Outsourcing Sacrifice: Should Americans Honor the Soldier for Hire?

Release Date: February 14, 2008 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- America's increasing use of private military contractors in Iraq and other international battlefields is changing the traditional emotional and psychological relationships between U.S. citizens and those who fight for their country, a UB Law School professor says.

Mateo Taussig-Rubbo examines whether these military contractors -- sometimes called soldiers for hire or mercenaries -- should be embraced as heroes and given the same honors as those who serve in conventional armed forces. Or should they occupy a more distant position from what the UB professor calls our country's "tradition of sacrifice?"

Taussig-Rubbo does not judge how U.S. citizens should view these military contractors. Instead, he urges the legal community to continue to address the lack of legal clarity concerning the actions and responsibilities of these soldiers for hire. Just as important, he says, are the questions of where these soldiers fall within the long-standing and profound American tradition of honoring those who lose their lives fighting this country's wars.

"Being a citizen in a democracy has traditionally required sacrifice," says Taussig-Rubbo. "What is the place of this sacrifice in a democracy? And should the government recognize the death of military contactors as sacrifices?"

Taussig-Rubbo acknowledges the legal issues that arise from the U.S. using these private military contractors. Are their actions covered by international law? U.S. military law? American civil law?

But he says legal accountability is only the beginning of important civic and social issues that should be addressed as these military contractors occupy an increasingly visible role in U.S. military activity.

"There is a rich, important tradition in this country that says those who die and suffer for this country are honored in a certain way," says Taussig-Rubbo, associate professor in the UB Law School, who plans to publish his research in a paper called "Outsourcing Sacrifice: The Labor of Private Military Contractors." "So when someone dies in uniform, the public, family and elected officials say 'that was a death for the nation.' "

Using paid contractors -- the most notable of them being Blackwater USA, a private company known for its high profile and sometimes controversial methods in Iraq -- complicates this tradition, he says.

The use of military contractors separates the soldiers from the established lines of military command and control, he says. Their emergence is one way a government can avoid liability for the actions of those fighting a war. Privatization of the military also has led to sidestepping traditional controls on those engaged in combat, according to Taussig-Rubbo. And if the government can deploy private military contractors instead of its conventional forces, he asks, does that make it easier to get involved in a war?

Relying on these contracted soldiers also changes the idea of sacrifice. "This practice maintains that sacrifice takes place, but the significance is removed from the purview of the government and the public, and is contained within the private sphere of the family and the company," according to Taussig-Rubbo.

"The contractors are awkwardly positioned in relation to the traditional understanding of sacrifice, a tradition that has been the basis behind Americans' imaginings about those who kill and are killed on behalf of the nation."

Just how the U.S. regards these military contractors became an international story in 2004 when four armed Blackwater contractors were ambushed and then "grotesquely and spectacularly killed, dismembered and immolated" in Fallujah, Taussig-Rubbo recalls.

"In a way, they were sacrificed," he says. "They were seen as dying for our nation. They were not just mercenaries. The uncharitable way to look at it is that they were not heroes. But the majority response seems to have been that they had sacrificed."

The legal debate is essential, he says. But the social dimensions also matter to many Americans.

"The sacrifice theme resonates with many people," Taussig-Rubbo says. "The traditional story of soldiers and sacrifice is important. When we become aware of these contractors and their activities, we're not sure what to think about them. A lot of questions come to mind. Are they mercenaries? Are they like soldiers? Are they something else?"

Taussig-Rubbo earned a law degree at Yale Law School and doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago. He previously practiced in the area of cross-border transactions with a New York City law firm and clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York. Taussig-Rubbo teaches advanced topics in constitutional law in the UB Law School.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system, and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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