"Civilian Contractors 2: World in Flames" just isn't as catchy
August 19, 2010 10:54 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between a civilian contractor and a mercenary?

Reading this mefi post I was reminded of an old question I've had lurking in the back of my head since around '04: What's the difference between a civilian contractor and a mercenary? Is there some practical or functional difference? Is it a linguistic formality, ie "balistically-induced aperture" instead of "bullet hole"? The wiki article seems to imply the latter, as there are multiple definitions of what constitutes a mercenary.

Also, did we use as many civilian contractors in the past? It seems like every mention of Iraq/Afghanistan includes some reference of the contractors we're employing.
posted by Ndwright to Law & Government (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know it's basically semantics. However, I think mercenaries were historically usually not citizens of the country they fought for, while our "civilian contractors" are US citizens.

In the past we used the Draft instead, as far as I know.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:56 AM on August 19, 2010

Which is to say, mercenary has a very negative connotation- someone who fights solely for money, without any loyalty to any country or flag. Whereas with the contractors, you could argue (if you believed what the US does overseas is just) that they are serving their country, even though they are not officially enlisted in the Armed Forces.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:59 AM on August 19, 2010

A 'mercenary' by definition, cannot be a citizen of any of the parties to the conflict he or she is fighting in. So a US citizen, working for the state department to train the Iraqi police is not a mercenary.
posted by IanMorr at 11:01 AM on August 19, 2010

Civilian contractor also includes civilians providing telecom services, logistics, etc., not just the guys with guns. (Although the guys I know who went to provide telecom services in Baghdad were handed body armor and MP-5s when they got off the plane)
posted by mkb at 11:02 AM on August 19, 2010

Mercenaries are generally understood to be professional soldiers who fight wars for you. Iraq, meanwhile, is not considered to be in a state of "armed conflict".

"Civilian contractor" is also a more encompassing term. Engineers, laborers, etc., who are not employed by the government but who work there on government-funded projects fall under this umbrella.

Put more simply, mercenaries don't build roads and schools.
posted by mkultra at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2010

I came to say what mkb did. It's a pretty recent phenomenon to contract out things that have historically been done by the services. Private contractors are feeding troops, something that was traditionally done by the services. It frees up troops to other stuff.
posted by fixedgear at 11:06 AM on August 19, 2010

There isn't really a useful legal distinction. In current U.S. government usage, civilian contractors are not supposed to be used for offensive military operations. That is, "protect this convoy from attack, using however much violence you see fit," can be done by contractors, while "kick down this door and arrest this guy if he's in there" can't. This line does get crossed every now and then, but it's usually the intelligence community that does it more than the military.

Mercenaries, on the other hand, do anything they're paid to do.

Also, there are a lot of civilian contractors who don't carry guns. They're filling spaces that used to be filled by military people, such as cooks, laundry staff and mechanics. Whether it's cheaper or not is a subject of intense debate, but bear in mind that:
A) Most of these non-armed contractors (and quite a few of the armed ones) are what's known as Third-Country Nationals, which is to say Filipinos or Ugandans, who work for $30 a day; or even Local Nationals (Iraqis or Afghans), who may work for $20.
B) When you induct a soldier (or sailor or airman or Marine), you are essentially promising, in addition to his salary, to train him (which means it will probably be about a year to go from enlistment to being in-theater), to pay for his housing and that of his family for the next twenty years, to pay for his health care and that of his family for the rest of his life, and many, many other miscellaneous costs. When you hire a contractor and are done with him, you don't pay another penny ever.

Did we use as many in the past? Not even close. But we used a lot more people in uniform.
posted by Etrigan at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Slightly off-topic but if you're interested in a good book about current "mercenaries" I'm reading Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army which not only delves into the Iraq war but outlines how Blackwater went from being civilian contractors who trained law enforcement officials within the USA to an army unto themselves. They are the most prominent mercenaries I can think of, but the book also presents some examples of other historical/current mercenary groups. It's pretty fascinating.
posted by hepta at 11:53 AM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

For some further perspective on the subject, I recommend the documentary Shadow Company.

I also like this blog post titled Legionaries, auxiliaries, and mercenaries on how the American military (particularly the Army) has changed and is following the same pattern of change the Roman Legions went through.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:09 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The roles private contractors are allowed to perform are different than the actual military. Although some would claim, I'm sure, that the differences are trivial or merely semantic, the Blackwater-type contractors act as security guards and sometimes as police. Military personnel also perform (or in the case of Iraq, performed) these functions, but there are other more active roles (going out on patrols, hunting down some interesting person) that the civilian contractors generally don't do. Or aren't supposed to do, anyway.

AFAIK, the civilian contractors also don't have heavy weapons; they have small arms but they can't call in their own artillery or close air support. That changes their capabilities a lot. Less in the way of organic weapons as well. They seem to be at most more like private SWAT teams than private infantry units.

Also, there's a different attitude; the people I've known who have gone over and worked as contractors in roles like that (and the majority of 'civilian contractors' aren't -- they're working in logistics or transportation or any of a hundred other things; there are a comparatively small number of armed contractors) know that their company isn't the military and isn't going to come and get them if they get in a real bind. So I suspect that there is a different level of risk-taking.

Whether or not the term "mercenary" is appropriate is a separate issue; I think that has more to do with your opinions on the privatization of the military or the wars in general than any formal definition of what constitutes a 'mercenary'. I've seen people really bristle at the term not because they think it's factually untrue but because it's politically loaded.

Also, and this is perhaps just perception on my part, but there seems to be fewer armed contractors working for the actual DoD than for other departments like State.

As to the whole "is this a new thing" question, it's arguably new to the United States (although we did use privateers, prior to having a full-time Navy), but there's a long historical tradition. More interesting are the large number of civilians filling support slots, like cooks and laundry and everything else. There, I think you could argue that it's a case of mean reversion; prior to the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon for uniformed personnel to be outnumbered by the civilian 'camp followers' who provided many of the same support services provided by modern contractors. What we're seeing now appears to be an unwinding of what was perhaps an historical aberration.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:24 PM on August 19, 2010

The CIA also has lots of contractor/mercenaries who may or may not perform assassinations. We do know for a fact that CIA contractors were involved in interrogation/torture of prisoners in both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
posted by JackFlash at 1:45 PM on August 19, 2010

I deal with civilian contractors every day, mostly those who work in logistics. Mercenaries are, at the basic level, civilian contractors. The distinction that would get the broadest agreement is that mercenaries engage in combat operations making them a square among the various rectangles representing other kinds of contractors. The security contractors who are alleged to have gone rogue and joined in/initiated the attack may have crossed the line, though as unauthorized combatants, I'm not sure how you'd categorize them.

(Although the guys I know who went to provide telecom services in Baghdad were handed body armor and MP-5s when they got off the plane)

Sounds like a tall tale. I'm not sure if it was about working telecom or being issued MP-5s, but the odds of both parts being true are just about zero. Almost everyone who has been deployed has had his or her picture taken looking badass with someone else's gun. Soviet weapons are also available for next to nothing at the bazaars and markets around the bases. These get bought, photographed in rambo poses, and then dropped in amnesty boxes after a discrete warning from someone who is actually trained and authorized to carry a weapon.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 5:39 PM on August 19, 2010

I started marking best answers but then I realized I was marking nearly every post.

Great responses, guys!
posted by Ndwright at 8:56 PM on August 19, 2010

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