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Private Security Contractors and the American Tradition

By Michael Waller

In the wake of the recent shooting deaths of 11 Iraqis in Baghdad, many critics are now claiming that allowing private contractors to operate in Iraq is inconsistent with American tradition. This is demonstrably untrue.

Private security contractors, or PSCs, have been part of building the civilization that became the United States for 400 years. They are a founding part of the American entrepreneurial tradition of risk-taking and civic duty.

The first PSC on our shores was little more popular than his descendants today. Captain John Smith, a professional soldier who was paid to protect the interests of the Virginia Company of London in 1607, was accused of conspiring to subvert legal authority and locked in irons during the voyage to America, only to be exonerated and made chief of the expedition that founded the colony at Jamestown.

A few years later, English refugees seeking freedom of worship set off for America to establish their own shining city. They contracted the services of Captain Myles Standish to defend them, loaded a small arsenal of weapons in the lower hold, and sailed the Mayflower to make history at Plymouth Colony.

PSC Standish and a handful of armed men reconnoitered the new land for safety, organized and trained a militia, built a fort for the Pilgrims and even did battle to protect a neighboring settlement.

When Americans – who lacked an army – later needed protection against tyrannical British rule, a wealthy Virginia businessman offered to finance, train and equip his own force of 1,000 soldiers. His name was George Washington, and we would soon become commanding general of the new Continental Army.

Even during the Revolutionary War, George Washington recognized the value of private security contractors. With no significant navy to challenge the British, Washington relied on a fleet of private warships. Their crews, known as privateers, were among the first businesses regulated by the Continental Congress, which in the spring of 1776 authorized letters of marque to be issued to the master of any vessel seeking wartime service. Privateers had to post bond and adhere to congressional guidelines.

While patriotically motivated, the privateers fundamentally were entrepreneurs, seeking their fortunes from the prizes they would take at sea while simultaneously serving their country.

Washington himself invested in at least one wartime privateer.

Privateers were also crucial to defeating the British in the War of 1812. The great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, though not a fan of privateers, recognized that the nation's fleet of private warships "co-operated powerfully with other motives to dispose the enemy to liberal terms of peace."

Private military businesses are even referenced in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which concerns the right of Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal to attack enemy shipping.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln hired the private Pinkerton Detective Agency to serve as the nation's wartime counterintelligence service. Some Union generals hired private security contractors as intelligence officers. Lincoln himself paid a private spy out of his own pocket to vet the military intelligence reports he was receiving from the field.

The most famous private military contractors of the past century were the Flying Tigers of World War II.

Organized as a private company to outfit and pilot the Free Chinese air force in the 1930s, the Flying Tigers built valuable knowledge of Japanese air power that would come in handy after Pearl Harbor in late 1941. The Flying Tigers, who received a bounty in addition to a generous salary, flew alongside the RAF against the Japanese in Burma and rushed to defend Darwin, Australia, from Japanese air attack.

The U.S. military strongly resisted authorization of a private air force, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt overruled his generals and allowed the Flying Tigers to fight.

After the post-Cold War downsizing of the U.S. military, the Clinton administration and Congress anticipated building a surge capacity through private contractors. This action led to the rise of PSCs like Blackwater USA to make up for the troop shortfall in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, when Blackwater does its job to protect an American diplomatic convoy from terrorist attack, critics in our own Congress demand the company's head.

That's no way to fight a war. Private security contractors are an important part of America's military tradition. They have been crucial to settling the nation and defending it in wars at home and abroad for 400 years. And they will continue to be.

J. Michael Waller is editor of Serviam, a magazine for the global stability industry, and the Annenberg Professor of International Communication at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.

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