THE BLOG
12/16/2010 11:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Three-Fifths PMC

As I have noted on more than one occasion, private military and security contractor supporters frequently argue that using contractors is less costly than using regular military forces. I've pointed out that in strict economic terms much of the time the empirically evidence supporting this claim is, to put it politely, lacking.

But let's say it is true. Is that a good thing? No. Here is why. One argument made in favor of PMC that has always irked me is the lesser political cost argument. This is the argument that using PMC generates less outrage than using a regular soldier. It may even be true but should it? Absolutely not I think.

Are not all lives precious? Does the fact that someone that a private sector man or woman is killed, instead of a soldier or marine, in prosecution of a war that nation they are both citizens of, make the death of the former less significant? If people really believe that is true we are indeed in a lot more trouble than people think, ethically and morally speaking.

The following excerpt from a paper by a law school professor, published earlier this year, details the problem. Markus Wagner, of the University of Miami School of Law, writes in the paper "The Second Largest Force: Private Military Contractors & State Responsibility":

Apart from the -- unknown -- economic aspects of employing PMFs however, there are less tangible, but maybe more important aspects that must be taken into consideration when discussing the use of PMFs in engaging in conflicts or waging war. One of the main benefits of employing PMFs is that military confrontations are politically cheaper to carry out than when using regular troops. At home, the death of an enlisted member of the armed forces is -- and should be -- a tragic reminder of the human costs involved in fighting an armed conflict. The same sentiment is not shared for those who die receiving their paychecks not from a defense department located in a country's capital, but from a company such as Sandline or MPRI-L3. Their families or friends are just as aggrieved as those whose mother, father, daughter, son, brother or sister has fallen for her / his country; however, the nation does not mourn for these individuals the same way and their ceremonies do not invoke national symbolism. They are seen as the "dogs of war" or mercenaries, fighting for personal gain. And at least so far, it does not appear that the death of contractors carries as high a price for politicians as the death of enlisted soldiers.

Those who remember early American history might ponder the similarity to the Three-Fifths compromise. That was a compromise between Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 in which three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for enumeration purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives.

Delegates opposed to slavery generally wished to count only the free inhabitants of each state. Delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, generally wanted to count slaves in their actual numbers. Since slaves could not vote, slaveholders would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College. The final compromise of counting "all other persons" as only three-fifths of their actual numbers reduced the power of the slave states relative to the original southern proposals, but increased it over the northern position.

Do we really want a situation where a private military contractor is considered a lesser person when it comes to totaling the ultimate sacrifice? Wars are always horrific and costly affairs. If we minimize its costs we run the risk of making people think it is not so hard to do and perhaps they will do more. That is a compromise we should not live with.