A conversation with Ann Hagedorn, author of The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

AH: My interest in the topic began in the mid-1990s while I was researching my second book, which was about international kidnappings and revealed how private firms were providing on-call hostage negotiators for companies and individuals who bought K&R (kidnap and ransom) insurance and also for the U.S. government in international cases involving U.S. citizens. What I realized then was that soldiers, bureaucrats, and spies displaced by the end of the Cold War were starting and joining companies that were indeed offering such inherently governmental services as kidnap negotiation. While I was focusing on kidnappings for that book there was a larger story unfolding and I always intended to return to it, which I did ten years and two books later. At that point, in 2008, what was instigating such companies was the Iraqi war where a remarkable privatization experiment and PMSC bonanza was in full swing. I was curious, of course, about whether these companies were a temporary solution to a unique situation, or part of whom we were becoming globally and perhaps an entrenched component of globalization. If so, what did it mean for us as a nation? Then the cascade of questions: how did it happen, was this a bona fide industry, who were the major players, where was it headed, what could be done to raise the level of transparency, how far had it spread beyond the U.S. and beyond Iraq, and shouldn’t the American public know? So I would have to say that, in short, my inspiration was just that: the public’s right to know who we are depending on for our defense and security and why.

Q: Will you clarify the terminology? What is a mercenary really and why do you use PMSC as your description in the book?

AH: For centuries the term “mercenary” has been discussed, defined, redefined and debated. Soldiers of fortune, hired guns, dogs of war, mercenaries, contractors. These are all terms that have applied to individuals hired to defend and secure governments and businesses. They are non-nationals motivated by money and not by allegiance to nation. Some people refer to the private military and security companies as the modern mercenaries of the 21st century but in my opinion they effectively are brokers for mercenaries. Some of these companies supply an endless array of services – armed and unarmed — from logistics support and weapons maintenance to armed security and police training. So, how can the companies be called mercenaries? I prefer to define mercenary as an individual. Then the question becomes whether to refer to the companies as PMCs (private military companies), PSCs (private security companies) or PMSCs (private military and security companies). I see PMCs as providing services such as military advice and training, logistics support, intelligence, policing, drug interdiction, arms procurement, de-mining, and counter-terrorism; and PSCs being about protecting individuals and property, including multinational companies extracting resources in hostile environments, humanitarian aid agencies in areas of conflict, diplomatic security, and border patrols. Some companies specialize in armed services only, and for some, the armed sector is just a portion of their work. It‘s a bit complicated but considering the variation and possibilities in any given firm it seems that the most accurate depiction is PMSCs, which is what I chose for the book.

Q: Your book shows that the privatization of defense and security is not just a trend, but if the Iraq bonanza is over, where are the markets for these companies? Why do you believe there will be work for this industry in the years ahead?

AH: Certain 21st century realities assure the markets for PMSCs in the years ahead – for example, the free-market privatization ideology, and the widening gap between rich and poor, which will cause more conflict. If globalization is about development, and security is a precondition of that development – multinationals tapping resources in resistant communities and hostile environments, for example – and the resistance to it provokes outbreaks of violence and small, protracted wars, then the future market for private military and security companies is immeasurable. Wherever instability threatens development, wherever military commitments exceed the capabilities of nations, wherever governments are viewed as incapable of supplying defense and security fast enough in times of sudden conflict, wherever maritime terrorists threaten the shipping industry, and so on. More specifically, for the U.S. they assist in contingency operations, obviously, and remain long after the traditional troops withdraw; counterterrorism strategies; diplomatic security; border security; drone operations; AFRICOM; cyber security; intelligence analysis. Other markets, there‘s the UN, the shipping industry, other nations, multinationals especially in Africa, disaster relief, and more.

Q: You use the term “global wild card”. What exactly does that mean?

AH: The U.S. played a major role in the proliferation of these companies, giving some the boost they needed to become multi-billion-dollar enterprises. However, they do not belong to America. Rather, they are available for hire to the highest bidder, and they follow the markets for defense and security. There are two rather interesting recent examples, one being the latest work of former Navy Seal, American businessman and founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince. Prince who has taken his skills to Africa via China, which has budgeted $1 trillion for building roads, railways and airports as it taps African resources. He‘s now chairman of a security firm based in Hong Kong and in business with China‘s largest state-owned conglomerate. The other example that comes to mind is in Iraq. In the early months of 2014, because al-Qaeda forces were strengthening and violence was escalating, the Iraqi government purchased more than $6 billion in military equipment from the U.S. – and PMSCs were once again in demand. This time, however, as private contractors were training the Iraqi military to use the new Hellfire missiles, or maintaining Apache attack helicopters, they had a different employer: the Iraqi government. This, of course, calls to mind a concern voiced in my book by a three-star U.S. Army general: that our troops could someday be facing off private contractors from a U.S. firm under contract with a potential rival.

Q: What the media often tells us about these companies reveals only the scandals, waste, fraud, and abuse. But are they all bad?

AH: Good question, and private military and security companies do have the capability of curtailing conflicts, helping in disasters, assisting the UN in peacemaking. The most obvious example right now of their usefulness is the armed security in the shipping industry. This was a highly controversial move but it seems to be working as a deterrent to piracy and what some would call maritime terrorism. There are examples of mercenaries, in whatever era, actually helping to end conflicts. It would be unprofessional to ignore that fact. However, the problem is that they can also lead to more conflict and to long-drawn-out wars, if they are not part of an effective all-encompassing system of control.

There is also the impact of their presence that must be considered. The fact that they exist and can be called in quickly can affect government policies. If they did not exist, there would have to be more public dialogue about interventions and foreign policies. For example, the House report with the U.S. Defense Authorization Act of 2015 calls for increased monitoring of the private contractors who are and will be hired for work in America‘ Unified Command in Africa, known as AFRICOM. AFRICOM‘s mandate is to guard America‘s interests in Africa at a time when the continent‘s strategic importance is growing, in part because of China‘s clear intent to tap African resources and in part because of the new frontier of the war on terror being in North Africa. This represents a shift or rather a reconfiguration of a typical Unified Command, from a military mission to a security operation. The Department of Defense laid the groundwork for such a change when it issued a directive in 2005 that defined “stability operations” as “core U.S. military missions.” This clearly could not have happened if these security companies did not exist and if we were not planning to use them extensively in the future. So it is an example of foreign policy being influenced by their existence. And is that bad? It depends on the transparency, oversight, and accountability. You can‘t blame companies for pursuing markets but you can impose some solid, effective controls.

Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges of this book?

AH: Yes. This is an industry that is complex, vast, difficult to define, and constantly changing. As we‘ve discussed, even choosing the terminology was a challenge. Another challenge: there were always developments that I felt had to be assessed and possibly added. Thus, it was hard to end the book. You always hear about authors who can‘t end a book; I‘ve never had that problem. But with this one, I just wanted the trajectory of the industry to be as accurate and as current as possible. Things would happen, however, that would require more research and a re-evaluation of the ending. For example, a new report might come out. And considering the other challenge of gathering statistics and getting a grip on the scope of the industry, if indeed a study suddenly surfaced, out of, say, the Congressional Research Service, or academia, I had to read it and determine whether any detail in it could enhance the quality of the book. Usually what caused the need for a new ending was an event, however. This is the only book I‘ve ever written for which I changed the ending three days before the deadline for the uncorrected proofs. Halfway through the edits of the proofs a source called me to tell me about some new developments in Iraq: escalating violence and more work for contractors. So I was compelled to do some last minute research, and write a new last paragraph.

Q: There are numerous interesting individuals in your book who move the reader through the evolution of the PMSC industry. Do you have any favorite quotes that you found particularly helpful or memorable?

AH: There‘s one from an industry insider, a former British Army officer, who offered some prescient views. For example, he said, “[The PMSCs] will evolve into multinational and multifunctional firms so that governments and corporations will go to them as single servers and get used to relying on them. Then they‘ll succeed more and more, and what seems hidden now will simply be integrated so that future generations won‘t know the difference. Traditional militaries will become smaller and the industry will continue to grow.” Another quote that really reveals to the reader the significance of the emergence of the PMSCs came from a U.S. Army general who said the following: “The nation state, with its slow ability to act militarily due to political realities is becoming increasingly vulnerable to easy solutions that avoid the complexity of government. That is a reality and nothing shows that more than the growth of the private military and security businesses. Gradually systems of international security that have been in place for a long time are falling apart and the more anarchy there is then the more these companies offer themselves as solutions.”

And I like the comment from the co-chair for Congress‘s Commission on Wartime Contracting: “The one thing that‘s a given: We can‘t go to war without contractors and we can‘t go to peace without contractors.”

Q: Why should we care whether or not private military and security companies provide our defense and security?

AH: That‘s an excellent question as there are some who say (as one of the chapters in the book is entitled) “What‘s all the fuss about?” This is where a public debate on the topic could be quite interesting. There are several answers to this and one of them can be explained, simply, in one word: democracy. Private military and security firms promote themselves as on-call businesses, ready to respond quickly, able to avert the long process of democratic debate. Yet such a process is what democracy is supposed to be about: democracy slows down the decision making, to exercise restraint, so that there can be a dialogue. A military and security complex that is not transparent to the legislative body entrusted by citizens to assess options that are best for the nation is a clear threat to democracy. Part of the danger is the emergence of defense policies that could be shaped by the profit motives of the well-connected private sector. Dependence on private contractors clearly allows the government to operate under the radar of public scrutiny.

Another answer to this is that there is a psychological cost to privatizing a nation‘s defense and security. The more the citizens of a nation are removed from the job of its defense and do not see the ramifications of war, including all casualties in any given conflict, the easier it is for policy makers to engage the nation in conflicts and for citizens to lose a personal connection to the defense of their nation, which in turn could weaken the security of the nation. As one individual in The Invisible Soldiers said, “You have to feel something to win a war” – such as allegiance to nation. If we can‘t embrace the full impact of war, if we can‘t feel it, then we won‘t hesitate doing it. Another point here is that drones are a new level of de-personalized warfare and when paired with private contractors, then the average citizen is two layers removed from conflict: a machine operated by an employee of a private firm.

Q: Why is the exact scope and growth of the PMSC industry hard to track?

AH: The calculations for size and revenue depend on which organizations provide the figures and which kinds of services and companies are included. A small percentage are publicly traded and PMSCs often hold contracts with multinationals; so, private to private transactions enhance the challenge. Plus new firms will surface as quickly as new conflicts erupt, while the well-established firms swallow up smaller ones and then add subsidiaries in response to new markets. Companies sometimes change their names. And these firms are very international, meaning they could have headquarters in multiple nations, contracts on every continent, and employ workers from numerous countries. The layers of subcontractors also complicate the quest. And although government agencies – DOD, the State Department, USAID, Homeland Security – may list contract awards, not all can be found on such lists. For example, the 2011 report from the wartime contracting commission revealed a ―$38.5 billion recorded for miscellaneous foreign contractors‘‖ but the government could not explain which companies got the money or for what services.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

AH: I hope, of course, that my book will help readers to better understand news events about our nation‘s security and defense – for example, when the size of the military diminishes, the numbers of private contractors do not – in fact they often expand. As we enter an era of non-intervention and preventive strategies, there will be more private military and security contracting. This is important to know. Thus informed, they will feel compelled to ask the questions that citizens of a democracy have the right to ask. And this means that their rights, including their own privacy, will be more protected. Our increasing dependence on private military and security contractors raises the question of who we are as a nation and what we are truly committed to. An empire once achieved is hard to let go of and such companies enable it. The more informed we are, the more questions we are capable of asking, and then the more secure we can be. It is also my hope that my readers will be inspired to watch the evolution of this industry and where these companies are used in the years ahead. And I would be pleased if readers of the book would also read some of the books mentioned in The Invisible Soldiers.