Buying Moral Victory by Ruth Lucier

Lucier, Ruth, “Buying Moral Victory: Review of P.W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell University Press, 2003),” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26 (Spring – Summer 2006).

I grew up hearing about the Military Industrial Complex in a home with parents who believed that almost all wars are morally wrong or unnecessary, and that many wrong and unneeded wars have occurred (and continuously occur) because of the financial interests of those who grow rich by producing the weapons. Hence, I was somewhat startled by the author’s opening remark in the preface of Corporate Warriors that prior to 1996 he had not heard of “the phenomenon of private companies offering military services for hire” (p. vii). What, I wondered, did Peter W. Singer (the Brookings scholar, not the Princeton philosopher) think private companies contracting with the US Department of Defense do?

Reading on, I found that Singer’s purpose is to help the reader to understand a particular segment of the private military industry based in the United States—a segment that doesn’t just serve up the U.S. government’s weapons; it is given the task of actually deciding when and where to apply them in actual fields of battle. Singer suggests that the reason that so much modern on-the-ground killing and guarding against killing (viz. “security”) has been delegated (and so “privatized”) not only by the U.S. government by other governments as well, are (1) released conflicts, (2) rise of non-state violence, (3) a market flood of weapons, and (4) a decline of local state governance and local military response due to diseases like AIDS (pp. 50-51). Singer also documents the interesting fact that many of today’s heads of state make use of paid foreign security forces to prevent coups and to exercise control over their own indigenous armed forces (pp. 200-201).

Singer is certainly right to identify the rapidly expanding utilization of “troops for hire” as a matter that merits discussion. And he correctly points out that it is the responsibility of citizens of a democracy to know how wars (particularly those that are conducted on their behalf) are being carried out. Otherwise, how can citizens wisely control military activities that occur on or off their country’s terrain? Singer’s attempt to supply information is surely a worthy goal—one that has important ethical implications.

The historical explanations given in the book, however, are less than satisfactory. In Chapter One, for example, Singer appears to accept David Shichor’s suggestion that military products have been and are the business of (and should remain the business of) government in cases were “death and destruction on a considerable scale are inevitable products” (p. 1), hence suggesting that past U.S. wars were exclusively and officially government endeavors. But this is surely not so. The American Governments of the invaders from Europe certainly offered land for those independent settlers who would destroy, by any means, the way of life, if not the actual existence of indigenous peoples. What followed was surely “a century of dishonor” involving numerous broken treaties and non-governmental massacres, as well as the privatized pillaging of natural and cultural resources. The century of war against Native Americans was surely largely a privatized war paid for by the offering of “free” land to the non-official, non-indigenous combatants.

In utilizing history to warn against privatization, Singer, however, looks not to America, but rather to early empires in Europe. For example in Chapter One he suggests that the use of mercenaries in Greece and Rome during these empires’ colonial periods turned military power over to private elements. He argues that this resulted in a kind of instability that, in turn, led to the destruction of democracy. In Chapter Three, Singer suggests that today the activities of private companies, with employees who act as soldiers and actually operate tremendously destructive weapons, may be problematic because their activities might also undermine democratic order. Singer later suggests that another reason for objecting to the transformation of contemporary warfare, from nation-run war to privatized “company operation,” is that the privatized conflicts may induce a “breakdown of warrior’s honor” (p. 64).

But what is it about the fact that such companies “operate as businesses first and foremost” (p. 40) that causes them to be more dangerous to democracy or more likely to create lapses of honor than governmental military institutions? Both kinds of organizations may employ soldiers who are required to fight for exactly the same non-democratic programs of, for example, land-acquisition and genocide.

Singer’s reply is that the company soldiers would be less accountable to moral standards because such soldiers may “simply harbor an open commitment to war as a professional way of life” (p. 41).

But do professional government soldiers (e.g. career officers) do otherwise? Hopefully, most US government soldiers believe the boss (e.g. the U.S. Government) is a government worth fighting for, and a large majority is morally well intentioned. But U.S. Armed Forces career professionals are surely committed to fighting, as directed, by the Country and its Commanders, on the basis of a commitment to do battle no matter what; to do battle, in effect, even if the Government’s cause is wrong.

Still, Singer sees the privatized soldier as morally less desirable for several other reasons. First, Singer believes the commitment of the soldier for hire is likely to be less stable in conflict situations because, as Singer puts it, “They have more independence” (p. 41).

Singer is probably right in suggesting that privatized soldiers who can quit easily may, in that sense, be less committed. But, this ability to quit is surely not always morally unfortunate. If the war the privatized soldier is fighting is unjust, we ought to be glad that the privatized soldier can quit and saddened that the government soldier must remain.

A second reason Singer offers for believing that the government-paid soldier would be more virtuous, is that the government soldier may be fighting for home and country, while the privatized soldier may be fighting merely for pay. But while a government-paid soldier standing at the door of his or her home and actively defending the beloved occupants within, may seem clearly more heroic than the mercenary fighting in foreign territory merely for pay, the sense of virtue collapses when that same government-paid solider is fighting an offensive, aggressive war on foreign turf many miles from home.

To be sure, soldiers fighting aggressive and unjust wars may think they are protecting their own families and exemplifying transcendent virtues; but about these matters government soldiers and hired mercenaries may both be quite equally and quite tragically wrong.

A final concern Singer poses has to do less with democracy or virtue than with the pragmatic responsibility of policing and oversight. Singer observes that if governments allow great amounts of lethal force to find their way into private hands (and particularly into the hands of unidentified persons who are outside the reach of any law), they may create a situation where the use to which these private persons put the weapons cannot be regulated, or their misuse punished. For how can private companies with no clear national base be held accountable to any deliberative body at all?

Of the many points Singer makes against privatization in Corporate Warriors, this point is, I believe, the most forceful. If increasing privatization is a way of getting war done without having anyone accountable for what is done to the victims of the war, the potential for massive injustice is certainly greatly increased.

Singer is right to suggest that democracies need to work intensively to regulate and control all potential sources of violence within their borders. And, of course, he is also right to suggest that weapons of mass destruction should be regulated by global democracies that are accountable to hopefully responsible and informed citizens. Surely, however, we must move beyond Singer’s suggestions and make certain that the possible use of any highly destructive weaponry (in private or public hands) is identified, globally regulated, and ultimately banned. While this is being accomplished, we should carefully examine claims that this or that war is morally justified, and we should work to strengthen the ability of international law to totally prevent predatory and unjust wars.

In spite of the fact that it does not make any conclusive case against privatization, Singer’s book is worth reading, just because it invites us to focus on very real threats to global peace. Nevertheless, while acknowledging the importance of Singer’s inquiries concerning the moral status of privately verses publicly funded bearers of arms, I believe we should direct most of our philosophical energies to resolving questions concerning when and whether (even apart from considerations of funding) war can be moral at all.

Ruth Lucier is Director of Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Bennett College, NC. Her recent publications include topics in moral philosophy and education.

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