Friday, July 22, 2005

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Does the U.S. need more mercenaries?

Alex Tabarrok asks a provocative question over at Marginal Revolution:

Should we hire more mercenaries today? Our military already has hired more than thirty thousand non-citizens. Why not bypass residency entirely and go straight to Mexico, India and elsewhere to hire soldiers? If outsourcing is good for US firms then surely it is good for the US government.

Outsourcing the military has a number of advantages. The supply of labor is nearly limitless and the price is low. Some people will object that quality is low too but if Indians can be trained to do US tax returns they can be trained to fight US wars.

....we are so desperate for troops in the United States that we are forcing old men and women, people who haven't seen active duty in forty years, back into service. At US wage rates we could easily hire many thousands of Mexicans. Many Mexican noncitizens are already serving honorably in the US military so there is no reason for quality to decline.

Mercenarism may seem unusual today but in the 18th century a typical European army contained 20-30 percent foreign troops - mercenarism was the norm. It's hard to see how the United States has a comparative advantage in military labor so the future may resemble the past more than it does the present.

The funny thing is that the U.S. relies more on mercenaries than Alex may know -- the U.S. military has outsourced a lot of its logistical functions in Iraq, for example. According to this Council on Foreign Relations page, for example, the following functions have been at least partially outsourced:

guarding officials, military installations, and supply convoys; training local troops and police forces; providing interrogators, translators, and transcribers; maintaining and repairing vehicles and aircraft, including the guidance and surveillance systems on tanks and helicopters; running logistics operations and supervising supply lines; driving supply trucks that carry fuel and food; providing warehousing and storage facilities; setting up Internet access and maintaining computer systems; preparing meals for the roughly 135,000 U.S. soldiers; cleaning military facilities, including Army bases and offices; washing clothes; and building housing.

Click here and here for more stories on this phenomenon.

However, let's assume Alex's question was tied specifically to the use of mercenaries for combat as opposed to non-combat operations. Two quick speculations for why mercenaries might not work out:

1) A big reason mercenaries disappeared from the typical European army was the introduction of the levee en masse -- and whaddaya know, it turned out that nationalist fervor trumped mercenaries on the battlefield. I think that's still true today.

2) One of the arguments for why democracies tend to do better in warfighting is that because voters know their fellow citizens will be on the line in combat, they will be much more risk-averse in their attitudes about war than authoritarian states. As a result, they will only engage in wars that are either a) essential to protecting the homeland; or b) they are really likely to win. The use of foreign mercenaries eliminates this risk-aversion from decision-making.

Finally, it's not clear to me that Alex's examples of U.S. "mercenaries" are really akin to the Hessians. Offering a citizenship inducement to foreigners joining the military is undeniably offering an additional incentive to enlist -- however, is the incentive a purely economic one or, are there identity motivations as well? Furthermore, in a world without a draft, what is the difference between offering greater monetary compensation to U.S. citizens interested in enlisting and offering similar economic incentives to foreigners interested in becoming Americans?

UPDATE: One clarification: I don't think that linking citizenship to enlistment is necessarily a bad idea -- I'm just not sure it qualifies as what Tabarrok thinks of as mercenarism.

posted by Dan on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM


Of course there are non-economic motiviations involved when non-citizens enlist in the American military. If you were a Colombian or a Panamanian, would you rather be a Colombian or a Panamanian or an American?

The point is that it only takes a small minority willing to make the latter choice to create a substantial pool of potential recruits -- in the same way it only takes a small minority to generate a substantial flow of immigrants to the United States. It is also why a much more efficient way to increase the capabilities of the American military -- absorbing Canadian military units and personnel directly into its ranks -- wouldn't work in practice. Even though Canada doesn't appreciate its military very much, very few Canadians want to be Americans. Not being Americans is pretty much Canadians' only reason for being Canadians.

posted by: Zathras on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

in addition, it is worthwhile to point out that the spread of the British Emprire was done for the most part by private companies working to invest in foreign lands for commercial gain. These organizations often supplied their own hired armies and technology in order to secure their investment against any "native threat". Everyone is up in arms about Haliburton in Iraq, but its just another example of the new age of Imperialism that Americans knowingly/unknowingly live in today.

posted by: Shields on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Allowing proven veterans to become citizens of the Empire worked pretty well for the Romans, and I can't imagine it wouldn't work for us either.

I would certainly accept it as a condition for expanding immigration quotas.

posted by: perianwyr on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

It did work well for the Roman Empire. I'm not so sure it worked well for the Roman's. Nor did it reflect well upon them. I'm not suggesting we go back to the draft, short of a threat to our continued existance. But when a sufficient number of our best and brightest are no longer motivated to serve in the defence of our country, it does say something about the state of the citizenry. And if the issue is not defence, but the extension of an empire, we have a different problem.

posted by: Richard Heddleson on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Hey, the National Guard just raised their age limit to 40, Dr. Drezner can sign up and fight in the wars he likes to promote -- without the negative externalities of importing mercenaries. (See Roman empire comments from Mr. Heddleson above.

Maybe a few of the like-minded bloggers here can join him, and a few of the bright young things from the CFR.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Mercenaries were quite important in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. The major colonial empires were constructed to a large extent with mercenary forces. What, after all, was the Indian Army? The Indian Army, essentially a mercenary force, supplied significant numbers of troops for the British in WWI, in the pacification of Iraq in the 1920s, and in WWII. The British still have some mercenaries in their Army, Gurkhas. The French colonial empire was built also on colonial mercenary units, some of whom served with distinction in continental Europe during WWI and WWII. Probably the best troops in Franco's army during the Spanish Civil War were Moroccan mercenaries.
The statement that nationalist fervor trumps mercenaries is incorrect. All other things, like training, equipment, and leadership, being equal, it is probably true. But if the mercenary troops are superior in these domains, then they are likely to win. If the levee en masse was superior, then the Spanish Republicans would have won the Spanish Civil War. When the Germans invaded France in WWII, German officers learned quickly that fighting French colonial troops, Senegalese, Vietnamese, Moroccans, was often a real challenge, and they preferred fighting French draftees. The colonial troops were long service professionals, often with some combat experience, and led by officers with whom they were familiar.
The issue of why democracies are (sometimes) better at wars than autocracies/dictatorships is complex but not germane.
Its definitely true that mercenary armies may reduce risk-aversion but this true also of professional forces composed of citizens. Would we be in Iraq today if we had a draftee Army? One of these reasons we went to a professional military in the 1970s was precisely to insulate its use from popular pressures.

posted by: Roger Albin on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I've got a better idea. Make sure you have a sound and supportive coalition that will reimburse you for the expense and lives you spend on your war. This is what GW senior did. If no one will do it, try to figure out why. It may be that the war you want to fight is the boneheadedest idea since Vietnam.

posted by: exclab on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

This is a lunatic libertarian idea.

For some related information, see Merger with Mexico and CFR's Plan to Integrate the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I'm right there with you, Lonewacko.

This is truly a lunatic libertarian idea.

No understanding of the concept of citizen soldier, republic and empire.

It's all about money in a Randian utopia without borders, citizenship ...

posted by: CurtisE on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Plus...How long will it take to train mercenaries
with a countries sophisticated equipment? Does this
mean you have to have a standing mercenary division
so you don't lose those skills?

And what happens to national security about that
equipment when those mercenaries leave and join
other nations, or just pass the intel on?

This sounds like fun!!!

posted by: James on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Hey, Drezner, you serve? You have a DD214? This is not required to have an opinion on the war or any other aspect of American policy. But I wince when people who never served start dissing our soldiers. They are not "mercenaries." You are an educated man. Find another word to make your point. By the way, "outsourcing" is not new or a sign of poor recruiting. Been 30 years since KP was routine.

posted by: Don Surber on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

It's worth pointing out that in California - home of the home of sun-baked people and half-baked ideas - Badnarik got 50,000 votes. The greens got 40,000 and Leonard Peltier got 27,000. Bearing in mind that Kerry was almost assured of a win, one wonders why one or more of those groups couldn't get a large number of protest votes. How many not-fully-LP-supporting libertarians would not vote for Badnarik in this situation?

I'd say support for libertarian ideas tops out at around .4%, twice as much as the Peace and Freedom Party. No one takes the P&F party seriously, and I'd suggest that no one should take libertarians seriously either.

It's also worth pointing out that libertarians claim that national defense is a legitimate government function. Yet, they promote ideas like literally open borders and foreign mercenaries, two ideas that reveal they really have no idea about how the world works.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I've been in favor of an American Foreign Legion for awhile.

It's interesting that people are still on the "if you support the war then go enlist" kick.

Shouldn't we hold the "US troops are occupiers" people to the same standard then? If you don't like US troops in Iraq then why don't you head to Syria and enlist to drive them out?

And yes I served. For 26 days. I ruptured 2 discs in boot camp at Parris Island in 1990. So I'm more qualified to speak then Al Franken and the rest of Air America, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, Robert Redford, Howard Dean etc.


posted by: MKL on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Fox 2: While I'd be all in favor of an American Foriegn Legion - the eggheads here should be smart enough to tell you that such a move would diminish manpower, not strengthen it. But that's another topic..

Here we are again with the academic/civilian talking heads on matters of military administration. We welcome your policy recommendations, and you certainly don't need a DD214 to comment on that aspect - but Surber's got you dead to rights on this one. If you've got nothing else to blog on, wait for some economic news, so that we don't wonder if you suck at that as well.

Fox2: Draft? Mercenaries? Right. This is just the lastest spin on:
How dare you use the army for war/
see? we're too thin/
see? you can't get enough recruits
and now: Look at all the Merc's you've had to hire, looks like you need an AFL

Yeah, we get it - we're a victim of our own success. Yada, yada. Doin't you guys have some outsourcing to bitch about?

posted by: Tommy G on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

>>>Allowing proven veterans to become citizens of the Empire worked pretty well for the Romans, and I can't imagine it wouldn't work for us either.

From what I understand it worked well for a while, and then collapsed. Soldiers were granted lands from their conquests. When Rome stopped conquering new lands, indigent and out of work soldiers began piling up in the empire. A bit like a stock market bubble.

posted by: Chris on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Remember Machiavelli's warning about using mercenaries: They have at best a peripheral motivation to fight for "their" country and will easily turn tail. Mercenaries are fine for small wars that have quick and easy outcomes (e.g. the innumerable brush fire wars these days in Africa), and also for giving headaches to an invading force (e.g. the German and Mediterranean mercenaries who harassed the Mongols in the 1200's from their towers), buying time for the death of the Great Khan to prompt a withdrawal). However, mercenaries are terrible for long-term postings of any sort, especially occupations.

Mercenaries are OK if you use them right, but Iraq and Afghanistan are the wrong wars. Yes, there are already a number of mercenaries in Iraq working for the companies, but they're limited in what they can do. It's very difficult to get everyone to follow the same rules of engagement, there are variations in training, and so on. Mercenaries are also not willing to take heavy casualties or "take one for the team"-- they're in it for themselves, not for the team itself. For example Britain used many Indian mercenaries in its wars in Afghanistan in the 1800's, but there were so many problems in coordination that this often led to confusion for everybody, including the British troops. An entire British army was utterly destroyed in Afghanistan in 1842 by Pathan warriors, in part because of confusion and lack of centralized command between the mercenaries and the main army. Whereas, despite the nasty news reports, there really are hundreds of thousands of born-and-bred Americans who are dedicated to fighting.

If we have to move on to mercenaries and can't get our own people to sign up, maybe that means that the people haven't been convinced about the justifiability of the wars. When the Romans began to use German mercenaries to fight their wars, the Empire was starting to crumble, and the mercenaries soon wanted more than crumbs-- we all know what wound up happening then.

posted by: Fox on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Virtually anyone can join the U.S. Military right now (given physical qualifications), despite your citizenship status. You are then integrated with everyone else. Sometimes it can help to quicker citizenship, as the there have been several ceremonies performed in Iraq to swear-in new Americans who were already serving their country. It can lead to strange circumstances, such as in Somalia, when one of Mohammed Aidid's sons was there serving with the Marines, even as our soldiers were searching for him.
Soldiers serving for purely economic reasons make poor soldiers. Surely whole units of such soldiers, with now bond to a cause, other than a pay stub would be unreliable. Our soldiers, volunteers, are ideological. I think Gurkas are an anomoly. I also think that their sense of honor and commitment to the rump-British Empire is a factor in their effectiveness.

posted by: ElamBend on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

A book to read on the subject

Corporate Warriors
by P W Singer


posted by: exclab on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I think the more pertinent question to consider is not the moral/ethical dilemma posed by utilizing mercenaries as frontline soldiers, but rather the underlying reasons for such a need in the first place.

The first 175 years or so of US history saw a country evolve from 13 small english colonies to the largest single economy on the planet, a feat accomplished prior to the dawn of the 20th century. In that time, and in accordance with the advice of almost all the founding fathers, the US assidously avoided foreign entanglements, employing the pacific and atlantic as effective buffers from european engagements and the resulting "blowback" of constant international tensions.

The only major wars fought by the US in the 1800s were against itself and the war of 1812, one of our few purely defensive wars. Throughout this time period the US had a tiny army, concentrating its resources instead on industrial-economic growth and using the aforementioned oceans as deterrents. (the war with mexico and against the native americans i don't consider major conflicts)

Following the 2nd world war this policy was dispensed with in favor of pushing America's borders from the coasts of north america to effectively encompassing the world excluding the soviet union.

It strikes me as somewhat absurd that we now have to even discuss employing mercenaries when we spend 40% of the world's total defense spend, and more than the equivalent of the next 13-14 countries combined, on our military.

Wouldn't it make more sense to obviate the need for mercenaries by drastically scaling back a needlessly exposed and overstretched military presence in bases all over the planet, and reallocate the saved money and resources into economic/educational channels?

After all the strength and reach of the US military, and by extension the US itself is only as strong as the US economy.
Just my .02

posted by: johnnymeathead on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Precisely, Johnny. The Cold War was the aberration, not the norm.

The Guard and reserve are being used as designed (over 100 years ago: Contrarians may trouble themselves to google Elihu Root.) We neither need nor want a large standing Army.

posted by: Tommy G on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

"...they will be much more risk-averse in their attitudes about war than authoritarian states. As a result, they will only engage in wars that are either a) essential to protecting the homeland; or b) they are really likely to win..."

Surely, Vietnam and Iraq are two exceptions that prove the rule?

posted by: Nanda Kishore on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Why would one exclude the War with Iraq?

It was one that we were "really likely to win". Infact, Not only did we win it rather handily, we spent a over a decade, as a republic, debating whether or not it was "essential to protecting the homeland".

"Surely" the answer, Nanda, is demonstrably; "Yes"?

posted by: Tommy G on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Re: The chickenhawk argument. I have a slightly different take on it. As a right-winger, I actually accept the chickenhawk argument (though I loathe most of the people who make it). It is a legitimate question: if you are so pro-military in general, and so pro-current war in particular, well, why don't you serve? Again, I'm not motivated by the left-wing argument (i.e.: you have no right to be pro-Iraq War unless you drop your life and enlist). Rather, my motivation is slightly different. I come from the old-school attitude that military service is honorable, that its good for you (admittedly, unless you are killed), that its a valuable life experience, even if you hate it, and that it is a good expression of the benefits of citizenship-i.e. its just part of growing up to . I kind of appreciate the old guys talking about their time in the navy, even if they didn't fight, and even if they didn't especially like it at the time.
And from that perspective, I feel the chickenhawk argument is legit; if you value military service so much, if you feel it is good for the country, good for the individual, and an honorable choice, why haven't you done it? Noone is claiming you need to stop writing, or forgo graduate school permanently, or give up your career-think of it as the next learning step after college/high school, before you settle down to a career and adulthood. Whether this argument applies to a middle-aged professor, of course, is a different question. But as a challenge to the young kids out there, I feel its legit.


posted by: Steve on 07.22.05 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

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