Singer – Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry

This week, we consider Peter Singer’s keystone piece in the study of private military contractors (PMCs). It is important to distinguish them from mercenaries, who are usually individuals employed to fight, whereas a PMC usually has a corporate business structure and are employed to provide a whole host of military-related services, from intelligence gathering and analysis, combat support, and providing security.

Although this is the first post in a series of comments to pieces on the theme of ‘Industry and Security’, this will be the final post of 2017. We are taking a break over Christmas, and will be back posting in January. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and contributing to posts, and we look forward to more fascinating discussion in the new year.

On to what we think of the article…


This excellent article explores some of the many issues surrounding ‘privatized military firms’ (PMFs) operating within warzones across the globe. According to the author, these PMFs represent the ‘new business form of war’ in which market forces play an increasingly important role in the global military, and political landscape. Indeed, it could be argued they change the landscape completely, for with the rise of PMFs so State accountability takes a back-seat, and war loses any remaining ideological  motivation it may have previously had.

One particularly interesting question for me, is the recruitment and retention of soldiers / operators / employees (call them what you will!) within these PMFs. While the author raises the question of responsibility and the problematic of balancing ‘getting things done’ with having a good human rights record, there is also then the issue of responsibility when it comes to the actual training of these troops in the first place.

Here in the UK, the National Health Service pays to train doctors and nurses, and yet once they have been trained, these same doctors and nurses are effectively free to go and work wherever they so choose. This same problematic would seem to arise with the modern-day PMFs. If an militarily advanced Western State invests hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in training high quality soldiers, what happens when these same soldiers decide to work for a PMF? What can States do to stop these same expensive soldiers one day coming back and fighting for the ‘enemy’ further down the line? Where does responsibility for these soldiers begin and end? And how on Earth can you hope to hold a PMF, and its ‘employees’ to account?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article is a little bit older, so the question is of course what relevance it still has for the present-day situation.  The article came at a time where much of the debate on global conflicts centered on warlords and civil wars in the Global South, while current analysis of warfare has a very different focus. However, it is one of the earliest articles describing the role of private military companies in security practices, and as such has been very important for that field. For people interested in more articles on this subject, I would recommend the work of Anna Leander.

I appreciate how the author points out the larger historical trends towards privatisation of government services, the transformation of type of conflicts, and the effects of the end of Cold War on military systems. It creates a clear picture on how private military industry has developed. I think a larger discussion on the influence of globalisation would have also fit well into this picture, as well as an analysis of the changing structure of the international arms trade in the 1990s. Considering it is written in 2002 however, it is remarkable how many of the implications and problems mentioned – such as a lack of oversight, imperialism by invitation or human rights violations – have also occurred during the US invasion of Iraq, which saw a high amount of private military contractors too.

I find the concept of Private Military Industry as used by the author very slippery however. Singer purposefully talks about “industry” instead of corporations to include actors offering other types of military services, as well as the overall industry instead of subsections.  But what falls under this exactly? When does something become corporate, only when it is registered as an official company? That is a very Western view on what falls under the private sector as it ignores the informal economy, and thus does not necessarily apply worldwide. Does this include all actors involved in war working for a profit? Smuggling is a huge component in many conflicts, and it often cannot be precisely determined whether resource extraction and sales are the cause of a conflict or just a means to finance conflict – when do profit-oriented motives of warlords turn them into private military actors? Defence companies have always played a large role in warfare, from supplying weapons to maintaining and sometimes operating them (as the author rightly points out), but then what are the new developments? Where does the military-entertainment complex fit in here? Of course, a lack of an airtight framework is one of the lacunas that Singer points out, but he does not really criticise the concept or define it more closely. If everything is private military industry, the concept is analytically meaningless.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


The idea of the corporate warrior fascinates me no end. It is a clear example of the state monopoly on violence crumbling, and the increasing capabilities which powerful individuals can have at their finger tips.

Most of the discussion about private military companies focusses on a corporate-industrial-military complex, however a couple of years ago there were discussions about the potential for their use for humanitarian reasons. During the lightening ISIS advance, a large group of the Yezidi group were trapped on Mount Sinjar. At the time, it was politically difficult for any state to deploy military forces for a humanitarian intervention. However, financially powerful individuals could have organised their own humanitarian intervention through the use of a PMC.

This would have been a unique moment. The fact that it is even possible shows that the state monopoly on violence is long gone. The ramifications of this could be that financially powerful individuals could use PMC power not just for their own security, but to realise their political ambitions as well. Potentially, this could result in a larger number of civil wars, rebellions, or even annexation and fiefdoms and created all using PMC power and purely because somebody with enough money and desire wanted it. What then will become of the international system when some big players do not play by the rules of traditional statehood? Or quasi-states are created purely as a toy for the rich and powerful?

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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