Look at the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad, and you may catch a glimpse of the future . Two sides are fighting there. But, for brief moments, this has become a war without a state. And it could be the first of many to come.On the ground in Iraq right now, there are about 20,000 private military contractors maybe more, no one really knows for sure. They're handling a huge swath of tasks, from security to logistics, for coalition militaries and other companies. But their ties to the American government are nebulous, at best.Opposing these mercenaries in Iraq are thousands of insurgents. They may have loyalties to a cleric or tribal leader or fallen regime. But they have few connections to any government currently operating. And Iraq isn't the only place where we're seeing stateless adversaries of the U.S. operate. As many observers have noted recently, Al Qaeda seems to be getting along just swimmingly, without a home state.Of course, there are several governments' troops currently mixed up in this Iraq fight, too. The militias and mercenaries have clashed directly in only a few instances. The contractors have mostly served in a support role to the official militaries. But it's not to hard to imagine a battle down the road in which states are all but removed from the equation.Taking on nests of stateless terrorists or drug-dealers, a government might not want to put its official boots on the ground. An army-for-hire, with limited leadership from the regular military, might be the cleaner solution. There are no official budgets to approve. No Congressional committees to clear. No testy allies to consult. No weeping families of guard and reserve units to console, as their spouses and parents and children are taken off the war. And no flag-draped caskets to carry home.In fact, argues Corporate Warriors author Peter Singer in an upcoming Salon article, such a future is underway, in fits and starts, right now:
When a CIA plane mistakenly coordinated the shootdown of a planeload American missionaries over Peru in 2001, few realized that the plane was actually manned by contractors for Aviation Development Corporation, based in Alabama. When suicide bombers attacked an American compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last spring, few understood what it meant that the targets worked for Vinnell Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense contractor that trains Saudi Arabia's and Iraqs army. When Palestinian militants killed three Americans in Gaza last fall, most didnt realize that they were private military contractors working for DynCorp, a multifaceted government services firm, based just outside the Washington-Dulles airport.This stateless future would be a return to the past, Singer notes. Before the 20th Century, private armies were as common as government-backed militaries maybe more so. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used arrows-for-hire. "Contract armies fighting contract armies, led by contract generals," is how Singer describes the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).By 1782, the British East India Company had a corporate force 100,000 men strong much larger than the army of the Queen. The Dutch East India Company's 140-ship navy, similarly, dwarfed its government's fleet.The private companies sometimes clashed with states' armies. But often, they fought with groups that had little ties to any government "tribes, pirates, and each other," according to Singer.Now, in Iraq, things are starting to come full circle. Private companies are once again tangling with tribal and religious militias, who belong to no state. "You have contractors making up a division's worth of troops, and taking a division's worth of casualties," Signer says.And that raises an array of troubling questions, Phil Carter notes in a recent Slate essay. How can these stateless groups be held to the laws of war? How can they be held accountable to the public, or to a government's military standards? And what happens if they decide that a particular fight is no longer good for the tribe or for the bottom line?The answers will begin to take shape in Najaf and Karballah and Kirkuk.As Singer writes, "Iraq is not just the largest private military market in modern history, but also a testing ground for just how far the outsourcing trend will play out."THERE'S MORE: Captain's Quarters has a fascinating account from a Special Forces veteran who's now working as a private military contractor in Iraq.