Problems with mercenary dreams

I was visiting Under the Same Sun yesterday (a daily routine) and I found a discussion on the options the US has for dealing with its ‘manpower’ problem in Iraq. The manpower problem is rather simple: occupying a country, unlike bombing it or slaughtering its inhabitants with tons of firepower, takes a lot of troops. Since the goal of occupation is permanent and stable control over the country and especially its oil fields and production — targets that are quite difficult to defend — it takes a lot of troops, indeed.

Zeynep’s post suggested two alternatives: one, the draft in the US, and two, the use of mercenaries from poor countries. She concludes that the political costs of enacting the draft in the US are too high for it to occur given the easy option of using contract soldiers from places like El Salvador and Colombia.

I agree that the draft is unlikely for the reasons she mentions, but I think that using Latin Americans to do the job will bring problems of its own.

First, there is a military problem. In real combat situations, irregular troops and private contractors don’t usually do very well. There are problems with coordination, command and control, cohesion, morale, and so on. If US troops, who are highly propagandized from birth and propagandized even more deeply in the military itself, are starting to wonder why they are over there, Latin Americans will be even less keen to risk their necks or do ambitious missions once they are on the ground.

Economically, it is unlikely that the use of these troops will be any cheaper than US troops. They still have to be equipped, fed, clothed, housed, protected, etc. If they are doing it out of a promise that their families will be taken care of by company insurance when they die — it’s true such insurance will be cheaper in a poor country, but it is still a cost if casualties get high. If, on the other hand, the companies or the US tries to save costs after the fact by not paying the insurance claims, there will quickly be fewer people wanting to sign up.

Politically, Latin American regimes don’t win any points with their populations by turning their countries into recruiting pools for US adventures in West Asia. The people have powerful movements to fight with that the governments can’t ignore. Even in Colombia, where the regime is at its most aggressive (Well, Haiti’s actually worse, since February 2004), the government has a very thin hold on power and needs a measure of popular support to survive.

That’s why I suspect (and fear) that instead of relying on the draft or on foreign troops, the US is more likely to resolve its difficulty, if it reaches a crisis point, by a return to massive firepower, with massive Iraqi casualties, and possibly to leave the place a total ruin — if we can’t have their oil, then no one will. Of course, if the US goes that route, there will be terror enough for everyone for a long time. And it’s on movements to try to prevent this outcome.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting the feeling movements have gone on holiday, waiting for the election. Hopefully they’ll come back in a couple of weeks.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.