Jeff Jacoby

Somalia certainly does need help. It is one of the world's most unstable and violent countries. Since 2008 it has headed the "Failed States Index" published by Foreign Policy magazine. It has been wracked for years by bloody insurgencies, and the central government, what there is of it, is under constant assault by al-Shabab, a lethal jihadist movement closely tied to al-Qaeda. Pirates plying the waters off Somalia's shores menace international shipping.

The place is a hellhole, and each day that it remains one is another day of death and devastation for more innocent victims. Who is going to help them? The 8,000 peacekeeping troops sent in by the UN are inadequate to the job. "Western militaries have long feared to tread" there, as even the Times acknowledges. So why shouldn't the Somali government turn to private militias for the help it so desperately needs?

It is fashionable to disparage mercenaries as thugs for hire, but private-sector warriors are as old as combat itself. Americans may dimly remember learning in grade school about the Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British during the American Revolution, but other mercenaries fought for American independence. Military historian Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that many mercenaries have been heroes of American history. Among them are John Paul Jones, who became an admiral in the Russian Navy; the Pinkerton security firm, which supplied intelligence to the Union and personal protection for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American airmen who fought for France in World War I; and the Montagnards, the indigenous tribesmen who fought alongside American soldiers during the war in Vietnam.

Given such honorable examples, asks Boot, why should it be difficult "to imagine that mercenaries today could be equally useful, and sometimes even heroic?" He has long advocated hiring mercenaries to end the terror and genocide in Darfur. Several firms have offered their services, but so far no government, international organization, or philanthropist has shown any interest.

This is not an abstract argument. When Rwanda erupted in mass-murder in 1994, the private military firm Executive Outcomes offered to stop the slaughter for $150 million, Newsweek reported in 2003. The Clinton administration turned down the offer. In the ensuing carnage, some 800,000 Rwandans were killed.

In 1995, by contrast, the government of Sierra Leone hired Executive Outcomes to put down a savage rebellion by the brutal Revolutionary United Front. Within a year, the company had quelled the uprising and driven the rebels out. "Many in Sierra Leone, especially ordinary people, regarded these soldiers of fortune as national heroes," Newsweek observed.

It may not be politically correct to suggest letting mercenaries deal with nightmares like Somalia and Darfur. But political correctness doesn't save lives. Sending in mercenaries would.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.