Over at Mark Thoma’s, Bernard Yomtov asks a very good question:
Why should there be mercenaries at all, given the existence of a large
and well-trained Army? The mercenaries are former soldiers. Their
functions are military and could be carried out by regular soldiers.
The only reason I can see for using them is precisely to have people
doing military jobs who are outside the normal chain of command, and
not subject to normal laws, rules, and regulations governing the
conduct of soldiers. In other words, it is to have people who do not work for government in the way that they should.
Most private contractors today do not serve in the function of soldiers but rather they deliver, ensure, and guard supplies. This should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but often the private sector does a better job and without major legal problems.
Security guards, however, are often "mercenaries." A general or top Iraqi official for instance might be guarded by Blackwater employees. The critics have not shown that Blackwater employees misbehave at a higher rate than do U.S. soldiers, so the comparative case against Blackwater — as opposed to the more general case against the war — is mostly shrill rhetoric. It is possible to pay Blackwater employees bonuses for good performance rather than just give medals, plus they are on a higher pay scale in the first place. Nonetheless my judgment call is that issues of perception and accountability are important enough in contemporary Iraq that we should be using contractors less in these capacities (as the column indicated), but the temptation to use them is based on more than just sheer political abuse.
Contractors lower the cost of good operations, contractors lower the operational (but not social) cost of bad operations, contractors magnify the costs of mistaken Executive preferences, and contractors can raise new problems of monitoring. If you don’t think the first item on this list is at work, there is good reason to cut back on contractors in Iraq.
But if you view the scope and use of contractors as a more general decision, rather than something which can be fine-tuned for each war, it is no longer such a simple choice.