Private Sector, Public Wars: Contractors in Combat – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Future Conflict
by James Carafano
(Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International, 2008), 252p.

Reviewed by Mark Silinsky, Ph.D. Candidate in International Development at Tulane University.

An increasing reliance upon private contracting for support in the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has drawn considerable attention in the post-9/11 world. While much of the contemporary analysis brings a critical eye to scandals surrounding misdeeds committed by military contractors, it adds little to debate over whether the U.S. policy is a proper approach to aiding the stressed military efforts to rebuild and keep the peace in these war-torn countries. Those seeking to plug the gaps missing from this body of work will benefit greatly from reading James Carafano’s Private Sector, Public Wars: Contractors in Combat – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Future Conflict, which goes well beyond the current headlines and approaches the subject from historical, economic and philosophical perspectives.

Carafano, a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation, begins Private Sector, Public Wars with the musings of Machiavelli, one of the early deep thinkers on the relationship of mercenaries to the state. From here, he takes the reader through the private armies of Henry VIII, to mid-17th Century’s English Civil War to the American Civil War and beyond. Skillfully, the author weaves in historical anecdotes to illustrate how complaints about contractors are nothing new in the United States, including how criticism of the government’s employment of detective Alan Pinkerton led a wary Congress to prohibit the government from hiring private police forces to smash strikes. Carafano examines how political theater surrounding inquiries into the actions of military contractors has been taking place for years, citing the Congressional investigations into “merchants of death” during the Great War and then-Senator Harry Truman’s aggressive scrutiny of war profiteers during World War II as examples.

Along with documenting the history of private contracting in the US military, the economics of policy decisions weigh heavily in this book. Carafano supplies many examples of how free enterprise and an entrepreneurial spirit not only benefit contracting firms, but also enable governments to successfully meet their security needs while lowering costs through competitive bidding. He also challenges the prevailing myth that security contractors are paid salaries many times that of active-duty US soldiers. Certainly, some risk-taking contractors have become wealthy, but for the majority, their wages are on an equal scale to those of active-duty military personnel.

Much of Private Sector, Public Wars is devoted to debunking the tabloid style analysis of headline-grabbing stories about military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the chapter entitled “Why We Hate,” Carafano confronts and disassembles the hyperbole surrounding the debate at the source. For example, in reviewing Peter Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatization of Military Industry, Carafano explores Singer’s footnotes and sources and finds that the author presents second-hand sources and rumors as fact. Carafano finds similar flaws in other books, whose titles reveal their political agenda—Bloody Business and License to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror for example—as well as taking to task the directors of conspiracy-oriented pop documentaries such as Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers and the award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11.

A critique should be made about the quality of writing in Private Sector, Public Wars which can at times feel a bit disjointed. It is not clear why Carafano includes philosophical debates about realist and liberal schools of international relations in such detail, nor why he weighs into Huntington’s clash of civilizations debate and to Fukayama’s end of history speculations. These forays into political theory add little to the book.

This critique aside, Private Sector, Public Wars provides a long-neglected “other side” to the military contracting debate—one well worth understanding for scholars and anyone following current affairs.