Saturday Column: Transparency crucial on private military operations

President Obama announced this week he intends to intensify this country’s military actions against ISIS terrorist forces but with no U.S. boots “on the ground.”

This “no boots on the ground” situation has been a political football, with Obama making pledges and promises to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by certain dates.

When military actions are reported by Pentagon, White House or State Department officials, they are quick to say “no U.S. boots on the ground,” aside from when Obama called for 500 or so Marines to be sent to Iraq to help protect the U.S. Embassy and/or to offer advice to Iraqi military forces. They could not be more emphatic in telling the American public that no U.S. boots on the ground meant no combat troops.

It is ironic that a new book hit the market this past week that makes it very clear the president may be technically correct, but in real terms there probably are thousands of men and women, mostly Americans, who are in combat conditions in Iraq and elsewhere but they don’t wear the uniforms of the U.S. Army, Marines, SEALS, Air Force or Navy.

They are fighting in many ways, and most of the fighters are getting paid for their services by U.S. taxpayers.

These forces are part of the growing numbers of PMCs (private military companies) or PMSCs (private military and securities companies) that are on call, ready to perform any service at any time and at any place — places our formal military forces are unable to reach in time, places where they do not want to perform and places where they do not want the forces to be identified as American. In past years such fighters were called mercenaries.

They are effective, can be deadly and can perform many services that are helpful to this country.

The new book is titled “The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsources our Security.” The author, Ann Hagedorn, was a Kansas University librarian at one time, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, a teacher at Northwestern and Columbia universities and was a fellow at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities.

The book, likely to be a best-seller, is sure to cause a firestorm.

Hagedorn has done a masterful job in researching the business of the PMSCs, whether it is dealing with counter-terrorism actions and strategy, private security, the protection of embassies, working in kidnapping and ransom cases, fighting or supporting coup efforts, managing drone surveillance and missile strikes, maritime security and most any other tough, usually unpleasant task.

Hagedorn emphasizes she neither favors nor opposes the use and role of PMSCs and notes that they can be of great assistance, but transparency and oversight are necessary. Their numbers are sure to grow, but this growth can and likely will bring about many changes in our formal military forces and strategy.

It’s a huge business, growing month by month, if not day by day, as they are ready to spring into action whenever they get a call and someone is willing to pay the bills.

As Hagedorn points out, it is easier with fewer, if any, government approvals or delaying paperwork to call a PMSC company and ask it to get a job done. No worries about health and medical insurance, training expenses, family-assistance programs, thousands of idle forces when there is no battle to fight, or medical care after a military career. Just hire and fire them as jobs require.

A unique facet of using PMSCs is that it removes Washington and the public from direct involvement in an ugly or deadly action because PMSCs’ missions are multilayered with PMSCs often subcontracting various parts of the task they were hired to accomplish. Sometimes there may be up to five levels of sub-contractors. This provides a major detachment from or mental involvement in the actual conflict.

The on-call services are efficient and effective, but what are the problems created by this fast-growing business? There are definite consequences for our traditional forces. Who should govern or control the actions of these companies, which now are international?

“The Invisible Soldiers” could not be timelier; it is balanced, thorough and fair in its reporting. It is a phenomenon that is not going away, and the public needs to know how our government is relying on these businesses.

“The Invisible Soldiers” presents a very clear picture of the pros and cons and gives readers information to help decide why mercenaries or the dressed-up “invisible soldiers” may or may not be needed or used.

Hagedorn’s book should cause readers to ask themselves what happens if they, and the general public, do not become aware and concerned and seriously consider the pros and cons.

As she said at her Hall Center presentation, “Indifference is a serious threat to our society.”


When the full story of the Benghazi tragedy is told, perhaps the failures or successes of relying on PMSCs will be revealed. It also will likely show it’s always best to tell the truth.