Friday, September 01, 2006

Blood Money

This post isn't about any of the things I said I'd write about before the end of August. Those are going to start popping up sometime in this glorious month that is September. They're sitting half-finished in my Blogger dashboard. Please forgive me; I'm a new bunny-mama, I'm looking to add a new/different roommate to my household, and I'm looking for further and/or (preferably) new employment. But I like to write things too.

Anyway, the post is about this article. Or it starts that way, and then goes off on its own direction.

I learned a great deal about South African warfare in all its terrifying forms when I was in South Africa, and when I read Philip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda and Dan Bergner's In the Land of Magic Soldiers, both of which I recommend highly, I read about the role of South African mercenaries in both keeping order and creating chaos in already war-torn nations. But somehow, because I'm clearly more of an orientalist than I knew I still was and thought somehow that such practices were kept to war-torn African nations, it didn't occur to me that South African mercenaries would be contracted for American conflicts, or that such thorough mercenary armies existed in the United States. Gives a new meaning to "offshore corporations."

When I think about it, I know paid assassins and mercenaries have been around for centuries. Goods for services, using your skills to earn your living. Some people are good at killing. And it is a skill: think first of the volumes of unsolved, or even unacknowledged, murders littering the country, think of how many heinous acts serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jr., manage before their capture. That they're captured does nothing to change this. Think even of Grosse Pointe Blank, of the precise, skill-based practices in which John Cusack's character engages. But mercenaries are different, in that they're not simply part of a conflict, they're superimposed over warfare. Warfare that is (almost) always supposed to be political/ethical/ideological, and is (almost) always financial, at least in its larger goals, but is nevertheless between/among political actors, is compounded by, for lack of a better phrase, the private sector.

What happens, then, to war crimes? I admit I don't know much about this or how it might work, but what if a private security company, rather than the United States Military, were running Guantanamo? Would we have anywhere to look for accountability, even less than the ridiculously narrow alleys we're offered right now? The way we approach war crimes is limited right now, of course, and with money and connections to America you can buy your way out of pretty much anything, at least until America changes its mind. But still, the idea of the mercenary armies forming in America, acquiring their guns in Texas and training in the Phillippines are enough to set me on edge. Eventually, they have to go to the highest bidder, and I shudder to think of who the highest bidders are.

There are levels on which guerrillas, even terrorism, are a relief, on the simple level that something's not about money. An ideological relief, anyway; certainly the possible presence of suicide bombers, or anyone running around with an easily made, cheap, hobbyist pipe bomb, is not reassuring in terms of the security of one's own life. But nor are the hair-trigger nuclear weapons everybody with nuclear ability has got aimed at one another, really. Is one more threatening than another? Certainly the nuclear weapons have much more destructive ability, but that makes them that much less likely to be used.

All of this is leading me, weirdly, into Harry Potter, in particular the creation of Horcruxes and the general discussions of death in Books 5 and 6. Horace Slughorn explains that one's soul is split (the necessary precondition for creating a Horcrux) "by committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart." Albus Dumbledore emphasizes that "killing is not nearly so easy as the innocent believe," which both makes me hope that in Book 7 we'll find out who he killed and makes me curious about the way the serial is hell-bent on Voldemort's annihilation at Harry's hands. Harry's righteous killing is obviously different from Voldemort, hell-bent himself on the simple prospect of destruction, greedy with power, cheating death. From Harry Potter, we're to understand Rowling's clear distinction between killing and murder, the path of the realist righteous as opposed to those with their heads in the sand or those bent on fulfilling unrealistic fantasies driven by greed. Death Eaters are, then, mercenaries, particularly those Death Eaters who defected when Voldemort fell from power. They go to the highest bidder.

And then for another perspective on mercenaries, we have our beloved A.E. Housman. (You get *two* Friday poems today! And how privileged you are!)

A.E. Housman
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Therein lies the contradiction. The South African mercenary that Bergner follows through Sierra Leone in In the Land of Magic Soldiers *is* consistently putting himself at risk of life and limb, *is* bound to his work and the people he is, in his own way, protecting. Citizens of Sierra Leone, and Bergner writing about him, have some respect for his work and believe he is, or could be, part of progress. I don't doubt that heroic deeds have been performed by mercenaries of any and every nationality in any and every war. But the sum of things remains "for pay," not for any other end.

The real problem with privatization, from school vouchers to paid assassins, is that there's no useful way of predicting who will be the highest bidder. Ethics, ideals, logic, while not fixed per se, allow room for argument, negotiation, compromise, and comprehensible rebellion. Money, the highest bidder, mercenary callings, leave us dealing in absolutes. And while war must in some ways be an engagement of absolutes—countless war novelists have emphasized the bottom line, that either you die or you don't—the use of absolutes for the sake of encouraging absolutes causes still more pain.


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