'Licensed To Kill'

Hired Guns in the War on Terror

by Robert Young Pelton

From Kevin Lynds

RYP's book on the modern history of PSC's offers what appears to be an honest look into the world of today's military contractor, or what some would call "mercenary". Much of the book covers the work of PSC's in Iraq today and gives an honest look into what the job entails. The daily hurry-up and wait game, the same routine day in and day out, with short bursts on intense violence and excitement and the ever-present knowledge that the enemy is everyewhere and can be everyone (or anything - IED's).

Mr. Pelton seems to gain a lot of access to not only the personalities of those running today's security companies, but those that ran and operated in past ones, such as Sandline and Executive Outcomes. Some of their (the owners and the operators) motivations are laid out in the open, some are percieved and some are questioned. For example, the US contractors that work in Iraq mostly seem to be family men, trained in the military, that have no other job experience or training and who "saw the light" in making military wages or go private and make upwards of $10k p/month. Now although their main motivation seems to be money and might classify them as a "mercenary force", you do not get the idea that they are for hire to the highest bidder. They are doing what they were trained to do, working for the goals of the US, just making more money. There are also those who seemto like the money and excitement of the job. RYP also covers the effects of the Blackwater contractors who were ambushed, mutilated, killed and hung from a bridge on the industry. He is able to give an objeective and honest look into both the worlds of private military companies, those that are working "above board" as security specialists and those who have taken of on more a mercenary role in world affairs.

His book raises many questions and issues, some raised by the contractors themselves. One being the genocide in Darfur. Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater says he can field a military force to go in and deal with the atrocities happening in Sudan, and that he can do it faster and for pennies on the dollar of what it would cost the mostly-inept UN to do it. Obviously many questions arise, but as we debate, innocent people are having their houses burned down, while being raped, mutilated and killed by the Janjaweed. What is our (the worlds) excuse to these people on why we seem to be sitting on our hands. As one contractor said, give them the word and it they would be "Janja-weed-Be-Gone".

The biggest question raised is one that is not answered in the book and one that only time will tell. As this private military complex becomes more popular with more companies popping up worldwide, at what cost will that have to our nation and military. Although Eric Prince says that his Blackwater firm will not take on any job that is not in accordance with the security of the US, what will happen as more and more trained professionals (both inside and outside of the us) that do not have his same patriotism are pulled out into the world market by the almighty dollar, no matter the side?


From Herb Hunter

I can't speak for the accuracy of other parts of this book, but I was working as a private contractor in Baghdad when the author was there gathering his info. I hate to say it, but he spent so much time in one small location talking to a limited group of people that his perspective was somewhat warped. At times his writing demonstrates an amateurish over-infatuation with GI-Joe cliches. The result, as one other reviewer aptly pointed out, is that the book sometimes reads like a half-baked article from Soldier of Fortune.

Many (but, I emphasize, not all) of the guys working at his location at that time had very questionable backgrounds and were definitely not the best and brightest of the bunch. A few were unqualified for any other job in country and wound up there, where the author was located, by default. What made the author's "research" more puzzling was the presence of a compound with about 300 more highly qualified PSD guys less than a mile away from where his head hit the pillow. I'm not sure what kept him from coming to talk to the rest of us, but I think it might have changed his perspective a bit had he taken the time to broaden his scope.


From MountainRunner "Matt Armstrong"

Licensed to Kill is Robert Young Pelton's broad survey of the modern world of mercenaries. Strike that, of contractors. Mercenaries, after all, as Doug Brooks of IPOA (International Peace Operations Association) said in the movie Shadow Company: anyone convicted as being a mercenary should be shot along with his lawyer (Doug, pardon my paraphrasing). Regardless, Pelton's subtitle captures what these guys are: hired guns. Or as one of the contractors in the book put it: "guns with legs".

Pelton's book is (or can be) a quick read. It's conversational, often with the feel that you're sitting in a pub having a beer while he tells you a story (as you do in his World's Most Dangerous Places books). For me, however, it wasn't a quick read. I found myself highlighting sentences, scribbling in the margins, and applying colored flags for quick and future reference. Pelton may challenge the journalist\ community with how he gets into the action (journos not always being the type who will ride with the bad guy when something might happen), but this is how he gets the facts, the story, and the respect that opens doors later. A perpetual cycle, his access gets him more access and so on. Unlike other others who seek to justify a point of view, Pelton comes off balanced, telling it like it is and, very importantly, with context.

Licensed to Kill is more than a narrative of private operators, it is an almost forensic look into the use of private military forces. High profile actors in the world of hired guns, such as Erik Prince and Blackwater, Tim Spicer, Simon Mann, and Michael Grunburg (profiled deeper in Three Worlds Gone Mad) of various ventures, and even a con-artist who's convinced he's the greatest American hero.

This book is a great resource that pulls the curtain aside to see how PMCs operate, a look into their motivations, and where they are being used. If you're not provoked to learn more, you're not paying attention.


From Paul LaFontaine

Another successful presentation of Pelton's trademark seamless mixture of adventure travel, keen observation and wry humour. In this work he takes us on an incredible journey through the controversial world of private military companies. Up front he promises to take us along for the ride and we can form our own opinions, and by every measure in that regard he delivers.

The breadth of the journey is astonishing. As a reader you feel as though you are tagging along for visits to Washington DC product launches, secret operations on the Afghan/Pakistan border and convoy trips along Iraq's deadly Route Irish. You can also vicariously attend training at the Blackwater facility in Myock NC, then go back in time to hear about the action in Sierra Leone and Equitorial Guinea. The view is as comprehensive as possible without sacrificing detail or overloading the reader.

The question regarding the difference between a security contractor and a mercenary in artfully dealt with through stories of colourful characters. The book is rich in these, from conversations at a Dallas convention for security to imprisoned mercenaries. The point is made that the difference between a mercenary and a security contractor lies in a personal moral code. The high end of the spectrum is illustrated by a contractor nicknamed "Miyagi" who embodies professionalism and gives up police work to become a contractor in Iraq, incredibly to allow his wife to give up the stress of being a court reporter in LA. The low end of the spectrum is the circus tale of "Jack" Idema, an opportunist who travelled to Afghan to end up in jail. In seeing these characters we see the potential, both good and bad, of actors in the privatized security.

The book really hits stride in the illustrations of corporate behaviour. Corporations by their very nature need profit in ever increasing amounts and Pelton walks us through how service providers have dealt with becoming corporate in the War on Terror. We read poignant stories about the temptations that can befall security companies in search of new profits with illustrations from the past. In this, the conversations with rising star security provider Erik Prince of Blackwater Security whose aspirations to field a privatized brigade transported by armoured monster trucks with air support from leased helicopter gunships sit side by side with the story of Simon Mann's ill fated attempt to raise a private force to overthrow Equatorial Guinea. It is when these heavily armed companies run out of problems to solve and begin creating their own solutions that we see the industry's potential at its most troubling.

Pelton has given the characters, the context and told the reader where to look. It is up to the reader to make up his or her own mind on the subject. When it comes to an author of a book on an obscured topic without much clear information readily available otherwise, you can't ask much more than that.