Writing Without a Net

Matthew Yglesias was actually living a non-virtual life this weekend and missed the Kos brouhaha. He thinks it instructive:

A lot of Democrats in town (and, or so it seems looking at BlogAds) around the country seem interested in the idea of leveraging the blogosphere-left into a major political asset. What makes the ‘sphere work, though, is that it really is bottom-up and authentic in a way that official political propaganda isn’t. What we see here today, though, is that there’s a reason official political propaganda is neither bottom-up nor authentic — if you don’t vet the shit out of everything, mistakes get made. Everyone bemoans the scriptedness of contemporary politicians, but when an unscripted guy goes and gives a scary unscriped scream (and we all know who we’re talking about) the walls fall down.

Similarly with the blogs. If the ‘sphere is going to stay entertaining and have a real audience (the way rightwing talk radio does) politicians have to avoid getting too closely associated with it, otherwise you wind up getting some of the mud on you when someone gets out of line.

That about covers it, I think.

I’ve started to post on the whole Kos thing a couple of times but wound up deleting because there’s really not much to say without just piling on or touching a raw nerve. I’m frankly rather sympathetic to Kos’ sentiment that mercenaries aren’t as morally praiseworthy as American soldiers who fight for their country rather than whoever happens to hire them. But the occasion of the brutal murder of four Americans who hired on in support of a noble cause isn’t the time to have that discussion–let alone in such a meanspirited manner.

Update: I knew I shouldn’t have gotten into this one.

I disagree with Kos as to this particular situation–they were engaged in a legitimate enterprise sanctioned by the US government and their deaths while doing work to help rebuild Iraq is a tragedy–but clearly this is a group of mercenaries by normal definitions. From their website:

Blackwater’s security specialists have extensive experience in all dimensions of domestic and international security operations, particularly in high-risk zones. *** Blackwater Mobile Security Teams stand ready to be deployed around the world with little notice in support of US national security objectives, private or foreign interests. [emphasis added]

It’s pretty clear what they’re up to.

Peter Singer, a casual acquaintance of mine who has become probably the authority on the issue of mercenaries (he wrote his dissertation on it at Harvard a few years ago) is interviewed in the International Herald Tribune on this.

This is basically a new phenomenon: corporatized, private military services doing the front-line work soldiers used to do,” said Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written “Corporate Warriors,” a book on the industry. “And they’re not out there screening passengers at the airports,” he said. “They’re taking mortar and sniper fire.”

From Information Clearing House:

Blackwater, which operates from a 5,200-acre training ground in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, is a private military firm that provides an array of services once performed solely by military personnel. The company trains soldiers in counterterrorism and urban warfare. It also provides the American government with soldiers for hire: former Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy Seals. In February it started training former Chilean commandos — some of whom served under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — for future service in Iraq.

Business is booming at Blackwater, and the company is hardly alone. Private contractors are an invisible but growing part of how war is now fought. Some 10,000 of them are serving in Iraq — one private worker for every 10 soldiers — more than the number of soldiers from Britain, America’s largest coalition partner. Some are supplied by well-known corporations like Halliburton. But for the most part, the private military industry is dominated by more obscure businesses with names that seem designed to tell as little as possible about what the company does.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    Sorry, James, but in Kos’s original post, as well as this one of yours, I disagree with a couple of points:

    1) These gentlemen weren’t mercenaries, they were civilians providing security for food shipments. They don’t meet the definition (at least, the U.S. legal definition) of mercenaries.

    2) Mentioning moral praiseworthiness in the context of this murder and what happened to the corpses is pretty much a non sequitur.

    The alternative is saying that these should have been military troops instead of civilians, and that if there isn’t sufficient manpower, that job should be left undone. Or we could have found some Iraqis to provide security. That sounds like a good idea.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    I disagree with Kos too, but given the lack of other vehicles in the two-SUV convoy, unless the “food shipments” were a pizza delivery, that version of events doesn’t seem to cut it.

  3. Boyd says:

    Well, Jim, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I’m an anti-conspiritarian, so I don’t necessarily see any conflict. It’s reasonable that the decedents assignment was to protect food shipments, but they were doing something else at the time of the attack. Maybe going to meet a shipment, or returning from escorting a shipment. But I don’t think the point is important.

    I maintain that the definition of “mercenary” involves serving a foreign country. While these unfortunate gentlemen were certainly working to benefit Iraq, they were doing so under the auspices of the U.S. government. I’m sorry, in my opinion, if you call a government contractor a “mercenary,” regardless of what their assignment was, you’re just flat out wrong. Period.

    I wouldn’t normally take such a strong stance on what may appear to be a semantic difference, but I do so now because so many folks are using the term to detract from the honor or legitimacy of what these men were doing, and I just can’t let that stand without rebuttal.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    Boyd: I’m not strongly attached to the term mercenaries. I just went through a fair amount of linguistic contortion to avoid using it on my own blog. But to clarify: Blackwater has foreign clients (unnamed) according to their web page. Would Blackwater employees working for foreign governments be mercenaries, in your view?

  5. capt joe says:

    I spoke to some friends and this is the story they gave me. The 4 guys were armed and had radio and satcom communications

    Apparently this group were escorting one truck to a base on the outskirts. They changed their mind about the route and decided to make a run across the bridge with that truck. They had made that route before a day or so before and figured it would not be too bad. This was an alternate route and all routes were known to the iraqi secuirty liasons.

    It was the wrong decision. In the ambush, they were hit first since the iraqis probably(?) realized these were the armed force. the truck they were escorting turned and scrammed for safer areas. They were hit by multiple RPGs and it was likely they were dead immediately. Apparently the escaping truck gave the information that a rescue would not do any good.

    So whether blackwater normally supplies protection to the lords of hell or not is immaterial to what happened on the road on that day.

    As to the definition of a mercenary
    According to Article 47:

    2. A mercenary is any person who:

    (a) is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;

    (b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;

    (c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

    (d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

    (e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

    (f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

    It looks to me that, from definitions a, b, and d (and maybe c), the men murdered at Fallujah were not mercenaries.

  6. capt joe says:

    here are the names and bios of the guys


    let stop trying to read evil motives into them.

  7. capt joe says:

    here is what I find offensive about the whole call them mercenaries thing.

    After gulf war one, some friends and I fresh out of the military went to kuwait to help remove the mines that Saddam had left behind. I had a few too many close calls to want to do that again, but the other guys went on to other countries to do similar things. One of them actually went to do Personal Security Detail work which means guarding convoys and installations. A lot of it was for aid organizations where Un peace keepers were not available.

    So what he did and what I believe these guys were doing is very similiar. This is not mercenary work. This isn’t death squad work.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: We agree with respect to what these guys were doing over there. The idea that their deaths were nothing to mourn for is outrageous. My agreement with Kos is only on the abstract point that mercenaries who serve the highest bidder are less morally praiseworthy than soldiers serving their country. In this particular instance the guys happened to be serving their own government in a good cause and, indeed, weren’t employed for combat ops.

    capt joe: I’m not using a legalistic definition, just the common one of “soldiers for hire.” My point is that Blackwater is a mercenary outfit that meets all those definitions. They do indeed hire their services foreign governments for direct combat.

    I don’t think Jim or I are imputing evil motives into them. Kos may have been, although I gather his judgement on the issue is colored by having lived in a place where mercenaries were commiting atrocities among his own people.

    Regardless of any of the above, people don’t deserve to die, let alone in such a brutal manner, let alone be desecrated after their deaths. There are people whose deaths aren’t worthy of mourning–the Hussein boys come to mind–but these guys aren’t among them.

  9. Paul says:

    hmmm.. If you want to bring morality into it James, then can’t you call the whole U.S. military mercenaries? You use the word “professional” to describe them almost daily.

    Sure people are serving their country but make it a VOLUNTEER force and see how the recruiting office does.

    To go back to the original part of the post (writing without a net) the Kos blowout was not (exactly) about what was said. (God knows DU is way worse.) It was a case of WHO said it (he has earned a position of respect in the blogosphere) and more importantly, his actions afterward.

    When he deleted the post and generally acted like a worm rather than saying “ooops” he sealed his fate. Had he just come out and said “Hey, I’m human” it would have gone away.

    When you get to his position, hubris will bite you in the hindquarter quickly.

  10. capt joe says:

    James, I iunderstand, but words like “mercenary” are very charged. Professional soldiers find them very offensive as their common meaning is used for the bottom of the barrel variety. I take issue with the “so and so company is reputed to be involved in x so therefore all their employees are x” This is a slippery slope argument. By that same characterization, you can tar the reputation of the entire US military because of the unlawful conduct of its leaders.

  11. ” although I gather his judgement on the issue is colored by having lived in a place where mercenaries were commiting atrocities among his own people.”

    James, from my reading of Kos — and from my reading of Tacitus’ criticisms of Kos — it seems as if he was claiming that Communist guerillas and paramilitaries were the same as mercenaries, which is not true.

    I had my own reasons for staying away from this story, but what’s been lost in most of the shuffle is that PMCs can be an effective security force in regions where the penetration of government power is limited (see Sierra Leone) or where national governments are afraid to send peacekeepers. Imagine, for example, if PMCs could’ve been sent to Rwanda to protect enclaves of Tutsis from attack by interahamwe; a humanitarian military operation that is not in, say, America’s national interest could be undertaken by a PMC, provided that we supervise the PMC properly.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Capt Joe: Sure. I’m not making a slippery slope argument here–I’m merely talking about a general distinction between the two types of forces. As I said to begin with, it’s hard to have an intellectual discussion on the issue in the context of a specific event that doesn’t fit the mold.

    Paul: What distinguishes a professional military from mercs is that the former serves only their nation, not anyone who hires them. I think that’s a big difference. It’s the difference between a wife and a prostitute.

    Matthew: Clearly, PMCs as they’ve evolved in recent years are different from traditional mercs–it’s a strange, gray area.

  13. Paul says:

    Your point is of course correct.. but the context it was used, implied that they would just as gleefully worked for the other side. I’ve never met any of them. But I doubt they would do anything they thought would harm the United States or its interests. That’s where Kos blew it.

  14. James Joyner says:


  15. Beldar says:

    James Joyner wrote in the comments above,

    What distinguishes a professional military from mercs is that the former serves only their nation, not anyone who hires them. I think that’s a big difference. It’s the difference between a wife and a prostitute.

    With due respect, you’re making it worse and less clear.

    The connotation of the word “mercenary” — like the connotation of the word “prostitute” — is of someone who does what he/she does only for money, and for anyone who will pay it. The connotation is of someone who is amoral and completely without motivations of (respectively) patriotism/humanitarianism or love — and who will do for money that which is unpleasant or dangerous solely because of greed.

    But soldiers are paid (if less). Husbands regularly (in conventional households) give money to their wives. On the converse side, ex-US military men who hire on to work security in Iraq’s reconstruction are almost certainly likely to have refused to provide security for, say, Columbian drug lords. And of course, there’s the old joke about, “Madam, would you sleep with me for $10 million? How about for $10? We know what you are now, but we’re just haggling over the price.” I always thought this was pretty funny; my ex-wife, much less so.

    You’re insisting upon using, and defending overvigorously, a term that many people (myself included) find to be offensive, as well as technically inaccurate when applied to these men. My own annoyance with you is nowhere near what it was with Mr. Zuniga’s “screw you” comment, and I don’t think you have any malice in using the term — just stubbornness that’s misplaced here.

    I respectfully submit that at some point, it’s best simply to recognize that the language you’re choosing to use is offensive, whether you think it should be or not, and thereafter your choice to use it and to defend it becomes a decision that you don’t care about offending the people you’ve offended. Unless I misread you very badly, that’s not a choice you’d deliberately make here. I hope you’ll rethink the subject.

  16. capt joe says:

    Beldar, you make the same point I do but much better. Thanks

    James, no matter how couched it is still insulting for us.

  17. James Joyner says:

    Beldar and capt joe: A U.S. civilian who sells his services only to the U.S. government isn’t a mercenary. If he’s willing to fight for whoever flashes the green–and there are a lot of these outfits who will–then they’re mercs.

    I don’t know enough about Blackwater to make a judgment either way whether they’re technically mercs–i.e. they’re willing to do warfighting for foreign goverments in addition to mere security operations and training–but most indications seem to indicate that they are. In this particular instance, they weren’t acting as mercs, in that they were providing their services–whatever they were–to their own government. But, if they’re willing to do the same for the highest bidders, then they’re in a different category from American soldiers–legally and morally.

  18. Beldar says:

    Thanks, Capt Joe, but apparently I didn’t make the point quite well enough yet. One more try:

    Kos — and others who vigorously oppose the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s manner of prosecuting the War on Terror — picked the term “mercenaries” precisely because of its unsavory connotations. Its consistent use, and the accompanying ridicule of other less loaded terms (for example, “private security contractors”), is a calculated bit of linguistic salesmanship for their point of view. If they can get their readers to swallow whole the concept that these were merely “mercenaries” who were killed, then it’s a small and almost natural leap to say, “They probably were out doing a secret, private hit job, like the mercenaries used to do in El Salvador.” The associated connotations aren’t quite as vivid as with, say, the distinction between “fetus” and “baby” in the decades-old abortion debate, but I’m sure you get my point — when you’ve not only bought into the exclusive and preferred vocabulary of one side or the other, but gone out of your way to defend that vocabulary, some folks may believe you’ve bought into all of that particular side’s arguments. That’s probably an unfair inference and an over-generalization. But it’s an undeniable tendancy; and when you know that, and persist on the applicability of the loaded term with its heavy connotations, at a minimum you’re running a big risk of being misinterpreted on the merits.

    I don’t have a military background to draw upon, and I know nothing more of Blackwater in particular than what I’ve read in the blogosphere, the mainstream media, and the company’s website. So I’ve been trying to think of a frame of reference from my own life that might be analogous.

    The best I’ve come up with so far has to do with my two beautiful daughters, ages nine and thirteen. I try to imagine how I’d feel if, someday, they were contestants in a beauty pageant — perhaps the Miss America contest. If someone wrote a newspaper article referring to my contestant-daughters as “strippers,” I’d be pretty angry, I think. “Well, yeah,” I’d sputter back in my letter to the editor, “they’re in the swimsuit competition and yeah, that same model of swimsuit possibly can be seen on strippers, but that doesn’t mean my daughters are strippers!” When the author defends himself by pointing out that the Miss America contest offers scholarships and other financial perks, and argues that strippers also take off their clothes and display their bodies to drooling men for cash and fame and ego-stroking (but mostly for the cash) … well, at that point, I’m likely to become increasingly less civil to that author. And when my neighbor mentions to me across our common driveway the next morning that he’d read my exchange of arguments in the Letters to the Editor column, says he pretty much agrees with me, but then asks, “How are your little strippers today?” — well, he’s likely to get punched in the jaw. (I’m pretty sure I’ll be acquitted in the subsequent assault and battery trial, at least here in Houston.)

    You’re like my hypothetical neighbor on the driveway, Mr. Joiner, to those whose strong feeling is sympathy for the slain Blackwater men. Now, please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not making any kind of threat (and in fact, I don’t doubt Mr. Zuniga’s claim to have received email threats of violence, and I deplore that, and regret even the harsh language some of his more outraged critics have used along the lines of “Kos deserves to be set on fire and hanged from a bridge, the commie traitor!”). I don’t think Mr. Zuniga genuinely regrets offending anyone he’s offended, but rather is glorying in it. He might as well write “screw you if you object to my saying screw them!”; that seems to be a very common formulation for his thoughts, as James Taranto pointed out today. But I suspect that you might, eventually, regret giving some of the offense your use of the “mercenaries” label might be giving. Again, I hope you’ll take a step back and rethink this one.