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Monday, April 05, 2004

Mercenaries and Peace 

I noted earlier that there are a lot of mercenaries performing security functions in Iraq right now. Because of the recent horrific events in Fallujah (and the response of one prominent blogger), there's been a lot of interest in this topic in the blogosphere as well.

One question that is definitely worth considering is what the implications are of using private security firms instead of, or in addition to, a volunteer army (or a conscripted army). The US is doing it. The UK is doing it. Since I'm operating under the incredibly low evidentiary standards of blogdom, I hereby pronounce this a trend. And if it's a trend, we are obligated by the iron laws of journalism to worry about it. What do the scholars say on this topic?

Not much, as it turns out. I'll go over the literature on "military manpower systems" quickly, then engage in some quick speculation about how adding mercenaries to the mix might change things.

Kant noted (way back in 1795) that "standing armies" were a danger to peace, because their presence might make a state appear aggressive, and because their members were likely disposed toward warlike behavior. It's worth noting that it's not clear whether Kant was talking about mercenaries or about professional armies like the US Armed Forces.

Since Kant, there's been some speculation that all-volunteer armies might be dangerous as well, as they might provide aggressive leaders with smaller war-initiation costs:

* Presumably, volunteers are self-selected to be less war-averse, and so might be less likely to complain about being sent to fight than soldiers selected by a draft;

* Since it appears that much of the membership of our all-volunteer force is drawn from lower socio-economic strata, it might be the case that politicians will be less-likely to fear well-financed and well-organized opposition to war from soldiers' families.

There has also been some speculation that volunteer armies make countries less likely to initiate wars, because soldier quality is generally lower than it would be under a conscription regime, and therefore fighting is likely to be costlier and less effective. I don't really buy the soldier-quality argument, but maybe a reader can explain how this would work. I think perhaps the idea is that conscripted soldiers are less likely to become career professional soldiers, so that there's a lot more training and a lot less well-captured institutional knowledge.

All-conscripted (or partially-conscripted) armies, on the other hand, are often thought to make aggression less likely, mostly because if the whole electorate has some positive chance of being drafted (or having a son get drafted), politicians have to work a lot harder to sell voters on the initiation or continuation of a war.

Interestingly, there's some (not very convincing) statistical evidence that conscription can make war more, rather than less, likely. My source here is an article in the December 2003 Journal of Conflict Resolution, which you can examine if you have access to a good library. But putting this dubious finding aside for the moment, a bit of thinking would seem to indicate that no matter what argument one takes from the list above, more mercenaries available for hire, or institutions that make hiring mercenaries easier, should actually make aggressive action less costly for warlike leaders, and should make states in general more worried about the likelihood of being attacked. The self-selection, selling-the-war-costs, and soldier quality logics all point to the conclusion that development of mercenary systems is dangerous.

Obviously, there's a lot more to say here. I may revisit this question with some more well-thought-out arguments later.

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