Discussions on the trend of the privatization of security often overlook one important dimension associated with outsourcing of security, namely, the outsourcing of sacrifice. This term refers to the hybrid and odd status contractors hold in conflict areas, where their death and casualties are often not recorded, counted, and recognized. Private military and security contractors (PMSC) or mercenaries (the two differ in legitimacy and organization) are not soldiers or enemy combatants, and at the same time they are not civilians; they occupy a different category that often is not captured well by local laws and media coverage.
This quality allows them to offer to their employer low visibility and occasionally plausible deniability, creating a situation where it is unclear for other participants and external observers who are those fighters on the ground. Yet, the function of outsourcing sacrifice goes beyond the battlefield. The issue of soldiers’ sacrifice has been a sensitive and delicate topic that can dramatically affect public opinion and the fate of policies and politicians. The image of soldiers returning home in caskets covered with the American flag are demoralizing. Each death and injury of a soldier in an armed conflict are recorded and reported across multiple media outlets. Losing soldiers in what may publicly be perceived as reckless or purposeless wars can quickly backfire on politicians and leaders of states. Even authoritarian regimes are not immune to popular critique on carelessly losing solders in foreign wars. This was evident in the Russian popular unrest due to the mounting Russian casualties in the Donbass conflict, where Russia officially did not have any part in, and the Russian authorities response. At the same time, the death of a contractor or mercenary is silent, without official acknowledgement. Records of PMSCs’ death count and casualties are hard to find and depend on personal or organizational initiatives rather than state bureaucracy. The outsourcing of security and military functions also means the outsourcing of sacrifice, and with it the political costs of casualties.
Outsourcing in the field of security is not a small and marginal phenomenon. Currently, all major active armed conflicts include PMSC, mercenaries, or both. During the Iraq War, the ratio exceeded 1:1, illustrating that there were two armies fighting the insurgents at the same time, one of American soldiers and another one of contractors. In Afghanistan, January 2021, the ratio of PMSCs to American soldiers was 7:1 (18,214 contractors to 2,500 soldiers). Israel is using PMSCs for policing and boarder control at the West Bank. Russia has been employing PMSCs and mercenaries in its military interventions in East Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, and Mozambique. Nigeria has been using South African PMSCs against Boko Haram. The Saudi led coalition has been using PMSCs and mercenaries in their fight against the Houthi rebels. Turkey has been employing mercenaries in Libya, Syria, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Outsourcing security and war has become a meaningful trend that shapes contemporary warfare and war making.
Outsourcing sacrifice allows states to hide from the general public the human cost of war. This is especially true when the outsourcing is of third country nationals and foreigners. A recent trend emerged where a core of professionals that are western run point on a mission where most of the outsourcing force comprises of locals or countries from the developing world. In Afghanistan today, over half of the 18,214 contractors working for the U.S. government are not American citizens. The UAE has been using Sudanese mercenaries to fight its wars in Libya. Turkey has been mobilizing Syrian mercenaries to battlefields in Libya and Armenia to fight for Turkish geopolitical goals. Without casualties, or the record of casualties, the visibility of the human cost of those conflicts is concealed. Voters tend not to protest or complain about wars that do not touch them in a personal matter. They do not know someone that died in the conflict, like a neighbor or a family member, and therefore, for them it is another event that happens in a foreign country—most definitely not something they should be concerned about or make their leaders accountable for.
Voters’ lack of interest makes this reality more dangerous, where the pathway to go to war for personal gain is open. The main explanations for the outsourcing of security and war making has been focused on the buyers’ access to professional skills and technology that are costly to maintain. Yet, an argument suggests that outsourcing in this context also provides willing bodies ready to fight and die without any political repercussions to the hiring nation. The checks and balances for outsourcing war vary across nations. For some there are decent mechanisms that can potentially curtail misuse of the outsourcing of military and security functions. However, in most countries those mechanisms are weak or do not exist, ensuring an emerging trend of outsourced conflicts. Moving forward, our interpretation of contemporary conflict areas and their dynamics would be more accurate and nuanced by taking into account this trend and its implications.
Ori Swed is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology Department at Texas Tech University. He is also the director of the Peace, War, & Social Conflict Laboratory. Dr. Swed research explores the organizational aspects of violent non-state actors and state actors in the context of peace, war, and security.