Profiting off the pain or exploitation of another human being is wrong. Not only does it make one complicit in the harm of another, it provides an economic incentive to continue in the harmful behavior. This is just as true for profit from war and violent conflict as it is for profiting from human trafficking or theft. The Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Statement on War, approved in 1970, affirms that, “We, therefore, cannot encourage,engage in, or willingly profit from armed conflict at home or abroad.”
This refusal to willingly profit from violence is relevant to the current public discussion on privatizing the war in Afghanistan. Erik Prince, who founded the mercenary firm Blackwater- infamous for the Nisour Square massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007- first proposed privatizing the war in Afghanistan while the Trump administration was re-evaluating its strategy last year.
While the administration ultimately decided to go in a different direction, the proposal has resurfaced in recent days as Prince launched a media campaign to influence President Trump’s approach to Afghanistan. Appearing on television news sources as diverse as MSBC, CBS and Fox News, Prince recommends that the United States replace U.S. forces with a smaller contractor force of alumni Special Forces/NATO fighters.
If Prince’s plan were implemented, privately contracted security forces would be embedded with Afghan troops, assisting the local forces in pushing back the Taliban. Prince proposes replacing the current 15,000 troops and 30,000 contractors with a smaller force of about 2000 military special-ops, and 6000 contractors. He also calls for the use of CIA in the region, backed by air power. The stated objectives of Prince’s plan- a reduction in military spending and a decrease in the number of troops on the ground, would technically move us in a positive direction. However, the underlying motivation of the change- making war more economically efficient, is counterproductive to our work towards long term stability, peace and justice worldwide.
The Church of the Brethren believes that “all war is sin”, but it is important to expressly take a stand against war that is explicitly bringing economic incentives for military action. Private military companies (PMCs), the contractor forces who carry arms and are engaged in direct security and combat operations, have commoditized conflict. As profit-seeking entities, there is little reason to believe that private companies would be free of self-interested decisions that would extend conflict to ensure continued income. A free-market for force could also lead to PMCs from various countries competing to be the most effective security forces- which would include pressure to lower the bar for adhering to human rights standards that limit the range of acceptable security activities in which they can engage.
It is important to recognize that economic incentives for military action are not new, and not limited to mercenary firms. In the 1970 AC statement on war, the Church of the Brethren said that although it recognizes “that almost all aspects of the economy are directly or indirectly connected with national defense, we encourage our members to divorce themselves as far as possible from direct association with defense industries in both employment and investment.” These concerns about public military spending and the economic incentives created by military production remain and are of huge concern to us. However, moving from a public military force to a private military force would exacerbate the negative impact of market forces on our propensity to resort to violence.
In addition to increasing the economic incentives for violence, private military companies raise huge oversight concerns. Legally legitimate use of force in conflict zones being outsourced by nations to private companies reduces the extent to which these armed actors are directly accountable to our democratic institutions. Concerns over weak oversight have plagued the private defense industry, as military actors and civilian actors operate under different legal expectations and accountability mechanisms. For example, the Blackwater employees who killed Iraqi civilians in 2007 saw their case go through civilian courts rather than military courts. A lack of transparency also makes oversight of contractors difficult. Because the companies can claim certain information as “proprietary,” researchers and journalists have difficulty understanding and analyzing the true impact of these firms.
In 1934, the Church of the Brethren passed an Annual Conference statement on war that said, “As a people we have opposed wars at all times throughout our entire history of over two hundred twenty-five years and we have stood with equal consistency for constructive peace principles in all relationships of life. We hate war because we love peace, our way of life at all times.” This sentiment, which has remained a core value of the Church of the Brethren, must inform our thinking on proposals like Prince’s. Rather than encouraging the privatization of war, the U.S. government should channel the frustration with our long-running military engagement into a positive re-evaluation of military tactics, one that uses the momentum towards “new ideas” to use innovative alternatives towards violence. Diplomacy, nonviolent direct action, Unarmed Civilian Protection, Civilian-Based Defense, and other creative solutions to violent conflict have lacked investment.
With its incredible access to funding, research capabilities, and sway over public and political opinion, the Pentagon has an opportunity to make huge steps towards peace as the country reevaluates the effectiveness of traditional military action. We must push the administration and the Department of Defense to prepare for peace, rather than continuing along our path of militarization.