War has a way of turning the tangential and the ill-regarded into the vital and successful. Submarines, aircraft, tanks — all endured decades of derision and dismissal before proving their worth.
The reason they were able to prove their worth is that, when the moment came, serious military thinkers had already created effective “concepts of operation” and great leaders knew how to adapt concepts to situations.
Today, the United States possesses a little-known military asset that could prove enormously valuable, but has no clear operational concept.
It’s time to develop one.
PMCs are “Professional Military Corporations,” sometimes also known as “Private Military Companies.” In centuries past, they were known as mercenaries, hired guns, and worse. It’s hard to define them exactly. The term may accommodate everything from war surplus outfits that offer basic training courses as a sales gimmick to high-tech private mini-armies.
Some have questionable pedigrees and track records. Others are, or are owned by, respected corporations and operate according to high ethical standards. Many, and some of the best, are run by retired senior officers and hire veterans with proven skills and integrity.
In recent years, the United States has used PMCs in a variety of ways. The most visible has been for training police and military forces in newly-formed and/or liberated states. PMCs have been active in the former Yugoslavia for years, and now in Iraq.
PMCs as trainers lessen the burden on our hideously overstretched uniformed forces. They’re also beginning to make sense as peacekeepers and peace enforcers, especially in places such as Africa, where neither the United States nor the United Nations seems willing to commit serious forces long-term. Last month, an Anglo-American PMC, Northbridge Services, offered to send up to 2,000 armed men to Liberia.
PMCs as peacekeepers and enforcers for hire — a good idea, provided a myriad of legal questions and a certain understandable reticence about “privatizing war” can be resolved.
Still, these two functions do not constitute an operational concept. They don’t take advantage of a capability that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has investigated seriously: Using PMCs to change tormented societies for the better.
Consider much of Africa. Without a minimum of civil order, there is no way to attract major foreign investment, or to build the civil society that could support such investment and empower other endeavors.
PMCs could play a vital role in training local self-defense militias, and for more than physical defense. From Plato and Aristotle to the American Founders, militia service was a vital component of citizenship. In this tradition, a proper citizen was economically self-supporting, educated and armed. The Western world has spent trillions on encouraging literacy and economic development, but has utterly neglected the vital third part of the ancient “civic triad.”
And what might happen, we wonder, if these PMCs also armed and trained women? The low status of African women means they often must resort to prostitution to feed themselves and their children. Women are physically vulnerable: to genital mutilation as a precondition for marriage; to rape from clients and by husbands whom they have been forced to marry, either as children or as widows; and to relatives after their husbands die.
Then there is mass rape as a weapon of war. Indeed, it can be argued that the physical, social and economic vulnerability and desperation of African women are the real reasons for the HIV pandemic.
PMC-trained militias as a “school of citizenship,” including men and women, in societies where women citizens — armed women citizens — might someday break the tragic cycles of violence and desperation: It’s worth a try.
In sum, a serious PMC operational concept would involve, not just doing the work we can’t or won’t, but creating more secure, more just and more equal societies. A recent Bruce Willis movie, “Tears of the Sun,” showed a Navy SEAL team on an African mission, limited by orders and law to rescuing one American citizen, then slowly refusing to countenance the carnage, then fighting it, en passant teaching the locals a few things about the dignity of resistance. Perhaps a few hundred — or a few thousand — PMC teams could teach the same lessons. This time, for real.
Philip Gold and Erin Solaro are president and executive director of Aretea, a Seattle-based public and cultural affairs center.