12/04/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

PMC = Protean Military Contractor

There are many ways to think about private military and security contractor (PMSC) issues. They include, of course, military, but also business, law, the boundaries between public and private sectors, and human rights to name a few.

But one critical, if under-appreciated, way to view PMSC activity is from the perspective of ethics.

For clarification on that one would be well advised to turn to the book Private Security Contractors and New Wars: Risk, Law and Ethics by Kateri Carmola, a political science professor at Middlebury College. This book was published in 2010 and I have been meaning to mention it for a while. Fortunately, the issues she discusses are as relevant now as they were two years ago and will continue to be so for many years to come. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about how far the world has to go before we have any kind of consensus about what PMSC can or should do.

Consider that for many years, the debate over PMSC has revolved around the hotly debated point over whether today's private security contractors are some modern incarnation of old-time mercenaries. Clearly they are not but the fact that many people think and even insist that they are is not due to slanted media coverage. Instead it is a reflection of the confusion over role of today's nation-state and who can or should be allowed to wield violence in its name.

Ms. Carmola makes a number of important points in this regard.

"First, PMSC defy easy categorization: we do not really understand what they are second, regardless of what they are we suspect that they are tainted, potentially corrupt, and somehow suspicious entities: whatever they are, you do not like them. These two issues are fundamentally connected. Can there be a legitimate mercenary -- like force operating in war zones around the world? Should there be any such thing as a 'corporate warrior'?"

How then should we think and refer to them?

I will use the term 'protean' to refer to PMSCs: They are more than just hybrids, since they combine more than two organizational types. 'Protean' suggests a flexible, changing, and multifaceted organization -- but one that also has underlying ominous powers; after being captured. Proteus the sea god changed into a lion, a serpent, and a leopard, before he could be subdued. One way to understand the conceptual (and normative) confusion that surrounds PMSCs is to see it as a direct result of their protean character. We do not know how to judge what we cannot understand, and existing categories of classification and judgment fall short. The fault here is with us, not them; we're stuck with outdated ways of seeing, and need to adapt. And in the meantime, we greet unfamiliar categories with a mixture of paranoia and suspicion.

A standard definition of protean is displaying great diversity or variety; an apt definition given that today's PMSC includes firms doing tasks ranging from staffing dining facilities to guarding diplomats and supply convoys, Thus we can add a new meaning to the usual acronym; PMC = Protean Military Contractor.

This is important because PMSC are not just doing different things; instead, they are fusing together organizational cultures that frequently define themselves in opposition to one another. These cultures come from the worlds of the military the business sector, and humanitarian NGOs.

It's not hard to see how they clash. For example, "the public-spirited attitude of the government bureaucracy is fundamentally at odds with the ethos of a private corporation. Similarly, non-profit, non-governmental, humanitarian aid groups are by definition, not part of any governmental strategy; in fact they often protect themselves in opposition to governmental aid programs or to specific sides in the conflict."

So what do you get when you combine these three cultures? Answer: "A profitable corporate business working as a military force -- multiplier with the mission construed in humanitarian terms." It is any wonder that people are confused when it comes to trying to define a PMSC?

But if the above protean entity is too difficult for the average person to understand then what should people think of? Ms. Carmola provides a useful answer, explained in detail in Chapter 3. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. The answer is insurers.

In order to understand the unique origins of the contemporary PMSC, it is necessary to examine its location at the heart of the international risk -- insurance business. These firms provide ways that businesses can insure against the physical and financial risks of working in dangerous areas.

The use of the PMSCs by the insurance industry is just one of the many manifestations of a wider trend that some see as defining the contemporary world itself. This connection is obvious in the proliferation of PMSC names like Control Risk Group, Risks Incorporated, and Global Risk Solutions. This perspective provides a way of seeing the world as full of risk can be managed, if not mitigated, by certain methods of assessment and creation of proactive habits and practices.

According to Ms. Carmola, "The insurance industry contributes to privatized mode of governance, allowing certain actions and disallowing others, providing physical and financial security, and backing up its preferred policies the use of private security actors."

But a key point to remember is that not everyone perceives risk the same way. That helps explain why there is often tension between regular military forces and PMSC.

Market-based cultures reward the efforts of individual entrepreneurs. Their efforts will tend to reward the freedom to contract. Their organizational DNA, so to speak, requires them to see the most risk if this freedom is diminished through regulation or other constraints. In contrast, hierarchial organizations like the military reward those who follow the rules and preserve the order inherent in the traditional way of doing things. The greatest risk to the continuation of these organizations will be innovations that undermine the ways both status and hierarchy are determined. With its rules and procedures executed through a strict chain of command, the military is a perfect example of a hierarchial institution. It is no wonder that the civilian-military divide is often characterized as one where the ideal soldier is contrasted with the individualist entrepreneur, interested only in maximizing profit.

Ms. Carmola is on to something when she notes that the idea of risk- transfer warfare owes much to the idea of an "economy of risk": the theory that risk is something that can be spread, offloaded, or bought and sold, as if it is an abstract content with a lot of value attached.

One way to think about this is to consider the rhetoric of some PMSC advocates, who argue that many private security contractors, because they are military veterans themselves, can, as PSC, easily work with regular military forces.

"It is not merely that contractors are used in order to hide or minimize politically difficult choices. It is also not merely that PMSCs inspire risk-taking on their own. Their market-based organizational culture also promotes this this transfer, allowing certain risk postures that are less allowable, even looked down upon, within the regular military. In this way, PMSCs serve the purpose of substituting for certain military deficiencies in risk-taking: they promote a risk posture that is radically at odds with that of the classic regular military even as that same regular military is undergoing all sorts of transformations the civilian-soldier divide between the market individualist and rule-bound hierarchialist -- is one that is not bridged easily. We can thus see why any attempt to regularize members of the PMSC's, for instance by including them under the rubric of the UCMJ, [Uniform Code of Military Justice] or referring to them as part of the 'total force package' of military on the ground will be resisted by both sides."

Chapter 4 is almost as worthwhile. Here she explains why the PMSC's continued to exist in a legal vacuum despite years of attempts to regulate them. Similar to her previous discussion of the protean nature of the PMSC, she argues that attempts at regulation are frustrated by a clash of legal cultures. The very attempt to control them creates friction between international humanitarian law, military law, and regulatory and contract law.

"The clash of these three legal cultures and the assumptions that go with them treats the PMSCs as three different legal persons - soldiers, businessmen, and disaster zone NGO workers -each unrecognizable within the legal culture of the other two. This leaves those who seek to understand these contractors through law in a world that is legally obscure and hard to navigate.


What unnerves us about the advent of the private military industry is the lack of coherence in the legal regime. This stems from the nature of contracts: specifically negotiated and usually short-term and informal relationships. There may be benefits to these contractual arrangements, even on the battlefield but they remain a perplexing way to construct what is essentially a new legal person. The legal world of contract law does not contain in it a broad notion of "responsibility" or "honor," or even those grand-sounding but important references to "humanity" or" civilized peoples." And currently these ad hoc relationships do not have any coherent and mobile legal infrastructure -- lawyers, judges, court-martial proceedings, etc. -- to deal with abuse.

In short, they are legally unrecognizable.

Given the ambiguities that come with using PMSC it will come as no surprise that Ms. Carmola comes down very hard against the use of any contractors by the U.S. government in any position where they have the power to kill torture, or interrogate. And, she calls for an outright ban on any armed private security contractors.

But given how often advocates argue that today's PMSC are essential and inextricably linked to regular U.S. military forces -- a contention that even I have agreed with -- she asks a provocative question that deserves a much greater debate then it has received to date.

"Can we live without PMSCs? Formally uniting these forces with our military has two major implications. First, we may not be able to pursue the foreign policies we want to, if their true costs are revealed. If the only way to follow through on commitments we have made places like Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Columbia, and others is to provide a surge of private security providers, then perhaps we should not be there. If there is no political will to formally deploy these public servants who are legally allowed to use weapons, whether within the former military or in special reserve units, then there doesn't seem to be a sufficient national interest. Second, if we are only willing to send semi-combatants into war zones, or do drug eradication or stability operations if they can be hired "on the cheap," so to speak (that is, for short-term contracts with minimal safeguards and benefits), then we are demonstrating our half -hearted commitment to these goals. If we are going to live with them, we should formally invite them into the house. Can we live without them? Repeatedly the charge is made that the only alternative to hiring on contractors is the return of the draft, compelling the service of citizens in the military. This is a false assumption, based on a continuation of our force numbers and their current basing."

That is indeed, some rich food for thought. Perhaps someday, when they have another Commission on Wartime Contracting, policymakers will address that question. In the meantime people would do well to add Ms. Carmola's book to their library.