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"I wanted to think deeply about what I had seen and done in the public and private military sectors. I came to LSE specifically to study with Christopher Coker, who is well known in the study of war.”

Sean McFate (PhD International Relations 2012) is a professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His new book The Modern Mercenary exposes the world of private military contractors and explores the impact on international relations.

What did you find most challenging in writing The Modern Mercenary?

The Modern Mercenary is based on my doctoral work in the IR department at LSE. My biggest challenge was transforming it from a stolid thesis into a book that a non-expert would find compelling. Basically I had to rewrite it, stripping it of much theory, literature review, discussion of research design, and so forth. As any PhD student will tell you, the last thing anyone wants to do after finishing his or her thesis is continue to work on the thing.

Why is knowledge of the modern private military industry still often sketchy?

In some ways the private military industry is more secretive than the military or intelligence community. In the US, for example, Congress has oversight hearings on the Department of Defense and CIA. Journalists and researchers can also use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a US law that allows them to ask hard questions of the federal government. The government may not always give a satisfactory answer, but at least it must answer on the record.  

No such tools exist for the private military industry. In fact, it’s the opposite. These companies claim their information is protected as proprietary knowledge, denying access to data. Worse, they have a very expansive definition of “proprietary knowledge”: anything in writing, any picture taken… just about any category of information. Also, the companies make their employees sign very broad non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from talking to journalists and researchers. The private military industry is highly opaque.

My purpose with the book was to pack some salience around an issue much written about but little understood. I had the advantage of being a former industry insider who was no longer beholden to its interests. Only an industry insider can reveal what’s going on, and what it could mean for international relations.

Can private military companies operating in the field be a genuine force for peace and a profit-making entity simultaneously?

Yes. Under the right market circumstances, it is possible to reap the benefits and mitigate the risks.  

For example, private military companies could augment ever-thinning UN peacekeeping missions or serve as a rapid reaction force to stop genocides in the making, since national armies tend to move more slowly than the private sector. Private military companies are already protecting NGOs and oil companies where governments are unable or unwilling to protect people and property. This could help in humanitarian relief programmes and facilitate new markets. The industry can also help control pirates – it helped reduce piracy off the coast of Somalia – and small, private navies are now conducting counter-piracy in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. There are many constructive applications for this industry.

Despite this, questions remain about controlling the industry. There’s lots of historical evidence from the Middle Ages, when contract warfare was common, to show that unemployed or unsupervised mercenaries become bandits, engage in racketeering, take over fragile states, and even start wars or elongate them for profit. An industry invested in conflict portends more war.

The best chance we have at ensuring the safe use of this industry is to shape the marketplace to reward best practices and punish worst ones.  The UN may have the market power to do this but would have to create a fairly rigorous licensing and registration scheme that vetted companies, mandated training and proficiencies, dictated rules of engagement and human rights norms, conducted audits, etc.  Imperfect as this is, I believe it is more effective than passing sweeping regulations that will only drive these companies offshore, beyond the reach of law enforcement.  

You came to LSE after a successful military career. What motivated you to take time out to pursue your academic interests?

I wanted to think deeply about what I had seen and done in the public and private military sectors. I started my studies at Harvard University but came to LSE specifically to study with Christopher Coker, who is well known in the study of war. I read his work in the 1990s, when I was an officer and paratrooper in the US Army. His writings on warrior ethos had special meaning for me as I transitioned from being a national soldier to a military contractor in Africa. My pals in the 82nd Airborne Division lamented that I had “gone to the dark side” and “went mercenary.” One graduate student at Harvard accused me of being “morally promiscuous.”

In addition to Coker’s scholarship, I appreciated the UK’s multidisciplinary approach to the topic. American political science is highly quantitative, and while that is a powerful tool, it is not the only instrument of analysis. Consequently, American social science misses a lot when analysing phenomenon like the private military industry because there are no good data sets to crunch. The UK system - and especially LSE - promotes a multidisciplinary approach, and I doubt I could have produced this research anywhere else but at LSE.

Did you learn anything in particular at LSE that stands out today?

I learned much at LSE from the faculty, my peers and just being in the middle of London. It’s the most international university I’ve been to, and the student body is its own education. It is very easy for Americans who study international affairs to become US-centric in their analysis, especially in Washington DC where I now live. LSE is great as it breaks that mould yet is not so radically disparate to cause cognitive dissonance. LSE was a wonderful intellectual space to digest other perspectives from students, faculty and the environment. It’s in the ether, and I miss it.

What is your abiding memory of life on Houghton Street?

Much of my best IR discussions happened at the George IV pub, pint in hand, with grad students and faculty. IR theory always made more sense to me in a pub, probably because that’s where much of it was conceived. The first time I wandered on campus I stopped in front of the Old Building and asked for directions to LSE, thinking I had mistakenly wandered down a back alley. I was surprised to learn I was standing in the middle of the campus. I later learned to enjoy LSE’s urban centrality, especially as I’m an opera zealot and made full use of student rush tickets at the Royal Opera House, one of the finest opera ensembles in the world. Also, the IR department stows away its PhD students on the top floor of Clement House, sort of like an academic pigeon coop. Instead of diligently working on our theses, hours were fretted away on the most interesting yet seemingly irrelevant IR conversations. I miss those conversations.