IN 1969, as a member of the presidential commission appointed to consider replacing the draft with an all-volunteer military, the great University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman had a famous exchange with General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam. Westmoreland strongly supported the draft, and told the commission that he didn't want to command an army of mercenaries.
"General," Friedman interrupted, "would you rather command an army of slaves?" Replied Westmoreland indignantly, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." Friedman shot back: "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries."
The economist pressed his point. "If they are mercenaries," he told Westmoreland, "then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."
What brings that colloquy to mind is a report in the New York Times that the government of Somalia is being urged to hire Saracen International, "a controversial South African mercenary firm," to protect Somali officials and help fight pirates and Islamic militants. Erik Prince, the former US Navy SEAL who created Blackwater Worldwide, another private military firm, has been involved in brokering the arrangement (precisely how, the Times noted, "remains unclear.") The story was headlined "Blackwater Founder Said to Back Mercenaries," and its disapproving tone was hard to miss.
That negative publicity may have undone the deal. In a The Times subsequently reported that Somali authorities "have cooled to the idea" of hiring private militiamen. "We need help," a government official was quoted as saying, "but we don't want mercenaries."