Business of War

By Beelman, Maud S. | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

Business of War


Beelman, Maud S., Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Nations conduct war, train soldiers, offer support using corporate hired guns

The buzz-cut, spit-polished American civilians were not hard to spot in the war-torn Balkans of the mid-1990s, but they were curiously out of place. Men of a fighting age wore military fatigues or camouflage and jeans, or the baby blue berets of the United Nations. Besides, there was no official U.S. military presence in the war zone at the time.

And, yet, there they were - American military archetypes, without the uniforms. The employees of Military Professional Resources Inc., mostly former U.S. servicemen, had arrived in the region, under a U.S. government-approved contract, to school the Croatian army in Western military concepts. Whether they were schooling the Croatians - who were at war with their ethnic Serb brethren - in anything else remains a subject of debate, despite company denials. A year later, MPRI was off to Bosnia as part of Washington's effort to equip and train government forces there.

Meanwhile, half a world away, employees of another private military company, called Executive Outcomes, were fighting alongside Angolan government forces in their battle against UNITA rebels. The EO men - former soldiers of the South African Defense Force - later moved on to Sierra Leone to fight the rebel Revolutionary United Front and ultimately to force them to join peace talks with the government.

And in Papua New Guinea, another private military company was contracted by the government to suppress a rebellion in Bougainville and to re-open a lucrative copper mine.

For reporters who had covered the conflicts at the time and were now comparing notes through the network of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, this post-Cold War trend could not have been more obvious or more intriguing.

Military proxies

While mercenaries are perhaps the world's second-oldest profession, these new military companies were different. They were often large corporate entities with expertise, resources and high-level government contacts that could fulfill military functions without the kind of accountability most democracies demand of their soldiers. But what happens, we wondered, when governments downsize their militaries in a world that lacks superpower order but is wracked by newer, smaller conflicts? Where is the oversight, and what are the consequences, when nations conduct war or practice military diplomacy through proxies? And how many of these "private military companies" or PMCs, as they later came to be called, are operating worldwide and where?

ICIJ, the international arm of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, began trying to answer these questions. What followed was a multiyear effort that eventually involved 35 researchers, writers and editors in an investigation that spanned continents. The result, an 11-part series titled "Making a Killing: The Business of War," was published in October and November 2002 in The Public i, the Center's online report.

The nearly 80,000-word project turned out to be much larger than the one originally envisioned as an investigation into mercenary companies. That was a direct result of the collaboration of journalist-members of ICIJ, which was created by the center in 1997 to enable just this sort of cross-border investigation into issues that could not be probed adequately by reporters working within their own countries.

ICIJ members first discussed the proposed investigation at a general membership meeting in November 1999, hosted by the John S. Knight Fellowship program at Stanford University.

Phillip van Niekerk, an ICIJ member from South Africa who was editor of the Mail & Guardian and would later become the "Business of War" project manager, noted that the mercenary companies were just part of the story. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, mercenaries turned up as business partners to oil, diamond or mining concerns that operated in war zones.

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