My go-to podcast of late has been Spycast, a media production of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Last weekend, I went out to Zimmerman Butte, our local shooting area to dial in a brand new Sig Sauer Red Dot sight on the AR-15. Followed this pleasurable activity with another — I sat in the truck and smoked a pipe while listening to a Spycast interview with Sean McFate.
McFate is a warrior scholar — a former paratrooper, former private military contractor, and current Big Brain.
His bio notes that:
McFate’s career began as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division. He served under Stan McChrystal and David Petraeus, and graduated from elite training programs, such as Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He was also a Jump Master. McFate then became a private military contractor. Among his many experiences, he dealt with warlords, raised armies for U.S. interest, rode with armed groups in the Sahara, conducted strategic reconnaissance for oil companies, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and helped prevent an impending genocide in the Rwanda region.
He’s written a couple of non-fiction works on modern warfare and a couple of thrillers that tap his personal experience in the dark and dangerous corners of the world. And…
He is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. Additionally, he is an Advisor to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs.
A guy worth listening to — and reading. I’ve ordered up his latest tome, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder and both of his thrillers.
Last week, McFate served up a Big Think segment titled: Billionaire Warlords: Why The Future Is Medieval.
It lays out his basic thesis that the rise of private military contracting has made high-grade military force available not just to nation states but to non-state actors including commercial companies, creating the potential for significant destabilization and reshuffling of the world order that has prevailed since World War II. McFate rightly notes that the modern nation-state’s monopoly on force is the exception rather than the rule across the broad sweep of history, and that we’re entering a “new” phase that in some ways will echo the past. Continuity & Persistence.
Given my own historical passions and proclivities, what McFate called to mind for me, more than the medieval period, was the rise of mighty private companies of the 18th and 19th Centuries that pushed the frontiers of western civilization out into the hinterlands where the flag would follow: The East India Company ruled India for a century, and had a bigger private army than the actual British Army; Hudson’s Bay Company dominated the Fur Trade in much of North America and competed — sometimes violently — with rivals; the British South Africa Company opened up Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), then used its paramilitary police force in an attempted military invasion to overthrow the South African Republic (Transvaal).
The companies all ran afoul of the power of the British state and were either shut down or so tightly reined in that they became mostly just another retail outlet (HBC). By the early 20th Century, the nation-state was absolutely in the saddle with spurs on, and brooked no rivals for the monopoly of force. It is fascinating to contemplate the possibility that the wheel has turned and the mighty Company with a private army is rolling back up to the top.*
The East India Company, an early joint stock company, graduated from trade to conquest and rule in India in the 18th Century. At the height of its glories, in 1803, it had an army of 260,000 men — twice the size of a regular British Army that was battling Napoleon’s Empire in Spain. It ruled most of the Indian subcontinent.
The scope, reach and sheer brute power of “John Company” boggles the mind — yet Exxon Mobile, Glencore Xtrata, BHP Billiton are no less mighty. And should these oil and mining giants require it, their access to firepower dwarfs that which John Company could muster.
The East India Company managed its financial affairs abysmally, and was repeatedly bailed out by the Crown. When the Crown was forced to bail the Company out from one of its periodic bouts of bankruptcy in 1773, it led directly to the Boston Tea Party. The Company’s demise came not from chronic financial failures, but from mismanagement of its army, which provoked the Indian Mutiny in 1857. After that, the British state stepped in and took over all of its military and governmental functions, forming the British Raj. The Company finally dissolved in 1874.
Interestingly, Erik Prince, founder of the most famous PMC Blackwater floated the idea that private enterprise modeled on the East India Company — complete with viceroy — should take control in Afghanistan. The idea met with outrage and a horse laugh from the military, but it is interesting to see the ghost of the long-dead leviathan invoked in 2019.
Cecil Rhodes was one of the richest men of the Victorian Age, and he deployed his massive wealth to build a private army with which he carved off a chunk of southern Africa that would bear his name as Rhodesia and then become Zimbabwe. He acquired his vast fortune through amalgamating diamond claims in Kimberley, South Africa, to create a monopoly that continues to dominate the trade to this day. He made a second fortune in the world’s richest gold field on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal.
In 1890, a cadre of Private Military Contractors moved into Mashonaland and in 1893, they took Matabeleland in a short, sharp war in which they mowed down the pride of the amaNdbele with Maxim guns.
In 1896, Rhodes’ administrator Leander Starr Jameson stripped Rhodesia of its paramilitary police force and rode south in an attempt to support/spark a rebellion in Johannesburg that would bring the South African Republic under the British flag. (It wouldn’t be the last time a private military force tried to stage a coup in an African nation). The episode was a disaster on multiple fronts. The Boer Commandos defending their Republic surrounded Jameson’s column, shot them up and forced them into a humiliating surrender. The coup attempt created an international incident and led to Rhodes’s fall from his governmental position in the Cape Colony. And the absence of the British South Africa Company Police gave the restless and angry amaNdbele an opening for a bloody rebellion, which would ultimately have to be put down with the aid of British troops.
And that’s why the “market for force” came to be the sole province of nation-states. The private companies were chartered by states (the other great imperial powers of the day had them, too) and when the companies got themselves into trouble financially or militarily, the states were obligated to bail them out.
If McFate is right and there is a paradigm shift underway, we may see powerful, unfathomably wealthy global companies that are decoupled from states, or perhaps attaching themselves to fragile or failed states and acting in their commercial interests with the backing of their own military force. They may not sweep up territory like the East India Company or the British South Africa Company did, but in the modern context they would not need to do so. And the “market for force” will be wide open…
* The East Indian Company and Hudson’s Bay Company are each assigned a villain’s role in a pair of TV dramas — Taboo on FX and Netflix’s Frontier.