The newest Call of Duty game, released this week, has ventured into the future of warfare in more ways than one. Not only does Advanced Warfare take place forty years from now and include numerous futuristic weapons, but its primary antagonist (spoiler) is also a private military company, or PMC. In the real world, one could argue that there is a difference between Northrop-Grumman, which only makes military hardware, and G4S, which has thousands of deployable personnel in its employ and is one of the largest corporations on the planet, but that difference seems rather small when one considers their symbiotic relationship in today’s military-industrial complex.
For years, those concerned with corporate power and warfare in general have treated PMCs as nefarious organizations. The first PMC was founded by former Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers in the UK during the 1960s. Its primary founder, Sir David Stirling, was afraid that Britain was losing its influence in the world after WWII. Interestingly, Stirling had also founded the SAS in 1941, and then went on to create WatchGuard International in 1965. Years later, he would leave that company too and found another one, KAS International. These companies set the modern precedent for what supporters call “security contracting” and detractors call “mercenary work.”
The idea of a non-state actor fulfilling a security role by providing armed personnel is not new. The use of mercenary forces dates back thousands of years; the most famous modern period of their activity in the West was in Renaissance Italy, where almost every major actor employed condottieri (e.g. leaders of professional mercenary companies). If you didn’t have a condottiere in your employ, you were simply not a major actor.
During the 1800s, the appeal of mercenary armies largely dissipated. Either nationalism took hold in the traditional areas of mercenary activity, or said activity was so confined to one region that it was essentially negligible. Mercenary activity ran so far afoul of world opinion that in 1989, the UN passed a resolution called the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which 33 countries have signed.
The United States is not a signatory, nor is the UK, Australia, South Africa, or Russia. Needless to say, all these countries are home to significant PMCs. Since the end of the Cold War, when nations around the world began scaling back their massive military deployments, millions of soldiers and potential soldiers became available for employment in the private sector. The varying definitions of what constitutes a mercenary has meant that the PMC industry today is legal, global, and worth billions. The UN’s language was also far from airtight. Countries like Peru, for example, continue to house PMCs despite being signatories to the UN resolution.
When asked about PMCs, most Americans—if they even know what they are—would mention Blackwater (aka Xe, aka Academi), the firm responsible for some State Department security during the recent war in Iraq. Its most infamous moment came in 2007, when four contractors opened fire on civilians in Nisour Square, killing 17 people. Recently, after seven years of litigation, the contractors (who had pleaded not-guilty) were convicted on a combination of murder, manslaughter, and weapons charges. While this was seen as a great relief for the families of the victims and activists against PMCs, it is important to remember that the growth of the PMC industry has only accelerated since the incident.
The main antagonist in Advanced Warfare is Jonathan Irons (played by Kevin Spacey), the fictitious CEO of Atlas Corporation, a PMC with the largest standing army in the world and the first corporation to be given a seat on the UN Security Council. Irons uses the threat of global terrorism to increase Atlas’ size and influence, eventually taking over security and administration for several governments. Spacey, delivering Irons’ lines in a way reminiscent of a certain S.C. congressman turned president, emphasizes how necessary his actions are to the future of human affairs. Videogames have been very interested in powerful corporations in the past (Umbrella Corp, Abstergo Industries, etc.), and for good reason: corporations have played an outsize role in global affairs, both presently and historically.
The British East India Company once ran the subcontinent; the Dutch East India Company once governed Indonesia. It was not too long ago that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company treated part of Iran as its own state. Involving private companies in the bloody business of warfare is nothing new, and it will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, with many soldiers fighting for them and some dying in the process.
That does not mean that PMCs should be able to continue operating as they do now, in a largely unregulated and unaccountable fashion. When a country goes to war, the people are supposed to be able to hold their leaders to account; when a company goes to war, its account is what it cares about. Sir David Stirling was described by several people as mad. His commanding officer, Field Marshal Montgomery, once said, “In war there is a place for mad people.” If there is such a place, it better not be at a boardroom conference table.
Michael Alter is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government and Economics and minoring in History.