Kenneth B. Moss. Marque and Reprisal: The Spheres of Public and Private War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. 464 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2775-2.
Reviewed by Christopher Weimar (Air University)
Published on H-War (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Kenneth B. Moss looks at the questions of why and how private actors using armed force in the past came to fall under the control of state and other forms of public accountability. His study encompasses the thirteenth century through the present. It is of particular relevance today as the nature of waging war in the complex cyber domain with contractors has become commonplace. In the context of armed private military contractors (PMCs) supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Moss provides an accounting of mercenaries and piracy in international affairs. He gives insight into the boundaries between the state and the private sector force, the centralization of state power, and private actors supporting sovereign and national interests. The study of private and public war, mercenaries, and letters of marque and reprisal (a form of agreement or contract with specific terms for operation) covers a range of primarily European and American history, including the American experience during its formation of an independent sovereign state.
Chapter 1 provides a general baseline for defining war, the history and origins of private and public wars, early philosophical and legal underpinnings of war, and a discussion of the sanctioning of violence. It introduces a world from which mercenaries, privateers, and letters of marque and reprisal emerged. Moss develops the narrative to distinguish that in most cases throughout history, privateers, holders of letters of marque and reprisal, and contractors acted under the official auspices of a state or political organization; otherwise, they lacked legal protections. In developing the foundation for the book's argument, he briefly reviews the political and legal writings of Carl von Clausewitz, Hugo Grotius, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke. He notes their contributions in the development of international laws and armed conflict, the conduct of war as a public endeavor, state monopoly over armed force, and the nature of private actors engaged in wars.
Chapter 2 offers a discussion on mercenaries and privateering throughout history. It compares the role of private actors from the ancient and classical worlds with modern times. It distills a relationship that is revisited throughout the book noting how the reliance on private means of force tells us many things about society and state. As kingdoms developed and state-on-state conflict followed, the growing scale and need of larger militaries grew and created a demand for mercenaries. The chapter provides explicit details on motives and sources of mercenaries within a broader picture of the development of states, armies, and contracts where these market forces were instrumental in building state power. However, the growth of the modern state, having war serve political ends, the rise of nationalism and mass mobilized armies offered little opportunity for the mercenary. Moss's discussion on piracy presents brief but interesting comparisons to contemporary space and cyber domains, as well as challenges to the concept of war. The chapter highlights how different dynamics were at play in the maritime world and privateering as oceans were harder to govern and regulate. It offers an in-depth historical study on the origins and development of letters of marque and reprisal, which intertwined with the outward expansion of European power and the assertion of sovereignty. The level of historical detail is commendable. It gives the reader an exceptional commentary of the relationship and inherent challenges of power and interests between private actors and sovereign states across several centuries.
Chapter 3 continues the discussion on privateering and piracy in the Atlantic and introduces trading companies and their rise and decline as non-state actors with powers customarily held by the state protected markets, suppliers, and customers. Chapter 4 looks at the early American experience and the distinctions between private and public rights and powers, its path to centralizing power, the nature of marque and reprisal in the constitution, and the ways private actors fit into the newly recognized national government's security and defense interests. The chapter discusses mercenaries and privateers in the colonies pre and post constitution. Moss looks at the control of these private instruments of war as they became part of a broader political and legal discussion around sovereignty and who in the proposed government would have power over them. Chapter 5 examines the growth of the United States as a sovereign power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the use of its merchant fleet as privateers and an instrument in serving the nation's expansionism, free trade, and wartime national interests. The chapter provides excellent detail on the nature of the arguments for and against privateers during wartime and the US Civil War.
Chapter 6 and the conclusion discuss the rise, once again, of private actors as instruments of state power in light of the dismantling of empires, erosion and challenges to state authority, and globalization over the last seventy-five years. In a changing international system where public intolerance to large conscripted armies and high casualties created a need for alternative sources and means of warfare, privatization of military support activities increased, and the revolution in military affairs led to a greater reliance on the commercial sector. The discussion on the classification of privatized activities as inherently governmental or not takes us into still murkier territory with armed PMCs. It raises important questions regarding civil-military activities, oversight, transparency, and accountability of these market forces. As the chapter considers the return and prospect for private wars in the twenty-first century, hybrid wars and the cyber domain are elements of a complex international environment affecting states and the nature of war. They create an unprecedented reliance on new technologies for dispersion of methods of conflict through non-state, private actors challenging the applicability of international laws of armed conflict. Moss discusses the challenges in trying to use letters of marque and reprisal as a precedent to use private means to serve state ends in the cyber world as compared to their use for conflicts at sea.
A key theme underlying the book is the belief that the sovereign state is the appropriate authority to manage violence on behalf of a society and its people. However, prognosis is troubling. As Moss argues, the seepage of tasks and missions to the private sector will likely continue without adequate oversight and administration, fraying lines of accountability. The current public/private way of doing conflict (inadequate oversight and transparency) is convenient for political ends and avoids controversy on the home front despite its democratic deficits. Moss does not conclude whether the mercenary or letter of marque and reprisal framework provides the best parallel for managing PMCs in military conflict environments. He does make it clear that PMCs will be around for some time as instruments of warfare, while public accountability and transparency are necessary as they have been lacking, particularly in the US.
Marque and Reprisal is an exceptionally researched work using excellent sources. The historical timeline methodology works well in examining the subject matter. The breadth and depth of research are extensive and very interesting, though, at times, we seem to take an indirect but very scenic route to our destination. The book is a welcomed contribution to the literature on private military companies, defense outsourcing, European defense history, English and European maritime defense history, early US defense development, and maritime defense history in the Atlantic and Caribbean. It provides a valuable historical context of private actors used as instruments of warfare, the development of legal standing for these actors across the international system, and the distinctions between public and private war that we are revisiting today in the cyber age.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Christopher Weimar. Review of Moss, Kenneth B., Marque and Reprisal: The Spheres of Public and Private War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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