Book Review of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order

Molly Dunigan, “Book Review of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, by Sean McFate.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 6: 227-233, July 2015.

With the prevalence of Islamic insurgencies throughout the Middle East and Africa at present posing no surprise to even the most casual observer of international politics, the fact that Nigeria and its allies in Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin are experiencing a wave of tactical and operational successes against militant group Boko Haram is both heartening and puzzling. Why now, after nearly six years of insurgency perpetrated by Boko Haram that has involved the brutal killing of civilians, the mass abduction of girls and women, and the displacement of tens of thousands of residents toward the country’s northeast, are state forces finally seeing some measure of success?1

The answer may very well lie in recent media reports that “mercenaries,” or contractors working for private military companies (PMCs), from South Africa and the former Soviet republics are now on the ground in Nigeria fighting side by side with the Nigerian forces and providing training, equipment, and potentially even air support to their operations. Nigeria’s Chief of Defense Intelligence in Washington confirmed in mid-March of this year that South African contractors had been hired in recent months to train Nigerian troops but denied that they were operating in any paramilitary sense on the ground in Nigeria. An anonymous senior Nigerian official, however, has indicated that the South African contractors are taking a more direct role in the fighting, operating on the ground, leading the liberation of some of the affected communities, and bringing very sophisticated weaponry and equipment with them. South African contractors in the region have themselves corresponded with the media to indicate the additional presence of Ukrainian pilots in Nigeria—though whether they are tasked with providing close air support for tactical missions or simply flying supply routes is difficult to discern.2

Others have noted that the contractors made an effort to maintain low visibility when they arrived in Nigeria, keeping their presence and operations covert by landing in a remote area of the airport upon arrival and conducting most of their operations at night.3 Given Africa’s mixed history with various different types of privatized military force, such efforts to maintain the secrecy of their operations are understandable. Well-known South African firm Executive Outcomes (EO) was both lauded and stigmatized for its work in various African states in the 1980s. In perhaps the most telling example of the risks of operating too openly as a “mercenary” force, EO’s contract with the government of Sierra Leone was ultimately terminated and the firm left the country in early 1997 in response to strong international condemnation of the privatization of force, despite key operational successes and the high utility of EO’s activities in maintaining the state’s power over lawless factions.4

In his recent book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, Sean McFate sheds important light on why the Nigerian government is willing to admit to utilizing South African contractors for training purposes, but not for ground operations akin to paramilitary activities. McFate distinguishes between two different types of PMCs, arguing that the industry has “bifurcated” into these two distinct categories of actors: mercenaries and military enterprisers.5Mercenary companies, according to his analysis, are “private armies that can conduct autonomous military campaigns, offensive operations, and force projection” (p. 14). McFate finds that there are no large mercenary firms operating at present, but that they have in the past, citing EO as an example. Military enterprisers, on the other hand, help states to raise armies but do not command them or participate directly in fighting. He argues, “Most modern PMCs are military enterprisers and make their money not by deploying their own armies but by making them for someone else” (p. 14). He somewhat confusingly then goes on to say that “most modern PMCs blend the two categories” (p. 14). This is likely true, given the propensity for firms in the private military and security industry to diversify the range of services offered in order to maintain their market advantage across a range of possible contingencies. However, it calls the overall utility and validity of McFate’s typology itself, and his argument for industry bifurcation, into question. Nonetheless, McFate’s finding that military enterprisers remain more palatable at present to states as potential force multipliers than do traditional “mercenary” forces has important policy implications that should not be overlooked, and it provides insight into why Nigeria’s government is only willing to admit to the use of contractors for training and advising purposes.

A former U.S. Army Ranger–turned–DynCorp International security contractor–turned-scholar and policy analyst with the National Defense University and the Atlantic Council, respectively, McFate brings a fascinating perspective to the field of research on military privatization. Noticeably absent from the majority of academic literature in this field are the voices of the contractors and companies themselves, which oftentimes has the effect of divorcing this scholarship somewhat from the on-the-ground reality faced by these private actors. Exceptions exist, of course, but only for those researchers who have spent substantial time in the field, speaking to members of this typically secretive industry. Prior research in the field tends to be divided between hard-core theoretical works, such as those authored by Deborah Avant and Christopher Kinsey, and popular writings authored for lay audiences, prone to sensationalism, and published by trade presses, such as Robert Young Pelton’s Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.6

Never before has a former contractor entered this fray, at least not one with the level of credibility held by the Harvard- and London School of Economics–educated McFate. Because of this educational and professional background, McFate deserves to have his arguments considered seriously, whether you agree with them or not. McFate walks the line between academic and popular literature carefully, though ultimately the work reads like a trade press publication, obfuscating the majority of the prior theoretical literature on the topic. Nonetheless, McFate’s methodology and argumentation clearly demonstrate his abilities as a strong scholar and policy analyst. As such, it is at times unclear who the true audience is for the book, as it may appeal to both laymen and scholars interested in force privatization.

McFate’s overall rationale throughout the book is historically derived, based upon his framing of the current market for force in the United States and its Western allies as being a return to the norm of mercenarism seen for thousands of years prior to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The creation of the Westphalian system effectively rid the world of mercenarism for nearly 400 years, emphasizing state sovereignty and territorial integrity such that states became the primary actors in international relations and exercised a monopoly on the use of force in their territories.7 McFate is correct that the relative dominance of states and their monopolization of force, effectively excluding private market actors, since 1648 is a glaring anomaly in world military history. Numerous other scholars such as Peter W. Singer and Janice Thomson have made strong arguments to this effect in the past, highlighting the prevalence of foreign soldiers hired for pay in warfare from as early as 2094 B.C.E.8 Yet never before has such historical detail as that seen in McFate’s work been unearthed.

McFate employs this recounting of the utilization of mercenaries in ancient and medieval history to illustrate how the privatization of force has evolved into the system of military outsourcing witnessed today. He maintains the historical lens through his discussions of why private armies have returned as well as what he terms the “murky side” of private force—though in this section he also adopts a theoretical lens, discussing principal-agent theory and moral hazard. Even in his discussion of “the modern world order,” his historian’s cap is on, providing clear elucidation of how the modern world order came about as a result of the Peace of Westphalia.

McFate’s primary contributions to the scholarly discussion on this topic are the level of historical depth and detail provided in his work and his utilization of history to build a strong argument that we are witnessing a return to medieval times in the outsourcing of force—a trend that he calls “neomedievalism,” defined as “a non-state-centric and multipolar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances” (p. 6) Accordingly, “like the medieval world, the global system will persist in a durable disorder that contains rather than solves problems” (p. 6). Given his meticulous historical narrative and its consistency with past scholarly works on this topic, this conceptual model for understanding the privatization of force at present and its prospects for the future is convincing, at least to the extent that one limits his or her scope to the consideration of private military force employed by state clients such as the United States.

One key shortcoming in McFate’s model, however, is that he appears to overlook the fact that approximately 80 percent of contracts for the transnational private security industry at present stem from nonstate clients, such as the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and private firms, including large extractives companies hiring private military forces to guard their oil and gas lines and other commercial sites in dangerous and/or developing areas of the world.9 Admittedly, he does speak of the diversification of industry clients in recent years, the most notable mention of which is an intensely interesting anecdote regarding a request by actress Mia Farrow to Blackwater Worldwide to scope out a plan for ending the genocide in Darfur utilizing private military force:

Millionaire actress Mia Farrow had approached Blackwater and a few human rights organizations to end the genocide in Darfur. The plan was simple. Blackwater would stage an armed intervention in Darfur and establish so-called islands of humanity, refugee camps protected by PMC firepower for civilians fleeing the deadly Janjaweed, gunmen who massacred whole villages in Darfur. During this time, the human rights organizations would mount a global name-and-shame media campaign to goad the international community into ending the genocide once and for all with a muscular U.N. peacekeeping mission. (p. 2)

Yet McFate’s claim that the current market for force is a monopsony—a market situation in which there is a predominant buyer (the United States) and many sellers—is potentially misleading. Such a claim assumes that the only market for force in existence at present is an essentially neoliberal market dominated by the United States (p. 4).

This framing of the scope of his analysis unwittingly leads McFate to see the “indigenization” of the industry as a current trend resulting from U.S. outsourcing of security and the effects it has had in “normalizing” the market for force. Perhaps such indigenization—which McFate describes as the industry “going native” and creating “warlords-turned-PMCs” who essentially act as “little more than profit-seeking militia” (p. 156–57)—is indeed more in line with what was seen during medieval times. However, it places the blame for such a situation squarely with the United States’ outsourcing practices, glossing over the fact that such indigenization of the market for force is only likely given a particular constellation of circumstances, many of which are dependent upon both the underlying security situation in a given area and the regional dynamics characterizing that area.

For instance, military privatization has been found in prior scholarship to have strengthening effects on strong states but potentially deleterious effects on weak states that are unable to control the spread of private force and its impacts on local populations:

Though contracting for security services may be less ideal than reforming military institutions, the capabilities of strong states mitigate some risks of privatization and allow [private security companies] to provide short-term functional benefits when state institutions are stretched thin or required to produce new functions. Weak states, in contrast, both have more to gain from privatization and run the highest risks from it. … The very weakness of state institutions, however, decreases the chance that privatization will lead to the provision of public security or long-term military effectiveness.10

This dynamic critically undergirds what McFate is referring to in his example of the indigenization of the industry in Afghanistan, but no mention is made of the weakness of the Afghan state and the role that the overall security situation in the region plays in enabling such indigenization. This reviewer’s recent scholarship has distinguished between the U.S.-dominated neoliberal market for force and other, more indigenous “racketeer” markets for force dominated by warlords and criminal organizations in areas such as Afghanistan and Latin America, in addition to “hybrid” markets such as that seen in China, where the state plays an active role in controlling the trade of services on the market.11 At the very least, considering the United States as the predominant market actor across all styles of commodified force in today’s world runs the risk of masking the different operational dynamics of various types of markets for force across world regions. Such masking in turn could lead to the development of an artificially uniform, homogeneous set of recommendations that may inaccurately predict how best to handle the risks and reap the benefits associated with privatized force.

Nonetheless, in looking at that portion of the global market for force that is dominated by the United States, McFate’s work makes a real contribution to the empirical and policy-relevant work completed to date on this topic. On the empirical side, his in-depth analysis of the Liberian and Somalian cases provides a refreshing exploration in an area that has not previously been covered by other scholars of military privatization. In a field where the majority of scholarly research focuses repeatedly on a small handful of the same cases—EO in Angola and Sierra Leone, MPRI in Croatia, and various U.S. firms such as Blackwater and DynCorp in Iraq and/or Afghanistan—this empirical diversity is a welcome change.12

In terms of policy relevance, McFate acknowledges both the potential advantages and disadvantages of contract warfare in the future:

In terms of economic advantages, on-demand military services generally have greater utility or value than maintaining a full-time standing military, which was very expensive in the Middle Ages and now. Furthermore, private sector innovation can find more efficient and effective ways of achieving war aims, sometimes sparing blood and treasure. (p. 167)

Meanwhile, on the negative side:

On-demand military services lower the barriers to waging war, making violence more tempting than peaceful solutions. Once at war, private armies are incentivized to elongate and expand armed conflict for financial gain, a moral hazard inherent to for-profit warfare. … As in the Middle Ages, mercenarism can lead to more war. (p. 167)

These findings ultimately lead McFate to the sobering but important conclusion that:

the private military industry is not going away, and therefore actions should be taken to harness the good while limiting the bad effects it produces. Instead of relying on weak laws, aspirational codes of conduct, or the forlorn hope of a new Geneva Protocol that deals with these new armed actors, a more practical solution involves fostering a mediated market for force that shuns mercenaries and works only with qualified military enterprisers in public-private partnerships. This would prevent devolution to a free market. A market approach instead of a regulatory one may prove more effective. (p. 162)

I do not entirely agree with McFate that industry codes of conduct are simply “aspirational” or that a mediated market would be more effective than a free market in regulating the industry through market mechanisms. A free, openly competitive market, after all, is the best way to ensure that clients can actively reward socially responsible and law-abiding PMCs with future contracts while “punishing” those firms that fail to behave in accordance with international humanitarian law and its corresponding norms of appropriate behavior in conflict zones. Nonetheless, there is a distinct role for the state in requiring clients to only work with such qualified companies. All in all, I strongly concur with McFate’s general sentiment that the private military industry is not going away, and that the focus should therefore now be a practical one aimed at mitigating its risks and maximizing its benefits. I therefore commend the book as a worthwhile read to all those concerned with the privatization of force worldwide, and particularly with its prevalence in the Middle East and Africa throughout the past several decades.

Molly Dunigan

Author biographies

Molly Dunigan is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor in the Institute of Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of numerous books and articles on the private military industry, includingVictory for Hire: Private Security Companies’ Impact on Military Effectiveness (Stanford University Press, 2011) and The Markets for Force: Privatization of Security Across World Regions (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).



1 Ishaan Tharoor, “South African mercenaries join Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram,” Washington Post, March 12, 2015, accessed April 15, 2015, at

2 Adam Nossiter, “Mercenaries join Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram,” New York Times, March 12, 2015, accessed April 15, 2015, at

3 “South African mercenaries play crucial role in fight against Boko Haram,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 26, 2015, accessed April 15, 2015, at

4 Peter W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 114.

5 It is critical to note that in a broader sense, McFate distinguishes between PMCs, security support companies, and general contractors. PMCs, which are the focus of his book, are the private-sector equivalent of the U.S. Army’s combat arms units—that is, “expeditionary conflict entrepreneurs structured as multinational corporations that use lethal force or train others to do so” (p. 13). Security support companies, according to McFate, are akin to combat services units and are generally unarmed, providing services such as intelligence analysis, strategic communication, translation, etc. General contractors are equivalent to Army combat service support units and provide logistical and base operations support and maintenance (p. 15).

6 Deborah Avant, The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Christopher Kinsey, Corporate Soldiers and International Security: The Rise of Private Military Companies (London: Routledge, 2006); Robert Young Pelton, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror (New York: Three Rivers Press, Random House, 2007).

7 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. David Owen and Tracy B. Strong (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004).

8 Singer, Corporate Warriors, 20; Janice Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994) 26–32.

9 Ian Ralby, “A Brief Explanation of the Private Security Regulatory Initiatives and the Swiss Processes,” Dextra Fortis: Database Solutions for the Security Industry, January 7, 2014, accessed April 15, 2015, at

10 Avant, Market for Force, 58–59.

11 Molly Dunigan and Ulrich Petersohn, eds., The Markets for Force: Privatization of Security Across World Regions(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

12 See, e.g., Singer, Corporate Warriors; Avant, Market for Force; Kinsey, Corporate Soldiers and International Security; Molly Dunigan, Victory for Hire: Private Security Companies’ Impact on Military Effectiveness (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

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