If the United States does not want to go to war with the Islamic State, why not let mercenaries do it? The thought has occurred to many, including Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now called Academi); Simon Mann, a British special-forces veteran who successfully led a private army in Sierra Leone; Sean Rowe, a Florida Army vet who has created a group called Veterans Against Isis; and Fox News spinmeister Bill O'Reilly.
Unlike the others, O'Reilly has not proposed a truly private army. What he has in mind is a sort of irregular expeditionary force deployed under U.S. auspices. The idea has been roundly panned, for obvious reasons: It would give Washington all of the responsibility for engaging in conflict without any of the operational control.
O'Relly's critics might not realize this has been done before: Shortly before the U.S. entered WWII, FDR authorized volunteer groups of aviators to help the Chinese fight the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese War. Still, if the U.S. government is going to wage war against ISIS, then it probably should do so with federal military forces.
The trouble is that the U.S. government does not want to. The Obama administration has sent a small number of troops to Iraq, but Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine has not been able to get his colleagues even to debate an authorization of force, let alone approve one. As a result, Americans who read news reports about the Islamic State's heinous crimes against humanity feel powerless to stop them.
Yet are they? Drawn by a sense of moral duty, some former U.S. servicemen already have joined the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS, and they say many of their buddies are champing at the bit to do the same—but have been stymied by federal interference. Why interfere? Why not permit a nongovernmental army to do what the government won't?
The notion faces two kinds of challenges: one practical, the other moral. Could a mercenary force work? And would it be ethical?
The answer to the first question is yes. Granted, there are no guarantees in war. But Mann, the British SAS vet, tells the London Telegraph that "we could probably do something useful" with a force of 2,000—and he ought to know. In the 1990s he and his private company, Executive Outcomes, stopped rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone—"the latter," as the Telegraph puts it, "against the drug-crazed, limb-chopping rebels of the Revolutionary United Front."
A paper for the Brookings Institution reports that Mann, using a few hundred soldiers, "was able to defeat the RUF in a span of weeks. Its victory brought enough stability to allow Sierra Leone to hold its first election in over a decade. After its contract termination, however, the war was restarted. In 1999 the U.N. was sent in. Despite having a budget and personnel size nearly 20 times that of the private firm, the U.N. force took several years of operations, and a rescue by the British military, to come close to the same results."
True, raising private armies also raises questions. As the Brookings paper puts it, "military provider firms are not always looking for the most congenial workforce." Stephen Colbert, as usual, puts it more bluntly: "Only the best people kill whoever you want for cash." Private armies unconstrained by military law could commit atrocities. Indeed, given that it was not organized by any government, ISIS qualifies as a private military—albeit one motivated by religious fanaticism rather than money.
But then government armies commit plenty of atrocities themselves. Indeed, mercenary forces often are peopled by ex-servicemen, including those who have done violence on behalf of tyrannical regimes.
The other big pragmatic concern about a private army is: Who's in charge? In theory, a private military could switch sides if it were offered enough money. In practice, however, that almost never happens. Non-state armies also can get in the way of regular armies operating in the same theater. That's an issue, but not an insurmountable one.
So to the ethical question: Isn't a mercenary force immoral? Of course not. Are private security companies like Brinks immoral? Are bank security guards immoral? Private security officers have outnumbered police officers in the U.S. for decades. Like mercenaries, they threaten the use of sometimes deadly force, and they do it for money. For that matter, many of those who enlist in government armies also do so for personal gain: job training, education, having a steady paycheck. Does that make them, too, "killers for hire"?
In fact, a private military force has the potential to be more ethically pure than traditional armies, especially those that rely on conscription (i.e., slavery) and confiscatory taxation for their support. A privately financed, all-volunteer force has the virtue of consent: Nobody is forced to support it who doesn't want to. For those who do want to support it, however, doing so has never been easier. Online fundraising can enable people to make donations with a few simple clicks.
It is easy to imagine a non-state army terrorizing a populace, willfully violating the tenets of just-war theory, slaughtering civilians and looting national treasures for their own private gain. It is easy to imagine because that is just what the Islamic State has been doing. It would be poetic justice if those who desire liberty and justice for all raised a private army of their own to stop them.