The New Yorker and the Mercenaries

An open letter to the New Yorker over its approving coverage of mercenary-activity-for-humanitarian-intervention, despite its record of failure in Central Africa.

Eeben Barlow (Wiki Commons).

Following the publication of Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Shannon Sedgwick Davis (“How a Texas Philanthropist Helped Fund the Hunt for Joseph Kony”, posted October 21, 2013), many of our readers have raised concerns about the New Yorker’s fact-checking process, as well as its apparent lack of interest in the legal and ethical implications of funding private military operations with secretly managed funds. Given the public proliferation of “crowd sourced” militarized humanitarian ventures, we question your decision to publish a recycled defense of mercenary-activity-for-humanitarian-intervention, despite its record of failure in ongoing conflicts in Central Africa.

We are particularly surprised that you gave Elizabeth Rubin an outlet. Since the late 1990s, Rubin has used liberal platforms like The New York Times to paint a line between “freewheeling mercenaries” and private military companies. She argues the latter should be distinguished if we can “regulate their accountability and conduct” (as she said in a Times piece published on February 4, 1999). Though Eeben Barlow—world-famous mercenary and founder of Executive Outcomes, the model on which all private military companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan are based, according to his publisher–has thanked Rubin for her enlightened perspective (Executive Outcomes, page 396 for example), guilt and emotional manipulation too often fill in for the promised discussion of regulation and accountability in Rubin’s journalism. Even in her 1999 article (a response to the war in Sierra Leone), Rubin chased the distinction with a facile and non sequitur link to the Rwandan genocide:

What is needed is a debate about whether we can distinguish freewheeling mercenaries from private military companies and regulate their accountability and conduct. If we could have saved hundreds of thousands of Rwandans from genocide by spending $25 million, wouldn’t it have been worth the price?

The problem—as many other deeply concerned observers have said—is that whether we call these groups mercenaries or private military contractors, we still need to know who they are accountable to. If they are efficient, and in the hunt for Joesph Kony that is a big “if”, then who are they efficient for? According to your column, the secret, private military sent on a training mission around the Great Lakes was accountable to the Ugandan generals, Jason Russell, some friends from Goldman Sachs and the “agricultural maverick” Howard Buffett.

This profile is vacuous at best, at worst it is a labored attempt to legitimize unregulated, para-state military actors based on caricatures of family values, progressive Christianity, and basic human empathy. Through Rubin, Davis is a “passionate, small blond woman from Texas”, “all mom and all passion, driven by a progressive Christian faith” whose plan to secretly fund mercenaries was rejected by politicians who didn’t understand her vision and humility:

Advocacy groups and human-rights analysts working in Africa’s Great Lakes region have great respect for her work. Government officials are more wary. Not because they don’t like her or what she’s up to—I’ve never met anyone who didn’t—but because they don’t know how to process it all. “It all sounded so ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ ” one U.S. official said—a reference to Joanne Herring, the wealthy Houston activist and talk-show host who teamed up with the Texas politician to train and arm mujahideen fighters to take on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. (Julia Roberts played her in the movie.) Davis couldn’t be less like Herring. She’s no socialite, and she has avoided any press out of a conviction that this was the Ugandans’ fight, and that her role would be misinterpreted.

Julia Roberts aside, Rubin never addresses the State’s concerns about building the capacities of autonomous military groups. She begs ignorance about the Ugandan generals, the conditions under which the L.R.A. developed, the history of the regional conflict, and its stakes. Instead she (once again) celebrates Barlow’s skill and compassion.

In this profile, Eeben Barlow’s experience running death squads for the Apartheid government is smoothed over as a “colorful past.” This could hardly be in worse taste. Who are you trying to kid, and why?

Barlow was second-in-command of the 32 Battalion, which was secretly formed under Vorster in the 1970s to destabilize the pro-communist government in Angola. Known as the Terrible Ones in Portuguese, his unit boasted the highest “kill rate” of the elite Apartheid military units, and was later investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after its soldiers were charged with attempted rape, and several incidents of sexual harassment. From the South African border wars, Barlow was recruited for the infamous CCB, where he reportedly spent his time evading international sanctions to buy and sell South African weapons by setting up a complex web of front companies. Writing in Harper’s Magazine in February 1997 Rubin did see fit to explain that:

By the time the CCB death squads were exposed in 1990 under President F. W. de Klerk, Barlow had already established Executive Outcomes as a counterintelligence consultancy


For elite commandos, who had reason to fear prosecution for apartheid political crimes, E.O. provided a golden parachute into exile and salaries three times higher than those of the peacetime national army.

But in your article, Rubin’s attempt to distance Eeben Barlow from his work and reputation forces her to construct elaborate dinner parties, involving Barlow’s Buddhist son watching Jason Russell describe the horrors of child soldiers to his son, and somehow through a mystical connection with the peace-loving Buddhist feeling a “personal bond” with Barlow. Incredibly, Rubin explains that Davis “navigates on instinct and connection”.

It began when she met his wife and teen-age son, Jay, a Buddhist who urged his father, after they watched an Invisible Children video together, to help stop Kony. He reminded Davis of her own son—“all heart.” Barlow himself is a complicated character; he has mellowed with age, and has adopted the role of a lecturer and wise man on failed states, African conflicts, and counterinsurgency. For this mission, he even cut his trainers’ salaries in half.

We’re not sure how saying Barlow has “mellowed” as he agrees to conduct secret training operations for the Ugandan generals, financed by a secret group of billionaires with potentially substantial agricultural interests in the Great Lakes Region has any more meaning than praising Barlow for his compassion and generosity, when “expenses” and “half an undisclosed trainer’s salary” are no indication of the amount of money involved in this operation.

Either way, this kind of fawning journalism reflects poorly on the New Yorker and your readers deserve better.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.