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Wednesday, June 23, 2004


A mercenary by any other name still is one

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

"The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug."

Mark Twain


Words, as we all know, can obscure as well as reveal. Using the just right word to describe a person, a situation, an action or an attitude makes all the difference in understanding and responding appropriately. The right word is the preferred medium of what a Buddhist would term "right thought." The nearly right word is the preferred medium of the nearly right.

For instance, the word "mercenary" is conspicuously absent from the daily news reports from Iraq; but the mercenary is a major (and expensive) player in the daily events of the American occupation of Iraq. When was the last time you read or heard about mercenaries in Iraq? We read and hear daily about "private contractors," "private security firms," "civilian workers," "civilian contractors" and other nearly right descriptions of the large number of private civilians in Iraq who are, not to put too fine a point on it, hired guns. They are not soldiers, but, rather, soldiers of fortune. The just right word for soldier of fortune is mercenary. Ethically, the difference between a soldier and a soldier of fortune is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.

The Oxford dictionary of English defines mercenary as: adjective (of a person or their behavior) primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics. "She’s nothing but a mercenary little gold-digger." Noun: a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army; a person primarily concerned with material reward at the expense of ethics.

The operative phrase is "at the expense of ethics."

A soldier in the U.S. military, beginning with the Commander-in-Chief at the top and descending down to the first day recruit in training camp, is, or at least is supposed to be, bound by ethical rules of conduct, responsibility, accountability and, even, legal constraints. That such controls are not always operative in the U.S. military, from privates to the president, is abundantly clear; but a soldier serves his country and his countrymen, however well or poorly he performs, while a soldier of fortune serves him (or her) self and the corporation issuing the paycheck. The soldier is guided by the ethics of patriotism; the soldier of fortune is guided by the ethics of the hireling. The difference is profound and worth far more thought, reportage and discussion than it is getting, if for no other reason than both soldier and mercenary are doing what they do (another thing to think about) in your name, with your money and the money of your children and grandchildren.

There are an increasing number of American companies that hire, train and rent out mercenaries to corporations and individuals who can afford them and which, for whatever reasons, have use for a small, well-equipped, well-trained private army to further their business goals. These companies and their guns for hire are a huge presence in Iraq. They are almost but not quite invisible to the American public, even though the American public is paying for them, in many cases to the tune of $1000 to $1500 a day per mercenary. This is not a bad wage, despite the brutality and risk of the work, though it certainly isn’t any riskier, atrocious than what American soldiers do every day for far less money and with, one hopes, far more accountability.

The four American civilians who were killed and whose bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets of Fallujah earlier this year were employees of Blackwater Security Consulting. Their job was to provide security to the food provider of the U.S. military in Iraq. Halliburton is the main food provider to U.S. troops in Iraq, and, like other American companies operating in wartime Iraq, they use mercenaries, and, thereby, the ethics of mercenaries. Like the mercenaries it employs, Halliburton itself deserves more thought, reportage and discussion than it is getting.

The mercenary practices an ancient trade. Hired guns, whether in the service of the mob, drug czars, small countries, large corporations or any other entity likely to encounter violence as a part of doing business, are, unfortunately, a corrupt reality of the hidden underbelly of the human condition.

The question is: Do we the people, the citizenry of the United States, want to be paying companies like Halliburton, via firms like Blackwater Security Consulting, to employ mercenaries with their mercenary ethics to be hired guns in our name?

Yes or no. What’s the right word?


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