Centre for Research on Globalisation
Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation

The Iraq war was  the "first privatized war."

Private military firms in today's wars

P. W. Singer (interviewed by Terry Gross)

Fresh Air, 9 July 2003
www.globalresearch.ca 24  July 2003

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/SIN307A.html

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The war in Iraq was fought with the help of private military firms. So were the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. These for-profit companies are changing the nature of war, the American military and armies around the world. They are corporations that specialize in military skills, including combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence, operational support and training. Private military firms have helped fight for democracy. They've also been hired by dictators and drug cartels. Kellogg Brown & Root, Dyncorp, MPRI and Vinnell are among the best-known private military firms.

My guest, P.W. Singer, is the author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." Singer is a foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution and is the coordinator of the Brookings Project on US Policy Toward the Islamic World. He's also working on a book about child soldiers. I asked him, though, why the private military industry has grown so much in the past decade.

Mr. P.W. SINGER (Author, "Corporate Warriors; Foreign Policy Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Really, there's three changes that came together at the start of the 1990s that led to the rise of this industry. The first was essentially political. At the end of the Cold War you had massive military downsizing, around six million less soldiers in the world, not just in the US military but also the Soviet military, the East German military completely disappeared, South Africa and etc. At the same time you had an increase in demand. You had all these wars popping up all over the place that not only these smaller militaries were deploying to--the Bosnias, the Kosovos, the Somalias--but you also had a number that they weren't deploying to, like the Sierra Leones of the world or the Liberias. And this led, again, to a gap that the private military market moved to fill.

The second major force was essentially sort of technologic or strategic. Essentially warfare itself is changing in the way we carry it out, and in particular there's a heightened role of technology within it. Only this time it's technology that we're pulling from the commercial sector rather than the reverse, and so it's private companies that specialize in this area.

And then the final was an economic shift. Essentially it's a shift in ideology about the way we go about business in public affairs, and it's called the privatization revolution. And it's basically this growing belief among a number of key thinkers, particularly within government, that if private industry can do it, then you should turn it over to them. The question that raises, though, is that sometimes it isn't always better to turn it over just because private industry can do something, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

GROSS: Can you give us an overview of how private military firms have figured in so far to the war in Iraq?

Mr. SINGER: They've been all over the place in the war on Iraq. Actually, what's interesting is The Economist magazine actually called the Iraq war the, quote, "first privatized war." Private military firms handled everything from feeding and housing the US troops, building our bases in the region to maintaining some of our most-sophisticated weapons systems, everything from the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-117 stealth fighter. They ran the computer systems on a number of Navy ships. For example, I had spoke to a reporter who was embedded, and he was actually surprised when he got on board a US Navy guided-missile destroyer and he found that there were 20 different contractors from four different companies on board this ship with him running the computer systems, running the air defense systems of this ship. They also helped operate a number of weapons systems. For example, the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, which was this robotic plane that collects intelligence and does targeting for us; that was not just the maintenance of it, but the operation of it was privatized.

At the end of the day the ratio between private military contractors, and US soldiers was one contractor for every 10 US soldiers, which is actually a tenfold increase since the '91 Gulf War. In the '91 Gulf War the ratio was 1:100. Now we've gotten to 1:10. And it's actually probably going to grow during the period of the occupation of post-Saddam Iraq. Some of the areas that private contractors are taking isn't just the reconstruction roles that we've heard about, but also, for example, building up the new police force. The Dyncorp company, which is based in Virginia, just got that contract. It's a rather controversial company--to training and building the new post-Saddam Iraqi army. The Vinnell company just got that contract. And some people may have heard of that name because it was targeted recently in Saudi Arabia in May, 2003. One of its corporate sites was bombed by al-Qaeda. So, again, these companies, you often hear about them just behind the headlines, and that's the case also in the war in Iraq.

GROSS: It's not just the United States that is hiring these private military firms within the Middle East. There are other countries--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, maybe other countries beyond those--that are hiring private military firms. What are some of the other countries doing, and who are they hiring?

Mr. SINGER: That's actually one of the major concerns about this industry because what we're talking about is not a national industry in any way. It's a global industry. It's not based in any one country. And, in fact, if you try and shut down a company in one firm, it'll just move somewhere else. These companies operate in over 50 different countries, pretty much in every conflict zone in the world. Within the Middle East, for example, Saudi Arabia is a key user of this industry. The industry operates essentially as an enabler for its military. They do everything from train their military to advise it. The Vinnell company is one of the key ones there, Northrop Grumman, Boeing Services, BAE. But they also do things like run their air defense network as well as help train some of their internal security forces as well as do the maintenance work on pretty much all their air force jets.

But Saudi Arabia is no exception. These companies have operated in everywhere from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola. You go to Latin America, they're very present in Colombia and Peru. They're all over Central Asia right now. And one of the worries, again, is: Who do they work for? In some cases they work for the US government or our allies. The British government and Australian government are at the forefront of this privatization trend. But also, in some cases, for some people we'd rather not see get very good military capabilities, countries at war that we'd rather not see at war. Ethiopia and Eritrea were two countries that used these services against each other. Or non-governmental groups that we particularly would not like to see get this. Drug cartels in Colombia have hired these guys, actually used them to help carry out a bombing of a civilian airliner. And also some jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda actually used some of these firms for military training. So that's the problem of having an unregulated industry in this most important area of warfare.

GROSS: And it is totally unregulated?

Mr. SINGER: There is no regulation at the global level that directs its activities. The only thing that even applies closely in international law are the anti-mercenary laws. The problem, though, is that the anti-mercenary laws are so badly written they only apply to individuals, they only apply in certain situations. One of the jokes within the industry is if you were ever to be prosecuted under these anti-mercenary laws, not only would you deserve to be shot, but your lawyer should be standing beside you because he deserves to be shot, too.

When you go to the national level, it's the same kind of problems. Some countries don't have any regulations applied to them. Other countries have limited ones that apply. The US, for example, has some regulations that apply to US-based firms. They have to be headquartered in the US. And essentially, really, they mean if these services are given to clients other than the US government, they have to go through an approval process through the State Department and the Pentagon. That approval process is often unclear. Often the firms are able to lobby their way through it. Congress usually doesn't pay attention, and usually the companies get what they desire.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is P.W. Singer. His new book is called "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." He's a fellow at The Brookings Institute.

What's one of the examples of how a private military firm appears to have saved the day in a conflict?

Mr. SINGER: That's one of the true dilemmas about this industry, is that on one hand they're companies that are working in warfare solely for profit. They're not doing it because they're good guys; they're doing it because this is their job. And so in some cases, though, that often directs them towards good ends if the right forces come together. And the classic example of that is Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone. I have a chapter on this. And Executive Outcomes is a fascinating company. It was started up in South Africa. It was primarily ex-commandos from the apartheid army. These were guys that, once Nelson Mandela took power, essentially could not work for the South African defense forces anymore. So they had to leave because they'd been on the wrong side but went out and formed their own private company. And the result was that often they went to work for black African governments that in some cases they'd operated against while they were in the old South African government.

In Sierra Leone, the situation was that you had a government that was faced with probably one of the most evil rebel groups in the 20th century. It was called the RUF, and the RUF did everything from used a lot of child soldiers, committed massive atrocities. Its calling card was capturing civilians and then cutting off their hands. This was about as dastardly a group as you could ever find. And the government of Sierra Leone had a very ineffective military and couldn't beat this rebel group. And so they turned to this South African company, Executive Outcomes, to save the day, to help it out. And Executive Outcomes deployed very quickly, put hundreds of commandos on the ground within a matter of weeks. And where the Sierra Leone defense forces couldn't beat this rebel group, the private military firm went in there and cleaned their clock in a matter of days. And very soon after, Sierra Leone had enough stability that it actually had the first democratic elections that it had had in over a decade.

military firm had pulled out, the UN peacekeepers went in and, unlike the private military firm, they actually couldn't do anything about the rebels and the civil war started up again.

GROSS: What did the UN think of Sierra Leone's use of Executive Outcomes?

Mr. SINGER: Well, it actually frowned upon it because it felt that this was not the way to achieve long-term stability. And it probably was right that it wasn't the way towards long-term stability. But the government was caught in a hard place. There was also the concern about the funding structure, on how you paid for this firm. Again, this was not a firm that did it because they, you know, felt any kind of kinship towards Sierra Leone or they felt they were doing the right thing. They were doing it because they wanted to be paid.

Well, the government of Sierra Leone in the middle of a civil war did not have the monies to pay this firm directly out of its budget. So they struck a kind of unique deal where there was diamond mines that were in rebel-held territory. And so the government said, 'OK, we're going to privatize these diamond mines and turn them over to your corporate allies.' And so now that created an incentive structure for the firm to go out and beat the rebels. If it wanted to be paid, it had to go out and beat the rebels and seize those diamond mines. A lot of people weren't comfortable with the government turning over this national long-term funding source for a short-term issue like this, but a lot of other people said, 'You know what? We have to save lives at the end of the day.'

But it's a really interesting dilemma they're faced with and it also demonstrates how the incentive structures can be aligned for good, or sometimes they don't work out the way you plan. In the Sierra Leone case, yes, the private military firm went in there and cleaned the rebels' clocks, but it always focused on going towards the diamond mines first rather than the broader aims at all times. A lot of the formers members of the company itself actually said, 'You know what? It might have made more tactical sense for us sometimes to go towards objective A, but objective B was near the diamond mines, and if we wanted to get paid, we went there first.'

GROSS: So does Executive Outcomes actually control the diamond mines now?

Mr. SINGER: It doesn't anymore. Some corporate allies of it--there was, you know, investment links between them--does have possession of some of these diamond mines now. And a lot of people would say, 'You know what? It was a good deal.' Other people would disagree. It's where you fall along this.

Another great example of what might have been is actually this firm was willing to intervene during the Rwanda genocide. Where the UN was not willing to go in and where the US was not willing to go in, they were willing to put a force of around 1,500 commandos on the ground. And estimates of the number of lives they might have saved go up into the hundreds of thousands. But no one was willing to pay them and, so--You know what?--they didn't go in.

GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." He's a foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Let's look at the example in Bosnia. When the US was reluctant to send its own military into Bosnia, Brown & Root went in and did some work. What work were they asked to do?

Mr. SINGER: Brown & Root is a fascinating company, or rather it's a division within a company. A lot of people may be more familiar with its parent company, which is Halliburton, the vice president, Cheney, used to be the CEO of. In the early 1990s, Brown & Root, which is a division within Halliburton, got a very small contract; it was around $3 million. And it was to do the planning for the possible outsourcing of military logistics, the possible outsourcing of feeding and housing US military troops when they deployed into areas where the US didn't have bases. And in the early 1990s, no one thought it was going to be that big of a contract. But then, when the wars in Yugoslavia started and then the US military intervened in the mid-1990s, this contract turned out to be huge. It went from 3 million to being well $1 billion in revenue for the company.

The reason it turned out to be so large is that a political decision was made by actually the Clinton administration at the time. They realized that it wasn't all that popular to have US forces in the Balkans and that they didn't have all that much congressional approval for it, and if we wanted to have a large force on the ground there, we would have had to call up an extra 9,000 National Guardsmen to handle essentially the supply chain for this force. And so instead of doing that, they turned over the supply chain to Brown & Root, and so it meant that you didn't have to call up 9,000 National Guardsmen and reservists, which would have been politically unpopular. And so Brown & Root handled the logistics, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo when that war started up. And so it turned out to be a very lucrative contract.

The irony of it is that at the time Cheney's company was profiting a great deal from it, and this was in the same period that the oil industry wasn't doing very well. So this contract actually propped up the company.

GROSS: Let's look at that company Dyncorp, which, among other places, is involved in Iraq and Kuwait now. They were involved in Bosnia, and there was a scandal surrounding them when they were there. What was the scandal?

Mr. SINGER: Yeah, Dyncorp is a very controversial firm. It's actually based in northern Virginia, right near Dulles Airport, and it's a large government services company that handles everything from information technology to--certain divisions handle private military services. In the 1990s, it had a series of contracts in the Balkans. Some of them were to provide police to the international operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Separate contracts were to provide maintenance services to the US military there. One of them, for example, was that it did the repair work on US Army helicopters in the region.

In several of these contracts, Dyncorp employees got involved in some very nasty activities, particularly within the sex trade. This happened both in the Kosovo operation and in the Bosnia operation, so in two separate contracts in two separate countries. Some of the things that they were doing was not just, you know, participating in prostitution, but actually some of the employees owned, so to speak, young women. And their Bosnia site supervisor, so very high up the chain, actually videotaped himself raping two young women. They were also involved in the illegal arms trade. So it was a lot of bad activities going on there that certainly didn't represent the US government well, given that these guys were there being paid for by US government funding. Now...

GROSS: So what were the repercussions of that?

Mr. SINGER: Well, this is where things get worse, and not just the individual contact, but the potential conduct of the company itself. Two employees of Dyncorp, one in Kosovo and one in Bosnia, not working together, were troubled or actually disgusted by the activities of their fellow employees, and they made it public and they reported on it. They blew the whistle. Both of those employees were subsequently terminated by the company. And the personnel who were actually participating in the crimes were pulled out of the countries, and none of them have ever been criminally prosecuted.

The two employees who were the whistle-blowers then sued the firm for basically firing them for a bad reason. One of them won her case within England; it was run through an English subsidiary, so there was a case there. And then Dyncorp lost that case, and actually the tribunal that judged it found their argument for why they fired this woman to be completely unbelievable. In the second case, Dyncorp very quickly settled with this other employee who had blown the whistle and been fired. And so what's worrisome then is not just the conduct of the employees, but how the company responded to them.

And that's what a lot of human rights activists have been very troubled, not by just what went on in the Balkans, but by the fact that actually the company just got the very same contract to train up a new police force in Iraq. And it's unclear whether the structures that have been put in place have any way to respond to it again. At the end of the day, what you're talking about is an absence of law where the Dyncorp employees, because they're private-company employees, are not held accountable--and it's not just Dyncorp; it's any private military employees--are not held accountable under the local law because typically it's in a place where the local law isn't standing up--it's a failed state--and they're not held accountable under US law because it's extraterritorial--it's not taking place in the US--and they're not held accountable under US military law because these guys are not wearing the uniform. And yet, at the end of the day, to the locals, they are representing the US government, even though they're not accountable to us.

GROSS: Coming up, the difference between private military firms and mercenaries. We continue our conversation with Peter Singer, author of "Corporate Warriors." And we meet writer and doctor John Murray; his new collection of short stories is based on his work analyzing epidemics of dysentery and cholera in Africa and Asia.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry." It's about private military firms, corporations that have taken over many of the functions usually supplied by armies, including combat operations, intelligence and maintenance. When we left off, we were talking about some of Singer's concerns about the privatized military industry.

Another one of your concerns about private military firms is that they can be used to circumvent certain restrictions on American military presence in other countries; for example, this appears to be happening in Colombia. How are private military firms being used in Colombia? And what are the restrictions on American military there?

Mr. SINGER: Well, one of the unique aspects of this industry is it now allows you to carry out public policy by private means. And what's going on in Colombia is you have at least seven different private military firms that are operating in the civil war there. In some cases, they're working for the US government, filling roles that US soldiers wouldn't be able to fill, working with Colombian military units active in the civil war as opposed to--US soldiers can only do counternarcotics work. In other cases, you have private military firms working for either the Colombian military directly or for multinational corporations there carrying out activities that US military wouldn't be able to.

And the concern is this is something that the Congress certainly hasn't approved, and something that the US public isn't in favor of. And the most recent example of how this can go awry is the shoot down--actually, the crash landing of the California Microwave Systems plane that now has three private military firms held captive by the Colombian FARC rebels.

GROSS: So the Congress has restricted American military troops to--What?--about 400 in Colombia?

Mr. SINGER: Yeah. We've put a cap--or rather, Congress has put a cap on the number of US soldiers than can go there and the kind of jobs that they can do. The aspect of the industry is that it moves faster than the government can often respond, so industry was then used to fill some of these areas outside of this cap. So then Congress wised up to it, and said, 'OK. We're going to restrict not just the number of US soldiers, but we're also going to restrict the number of American private contractors that can go in there.' I think the cap is around 600 right now. However, again, the companies can adjust and move faster. They're a business; they're very flexible. So one of the things that they have done is bring in non-US nationals to carry out these roles; so they're not American contractors, but they're carrying out the same jobs. Or you arrange for someone other than the US government to hire them; for example, a multinational corporation there. There's a number of oil companies that have used these private military firms for certain activities. And so the result is you get the same activities but without public policy approval for it.

And some people would say, 'You know what? That's a good thing. We need to get the job done down in Colombia.' And other people would say, 'You know what? If you can't get approval from the public for something, then maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. And look at all the times where things don't go the way that you plan them,' either this crash landing in Colombia or there was a case of where they mistakenly bombed a village. There's all sorts of things that haven't gone right.

GROSS: Well, who does the hiring? Who decides who are going to hire these private military firms to do the stuff that the American military can't do in Colombia?

Mr. SINGER: It's a very open structure, so you either have them working for the US military or for the State Department, for example. Dyncorp has a contract officially doing training of the Colombian Air Force and counternarcotics work, but a lot of people have suspicion that it's moved into counterguerrilla warfare given the types of planes that they use. They even have helicopter gunships, which, you know, isn't often used for crop dusting inside the US.

Then other times it's an open structure, multinational corporations who are working in cohesion with--the US government and the Colombian government say, 'OK. We'll pay for it. We'll do the hiring. But we'll provide these services over.' For example, Occidental Oil hired a company called AirScan, which does aerial intelligence gathering. That private military firm not only turns over its intelligence to the multinational corporation but passes it on to the Colombian military that doesn't have this sophisticated capability.

And then in other cases you'll have a gift of foreign aid to the Colombian government with the understanding that it will then use that foreign aid to hire an American private military firm. And an example of that was a private company called MPRI, which does military consulting. It was hired to help retrain and basically restructure the Colombian military. It filled the role that American military advisers would have filled in the past, but in this case it was a different way to pay for it.

GROSS: Are these private military firms doing a lot of lobbying now?

Mr. SINGER: Certainly, and it works in two ways; two types of lobbying. One's the traditional giving money to political parties. And for several of the companies the amounts go over a million dollars in political donations. But there's also another kind of lobbying that goes on that's a bit different. This industry falls into often sort of the revolving-door syndrome where it's primarily made up of retired governmental and retired military officers, often very senior officers. And so they can go in and meet with their former subordinates, people that used to work for them, and help provide suggestions and guidance on what they think policy should be, policy that, by the way, 'You might want to consider giving this firm a contract and I'm now part of it.'

And so that opens up another sort of type of lobbying that happens under the table. And it's a very influential one, because often we're talking about three- and four-star generals and admirals that can go in and lobby that people have a great deal of respect for these guys because they gave so much service to the US government, to the US people. The problem now is that they are employees of a private company that often has a different agenda in mind.

GROSS: How did you get interested in private military firms?

Mr. SINGER: I actually first came into contact with this when I was working on a research project linked with the United Nations in the mid-'90s looking at what was the military situation in Bosnia right at the end of the war. And the real question everybody was concerned about was: Could the war restart up again when you had US peacekeepers on the ground now?

The controversial aspect was that you had a private military company called MPRI that's based in Virginia that was actually training up one of the adversaries in this conflict. It was providing military training for the Bosnian Muslim side even though there was a cease-fire in place and you had US peacekeepers on the ground.

And so I went there and actually spoke with some of the guys within MPRI. They were very friendly. But what they were doing was something that really shouldn't exist within our understanding of the way the world works. You had a private company pretty much determining the balance of power in the region, and that's something that, the way we understand war, shouldn't happen, and yet here was this company, here they were doing this job. And so that was how I first got interested in it, and then it turned out very quickly this company was in no way unique, but actually there was a hundred-billion-dollar industry around it.

GROSS: My guest is P.W. Singer, author of the new book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."

What's the difference between a mercenary and somebody who works for a private military firm?

Mr. SINGER: That's one of those issues of debate in the industry. In my mind, there's a couple of key differences between the mercenary practice and this industry. The first is a mercenary is quintessentially individual and ad hoc. It only talks about one guy. The mercenary units have no kind of permanent structure. If they happen, they come together very loosely and then end whenever the payment ends. They only provide one type of service. They fight for you; they pull the trigger.

In the case of corporations, they're corporatized so they're not ad hoc; they're permanent structures. They work in more than one conflict at a time, they work in more than one place at a time, and they provide more than one service at a time. They're often providing very innocuous things like feeding troops or training people on how to use IT systems or they even handle--they run the ROTC programs in over 200 American universities.

Another difference is the fact that their private military firms are completely above the board. They're found to be legal, often you can buy stock in them, whereas mercenaries, obviously--they don't recruit that way. They do it sort of word of mouth and under the table, and you certainly can't go out and, you know, buy a share in a mercenary operation.

GROSS: Now you're describing the difference between mercenaries and private military firms. Are any of the private military companies actually hiring people who have worked as mercenaries in other wars?

Mr. SINGER: Yes. And that's one of the interesting aspects of this industry is that it's, in a sense, tapping the labor market that might have in the past been mercenaries or are still operating as mercenaries in other cases. Many of these companies have sort of a shell structure where they get a contract and then hire a number of employees to fill it. They don't have standing armies. They actually just have big databases of people that they can pull. So you do have cases of people who had been mercenaries during the past or might have carried out that job if it wasn't for this industry being out there today. And that means that, in some cases, they don't have the regard for human rights that often we would want them to happen, because you get a lot of unsavory characters, not just, you know, former apartheid guys, but, for example, there's a lot of people who used to be in the KGB that are now active in this industry.

GROSS: You know, I'm looking at the cover of your book and there's three men wearing camouflage uniforms with American flags sewn onto their shoulders, and they appear to be in the desert. They're looking through binoculars. And if you open up the credit for the photo, it says that this is a photograph of MPRI personnel conducting senior observer controller training in Kuwait. You'd think looking at this that it was American military because they look like they're wearing military uniforms. Is there any confusion where people assume that people hired from private firms are actually representing the American military?

Mr. SINGER: Oh, it definitely happens, and it's not just because of, you know, wearing the exact uniforms. Usually they just have the unit insignia taken off of it. In the case of the Gulf, you had private military personnel all over the place. And the scene that's on the cover is of MPRI employees who provided assistance in the war gaming and planning that was later utilized in the Iraq invasion. So they actually did their job rather well if you bank on the success that we had. But the concern is that people on the ground often can't distinguish between the two, and that can work to the disadvantage of the public if these employees don't carry out their jobs in the way the US public would want and they're seen as being US military guys.

But it actually can also work out to the disadvantage of these private military employees, because there's confusion over what their status is. For example, if they're captured by an opposition, it's up to the enemy to determine what kind of status that they have. And the enemy can say, 'OK. I grant that you're a POW and you get your Geneva Convention rights.' Or the enemy can say, 'You're a private citizen; you're a civilian working within the military sphere and you're being paid more than your soldier equivalents. You're a mercenary, and I'm going to hang you.' And so that status issue--right now it's up to the enemy to decide, and so it can work actually to the disadvantage of these private military employees. So it's actually very much in their interest for us to clarify all this.

An example of how it's playing out right now is actually in Colombia where you have three private military employees who are being held captive by the FARC guerrillas, and we've described them as hostages; the US government has described them as hostages. And the FARC guerrillas have said, 'You know what? These guys were collecting military intelligence on us. They're not hostages. We didn't go out and kidnap them.' And so the concern is what might happen to these guys who are still being held. Layer on to that the fact that you now have US military guys out there risking their lives to save these three guys who are held. So it's really complicated and concerning.

GROSS: It sounds like the private military industry has grown enormously in just the last few years. What are your concerns about that rapid growth?

Mr. SINGER: The most worrisome aspect of it is the fact that you have the industry booming. It's turned into an industry that has a hundred billion dollars in annual global revenue. It operates in over 50 countries. It determines the very outcome of wars themselves. The US government and US military soldiers are increasingly dependent on these guys for our success in war, for our very lives, and yet government has moved at its sort of usual slow bureaucratic crawl to respond to it.

And so we have this really fascinating and, in fact, worrisome instance where, you know, if I had written a book about this aspect, about private companies operating in the realm of warfare, if I had written this book a decade ago, it would have been a work of fiction. And actually when I first started out on it, I had a professor who said, you know, 'This should be a Hollywood screenplay. This isn't a good analysis.' And actually we now get to the point where it's not a work of fiction. We're not talking about a 'What if?'; we're talking a very fact, and that's, I think, not only fascinating about all the novel and interesting areas that these companies are involved in, but it's a bit worrisome when you realize that it's unregulated and we really haven't caught up to this industry yet.

GROSS: When you add things up at the end of the day, do you think that we live in a safer world as a result of private military companies?

Mr. SINGER: Wow, that's a really tough question. I almost think it's pretty much the same. In some cases, the positives--there's a great number of positives--we get better-quality services in some cases, intervention in areas where people are afraid to go into, but on the other hand it allows us to intervene into places that maybe we shouldn't be or carry out activities that maybe shouldn't be happening. So I think it's sort of a wash.

You know, there's really no industry that you could describe as being quintessentially good or quintessentially evil. It's really behavior within industry that determines things. And so just like you have, you know, good corporate citizens like a Ben & Jerry's, you have the opposites, like an Enron, and the same thing happens within the private military industry, only the stakes are a lot higher.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SINGER: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of "Corporate Warriors." He's a foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution.

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