Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Victory in the Information Age: Conversation with Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; January 27, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Privatization of the Military

One of your tasks as a strategist is to move on to the next research agenda, now that you've finished with one. I know that you have an interest in the question of the privatization of the military. We're seeing a lot of that in Iraq. This involves research that you have yet to do, but help us understand how you're laying the groundwork and what you see as the problem.

With the infamous incident in which the Blackwater contractors were killed and mutilated in Fallujah of a year or so ago, there's been increasing attention to this problem of private military organizations. At one point in the war, the second largest element of the allied coalition in Iraq were a bunch of private companies, some of whom were extremely well armed. There are private companies that have fielded their own air forces, that field privately owned armored vehicles, crew served automatic weapons, conducting combat in professionally trained, professionally organized formations. The question I'm curious about is how far this trend is going to go. Is it going to die out if the war in Iraq ever goes away? Or is this a trend that could continue and mature to the point where perhaps twenty or twenty-five years down the road we see 100,000-soldier private armies funded by groups of financiers using the financial instruments of the modern international banking system to go put some important economic asset in the Third World under new management because it's being ill-run by the tin-pot autocrat that's currently in charge of it?

I could imagine, in fact, that twenty or thirty years from now, the most challenging opponent of the U.S. military might be not some ragtag military of a rogue regime somewhere but a private company with access to the kinds of equipment, and the kinds of skills, and the kinds of training that money, on the scale it's currently available, with the liquidity of the international financial system, can provide.

We always think of the threat to the state in terms of international capitalism, the multinational corporation, the corporation that is global but has no real home, and so on, but we're beginning to see an environment in which military organizations fueled by either legitimate or illegitimate money could become an equally powerful entity.

Oh, yes. The mental models we carry around with us on this are very unsatisfactory. We tend to think of war as fundamentally a government activity. You can privatize trash collection or you can privatize dog catching, but at the end of the day, the one thing that's inherently public, so people suppose, is the military and the provision of military force. That's the way the world has been since certainly the beginning of the twentieth century. It's not the way the world has always been. At various times in history military soldiering has been essentially a private undertaking where companies were formed to provide the service, individuals were recruited or not to go into some other line of work or into this line of work, the whole thing was done by market mechanisms.

As recently as the eighteenth century, for example, the German state of Hesse built a military primarily as an export good. It rented its military out to various other European countries. We're all familiar with the role of the Hessians in the American revolution. Well, these Hessians were raised, trained, equipped and organized by the state of Hesse and then rented out to Britain for use in Britain's wars, and then Britain would finish with them and return them to the recruiting station in Hesse again at the end of the process.

There's been much, much more variation in the degree of market involvement in the provision of military force historically than most of us casually suppose, and again, at the moment, the larger economic forces at work here are creating incentives to dramatically expand the scale of market involvement in the provision of military force in ways that can pose important policy issues for the United States.

So in a way, one could envision a situation where the state might not be able to afford the military power that it needs, and afford in two senses, one economically, but also in terms of public opinion. If the electorate doesn't want its children dying in wars in far-off lands, then that might curtail the ability of a state to deploy the soldiers, on the one hand, but then people might not want to pay the taxes to pay for the soldiers.

That's right. If you look, for example, at the initial public offering for Google, the amount of capital that Google raised through the international financial system dwarfs the annual defense budgets of all but a handful of the world states. A group of financiers with the liquidity of today's international financial system could easily outgun whole collections of developing world nations in parts of the world that are important with respect to the availability of natural resources. Even in the United States, arguably more for political than for economic reasons (we didn't want to expand the military in ways that would require conscription or other means) we have privatized important parts of the provision of military force by America in places like Iraq that have set up all sorts of potentially pernicious side effects.

For example, the United States has created deliberately a competitor for the services of prospective soldiers in the United States. In 1975, say, if you wanted to be a soldier in the United States, the one employer available to you was Uncle Sam. Today if you want to be a soldier in the United States, you can go to work for the United States Army or you could go to work for Blackwater, Inc., or for Triple Canopy, or for Custer Battles. There are all sorts of other people out there bidding for the services of prospective soldiers within the borders of the United States, and that bids up their price, as would be the case in any such situation, to the point now where re-enlistment bonuses required in order to retain the services of our most skilled soldiers, the Special Forces commandos, are in excess of $100,000. So, these decisions that we make based on relatively short-term considerations of political exposure and cost can redound to create some nasty problems for us with respect, in this case, to the question of how can we cheaply create and maintain a military with the kinds of skills that I've been talking about in my book -- let alone the downstream problem of creating a military threat that's going to be harder for us to deal with in the future than the states that are out there in the system today.

So, in the end, as a concluding comment and question, one sees that what we're doing today unintentionally has consequences. It's only by thinking about the historical record and teasing out the implications of what we're going to do that we can see the road that we're taking when, book coverin fact, we haven't really made a decision to take that road, because we haven't thought through the implications of where it leads.

History shows us that there are more possibilities here than we suppose just looking at our immediate historical neighborhood. There are very different ways to organize military violence, and we may be seeing the beginning of the return of several of them. If we're not very systematic about how we understand the historical record, we run the risk of not seeing this coming, and making choices in the near term that we'll regret in the longer term.

Stephen, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being here, and I invite you to come back after this current research that you're just starting is finished, and we can see what sort of red flags you've thought about in the decisions we're making. Thank you for being here. And before we go, I will show our audience your book and recommend it very highly. So, thank you very much again for being with us.

It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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