazine editor, Chuck Yarborough, on an extended journey through Iraq. Friday!Magazine normally reports on plays, movies, restaurants and other entertainment, so Mr. Yarborough’s stories reflect a fresh view of that vastly entertaining subject, war. I will leave it to others to speculate as to whether Cleveland is so dull on a Friday night that even Iraq is an improvement ("Would you like those pierogies with or without accordion music?").
In his February 9th story, Yarborough describes Iraq as "a dirty, nasty countryside that looks like the tide just went out on the River Styx…Each time we ground to a stop — as we did often — our South African personal security detachment (PSD, as it is called here) went on high alert…Task Force Shield commander Col. Tom O’Donnell, fresh off 10 days in the United States briefing National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice’s deputy on the progress of providing security for the Iraqi oil pipeline, and I rode in the back seat… Trailing us in an unarmored Jeep were the rest of the Erinys Co. team assigned to protect O’Donnell."
So U.S. Army colonels now have mercs, not American soldiers, providing their security. "That’s very interesting," as John Boyd liked to say. A front-page story in the February 18 Washington Post adds more:
Attacks on the private contractors rebuilding Iraq are boosting security expenses, cutting into reconstruction funds and compelling U.S. officials in Baghdad to contend with growing legions of private, armed security teams spread throughout the country… U.S. and coalition military forces, which are being trimmed and face continuing attacks, cannot provide contractor protection, and neither can fledgling Iraqi forces… leaving private teams as the main protection for contractors… Major security contractors (in Iraq) estimated in interviews that at least 40 private security companies and several thousand armed guards already are working in the country.
So while at the micro level an American Army colonel has a merc security detail, at the macro level mercenaries are filling the gap between American military forces engulfed in their own war and the security units of Iraq’s Vichy regime, most of which are less than keen to fight.
What does the return of mercenaries on a large scale, in a theatre of war, tell us? It tells us that state militaries have become so bureaucratic, expensive and top-heavy that they are losing the ability to fight.
As expensive as mercenaries are — and the Post article quotes a figure of $1,000 per day for skilled bodyguards — they are still cheaper than state military forces. This is not because the U.S. Army overpays its privates and sergeants, but because the $400 billion America pays each year for defense buys very few privates and sergeants in the combat arms, guys who can actually fight. Most of the money goes for overhead: contractor welfare in the form of multi-billion dollar programs for irrelevant weapons like the F-22, endless consultants (most retired generals and colonels who already collect large pensions), a bloated officer corps above the company grades, a vast rear area made ever-larger by the needs of complex, computerized "systems," and layer upon layer of headquarters, each with a small army of horse-holders and flower-strewers. If you want to imagine a modern state military (others differ from our own only in degree), think of a brontosaurus with three teeth.
This is a classic sign of generational change. The passing generation requires vast resources for little battlefield output, while the coming generation knows how to do much with small resources. The Maginot Line cost many times more than Guderian’s panzers. Think of what an organization like al Qaeda can do with a million dollars compared to what the same money means to the Pentagon.
But it is not just the passing of state militaries that we see in the rise of mercenaries. It is the withering away of the state itself. Mercenaries mark the state’s loss of its monopoly on war just as surely as do the rise of non-state actors. Mercs will work for whoever pays them, state or non-state player. The more roles they fill, the more irrelevant the state becomes.
Maybe it is time for the Grimaldis, those old galley-fleet entrepreneurs who still rule Monaco, to ask discreetly if we would like someone to patrol the Tigris and the Euphrates.