Former Military Contractor Says Mercenaries 'Commodify' Warfare09:26
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Troops loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar said they shot down a warplane of rival forces of Libya's unity government near Tripoli and captured its foreign "mercenary" pilot. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)
Troops loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar said they shot down a warplane of rival forces of Libya's unity government near Tripoli and captured its foreign "mercenary" pilot. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia recently announced the launch of a new airbase in a northern Syrian city that was abandoned by U.S. forces when Turkey invaded last month.

The invasion was ordered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but some news outlets are reporting that many of the fighters both from Turkey and Russia were actually mercenaries.

Mercenaries are often called military contractors. The difference between them “comes down to labels,” says Sean McFate, a former Army officer who’s also worked as a private military contractor. He wrote about the use of contractors in his book, “The New Rules of War.”

“Volumes of ink by experts have been spilt on this topic, but the bottom line is there's really not much of a difference,” McFate says. “If you can be one, you can be the other.”

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are using mercenaries heavily right now, McFate says, and the U.S. even used them in Iraq and Afghanistan. More countries are using mercenaries because war is becoming “sneakier,” he says.

“It's not about who has more F-35s or aircraft carriers. It's about sneakiness,” McFate says. “And so special forces, mercenaries, little green men, propaganda, this is what turns the tide of war now. And mercenaries are extremely good at giving plausible deniability.”

In other words, using mercenaries means a country doesn’t have to take responsibility for a military conflict. They can just say, “It wasn’t us,” McFate says.

“Even though the intelligence community has a pretty good idea it was them,” he adds.

Interview Highlights 

On the power of plausible deniability in modern warfare 

“Because we live in a global information age, plausible deniability eclipses firepower. Look at how Russia took Ukraine. The old ways of war, they would have marched in with tanks like they did in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. In the new way of war, they used these tools of plausible deniability, have a ghost occupation, so it's a fait accompli by the time the first tank shows up. And mercenaries, again, like the Wagner Group, which is a Russian mercenary group, they're being used everywhere in the Middle East and Africa now, not just Ukraine and rumored to be in Venezuela, too.

“Here's an example. I mean, first of all, we think of mercenaries as is a cartoonish villains from Hollywood. That's not who they are these days. They're pretty sophisticated. So in February of 2013, the Russian mercenary group, the Wagner Group, had 500 mercenaries go up against some of our best troops in aviation in eastern Syria. It was a secret battle. Our troops were Delta Force, Rangers, Green Berets, and they called in B-52s, F-15s, AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, drones, you name it, to fight off these 500 mercenaries. Now, they wiped out the mercenaries, but it took them four hours to do that. And the military's touting that as a big win, but really not because what happens if you're facing 5,000 mercenaries. It's not Delta Force. It's one of the National Guard units as we have many in Iraq before. So mercenaries are pretty sophisticated and pretty lethal these days.”

On who becomes a mercenary 

“Almost all of them are [former military members]. So I spent several years in the industry and I got out when I realized that there are no old people in my industry. The way that the mercenary world is organized, it's sort of an illicit economy. So it's organized around language groups. The big ones are Russian speakers, English speakers and Spanish speakers. There's some others, like French speakers, too. But those are the three big ones. And they all come from usually some version of special forces or something like that, sometimes national police units or paramilitary units, but they all come from someplace. There's no organic basic training for mercenaries.”

On the U.S. government’s use of contractors 

“The U.S. has pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but still there's a huge footprint of contractors. So in Afghanistan today, there's a 3 to 1 ratio of contractors to troops, but only a fraction of those are armed contractors. I mean, most contractors are just making food or repairing vehicles, but about 2,000 or 3,000 are armed or trigger pullers. This is sort of what prompted or resurrected the mercenary trade, which is, let's face it, the second oldest profession. But it went underground for a couple hundred years and now it's raging back to life.”

On the main drawbacks of using military contractors 

“Well, there's quite a few drawbacks. One, it's a way to circumvent democratic accountability of the armed forces because the White House doesn't only have to report them. It's a way also to lower the barriers of entry to war. So, for example, the reason we ended up with so many contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not short wars, contrary to the promises of [former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] and other [neoconservatives]. And we either had to sort of leave Iraq and Afghanistan and concede defeat. We'd have to have a Vietnam-like draft to fill an all-volunteer force that didn't want to volunteer — or we use contractors. And so using contractors allows you to sort of go to war without having to have your own people bleed. And that creates problems.”

On how mercenaries change the nature of military conflict 

“Mercenaries commodify warfare and make it a market activity. So where supply and demand are now strategies that replace traditional ways of warfare. And when mercenaries come into a place like the Middle East or Africa, these are continents in conflict, profit motive demands that they start or elongate wars for profit, and a world awash in mercenaries is a world with more conflict and suffering.”

On why people get into the industry and why he quit being a mercenary

“There's all sorts of reasons why people would join the industry. Some do it for money. Some do it for adventurism. Some do it because they want to kill people, to be frank about it. But there are other reasons, too. They do it because they're curious. They do it because they're are soldiers who come back and they don't want to be a UPS truck driver anymore, and they go back to places like Iraq to help the Peshmerga go after ISIS. I mean, there's all sorts of reasons why people do it. Some of us find that there are moral litmus tests. And for me, it was time to get out when I was asked to question my old loyalty essentially to the United States of America and I was unwilling to do that.”

On the role of mercenaries in the Syrian conflict 

“I think that Syria is a case study of modern warfare. Modern warfare is a form of shadow warfare. It's all under the table. And if you see it bubble up, then, you know, it's reached a crisis point. I think we have a lot of warriors in places like Syria now, Libya, the Congo, and we don't know who they represent. They're all masked and we don't know who they fight for. And it's not just governments, they could fight for oil companies or oligarchs or even mega churches.

“That's a hypothetical. But based on some of my own background, I didn't always work for the U.S. government as a contractor. I saw things in the field that the extractive industry, for example, even some NGOs are looking increasingly at private forces, mostly for defensive purposes, unlike the Wagner Group, which are offensive, but where that has been a moving goal post the last 20 years. I believe we would not be surprised if we saw, for example, a megachurch or movie star do a humanitarian intervention in a place like Syria or northern Iraq should ISIS 2.0 rear its head again.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on November 15, 2019.

Jeremy Hobson Twitter Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.

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