Articles - Private Guns: - The Social Identity of Security Contractors


Private Guns:

The Social Identity of Security Contractors

Volker Franke
Kennesaw State University
Marc von Boemcken
Bonn International Center for Conversion


Accounts of human rights abuses and stories of shooting incidents have dominated the image of the private security industry in the media. Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence, to date there has been no empirical research analyzing whether there is a professional identity emerging among individuals who sign on with private security firms to assume roles traditionally reserved for the military. Using a survey of more than 200 American private security contractors with law enforcement backgrounds and operational experience in conflict regions, this research explores their social identities and examines the extent to which these identities shape their values, attitudes, and professional self-conceptions. It concludes with some preliminary recommendations for the future of outsourcing security functions to the private sector and the utility of using contractors in peace and stability operations.


1 In April 2004, four men working for the US security firm Blackwater were killed by Iraqi insurgents close to the city of Fallujah. The gruesome pictures of their mutilated corpses hanging from a bridge and encircled by an angry mob made the headlines of almost all of the major newspapers at the time. Since the Fallujah killings, a rapidly growing private security industry has remained in the public eye, mostly through media reports calling for tightened regulation of security companies. In addition, accounts of human rights abuses, like those connected to interrogations at Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison, and stories of shooting incidents involving contractors have called into question the merits of outsourcing security functions to the private sector and the suitability of some of the contractors hired to fulfill those functions. Who are these individuals – armed and ready to risk their lives for, as a common assumption runs, a pay check? What are their backgrounds, self-conceptions, ideals, and motivations?

2 Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence, to date there has been no empirical research analyzing whether there is a professional identity emerging among individuals who sign on with private security firms to assume roles traditionally reserved for the military. The objective of this research is to explore the extent to which there is an emerging professional identity among employees of private security firms and. if so, what that identity is.

3 Identity becomes highly relevant as motivations, attitudes, values, and norms shared among the members of a social group may promote or prohibit specific behavior. Indeed, political and legal control mechanisms may function most effectively when the standards and values they are based on have been internalized by those whose behavior they are designed to shape. Although the US Congress and the international community have adopted a series of legal norms controlling the private security sector, the industry still relies heavily on self-regulation for monitoring the behavior of its members in the field. Doug Brooks, president of the private security industry’s trade organization, proposes: “It is critical [that] the international community be proactive in ensuring that the companies doing this work in conflict and post-conflict environments and among highly vulnerable populations are the most professional and ethical available.” 1

4 In this article, we argue that effective, informal self-regulation will depend on the degree to which ethical standards and professional values have been internalized among individuals in the field. In turn, the effectiveness of formal regulation is enhanced when the norms regulate an industry with a clearly identifiable professional purpose. To what extent does the private security industry resemble or approximate a profession in the classical sense that requires specialized knowledge, clearly identifiable principles and accepted practice, and “routines and detailed plans for coping with every contingency”? 2 And to what extent do individuals serving the industry internalize the norms and standards that characterize the private security sector?

5 In order to answer these questions, we administered an online survey to more than 200 American security contractors. Respondents in our sample were law enforcement officers who had joined a US-based security firm and had completed at least one tour of duty on contract with the State Department in a conflict region. Since contractors assume roles traditionally reserved for military professionals, we employed a number of value-scales previously used in cognitive research examining the values and attitudes of officers and soldiers. The survey was designed to assess the effect of respondents’ most important social identities on their levels of patriotism, warriorism, Machiavellianism, social dominance orientation, masculinity, job engagement, and support for regulatory provisions about their ethical conduct.

6 This article begins with a brief overview of the elements that constitute the private security industry as a profession. Next, we discuss existing regulations for the private security industry and develop a conceptual model that distinguishes between formal and informal control. Based on the tenets of social identity theory, we explore respondents’ social identities and examine the extent to which these identities shape their values, attitudes, and professional self-conceptions. We conclude with some preliminary observations regarding the utility of using security contractors in military operations.

Contractors and the Profession of Arms

7 Five decades ago, Samuel Huntington argued that military officers are professionals in the art of war and the management of violence. 3 Their areas of expertise include planning, organizing, and employing military force. Huntington distinguished between military professionals primarily charged with combat and command and those responsible for technical and logistical support. 4 For Huntington, the latter group did not represent members of the military profession since their expertise contained both the management of violence and technical or other professional knowledge not unique to the military. 5

8 Traditionally, civilian contractors have been employed by the US military to supplement or support, but not deliver, combat functions. In the recent Iraq and current Afghanistan operations, however, contract employees increasingly have served in combat roles. As of September 2009 there were 12,684 private security contractors in Iraq, of which 11,162 were armed (88 percent). According to the US Department of Defense, the number of armed security contractors had increased by 140 percent from 5,481 in September 2007 to 13,232 in June 2009. In Afghanistan, the increase was even steeper. Between December 2008 and September 2009, the number of armed security contractors increased by 236 percent from 3,184 to 10,712. 6 How did this happen?

9 Eager to expand business and capitalize on the rising demand for the provision of security services following the Iraq War, a number of security firms began to actively recruit former soldiers and police officers to deploy in Iraq, offering them salaries that dwarfed basic military pay. 7 Some observers have argued that the prospect of extraordinary monetary gain was a central motivator for individuals to sign on with these firms. 8 Indeed, private security firms pay considerably higher wages than the military at the comparable skill level or rank. For instance, in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, a security contractor earned between US $500 and $750 per day. 9 Although pay-scales have decreased since the early days of the occupation, sufficiently skilled security contractors from Western countries are still paid between US $3,000 and $6,000 a month, with additional allowances of up to US $2,000 for work in particularly dangerous areas. 10

10 Following the US occupation of Iraq, there have been several media reports on alleged human rights violations by security contractors. Employees of two private security firms were implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. A number of reports pointed to sexual harassment and even rape committed by male contractors against female colleagues or Iraqi locals. 11

11 To date, the most serious allegations of human rights violations stem from shooting incidents. The most widely reported incident occurred on 16 September 2007 when security guards from the company Blackwater USA engaged in a firefight in crowded Nisour Square in the heart of Baghdad City while escorting a US diplomatic convoy for the State Department. The firefight resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. Although Blackwater claimed that the shooting had started in response to an ambush against the convoy, eyewitnesses and US military officials stated that the firing had commenced without hostile provocation. 12 In the subsequent investigation, the FBI concluded that at least 14 out of the 17 shootings were unjustified and that Blackwater guards had “recklessly violated American rules for the use of lethal force.” 13

12 The Nisour Square shooting was by no means an isolated incident. A congressional investigation revealed that “Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005 that involved the firing of shots by Blackwater forces,” for “an average of 1.4 shootings per week.”14 Are these incidents indicative of the shortfalls of a rapidly growing industry? Are they, in fact, evidence confirming the picture portrayed in the media of security contractors as “gun-slinging cowboys?” Or are they unavoidable side-effects of working in a combat zone? The repeated instances of contractor misconduct raise questions about the effective regulation of the industry. The following section examines formal and informal mechanisms now in place.

Regulating the Industry

13 Regulation, in the traditional sense, refers to the range of formal mechanisms devised to monitor and, if necessary, punish non-compliance with a set of legal prescriptions. But regulation may also proceed informally through inter-subjectively internalized values and norms. Depending on the degree of internalization and the kinds of values in question, formal regulation may be either supported or undermined. This section examines the recent changes in legal and political efforts to regulate the security industry (formal regulation) and explores the extent to which the internalization of those norms and values affects the actual behavior in the field (informal regulation).

Formal Regulation

14 Formal regulation in the present context refers to the top-down application of legal proscriptions, drawing an authoritative distinction between the acceptable and the forbidden. Although some commentators have suggested that security contractors in Iraq were “unregulated” and operating in a “legal vacuum,” 15 since the beginning of the US occupation in 2003, their activities have been subject to quite extensive formal regulation. For example, companies providing security services in Iraq require a license furnished by the Private Security Companies Directorate, which is part of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. 16 In addition, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order Number 3 (December 2003) specifies a number of rules related to carrying weapons and restricts the type of weapons accessible to security contractors. 17 Moreover, a June 2004 CPA memorandum prohibits contractors from joining coalition forces in “combat operations except in self-defense or in defense of persons as specified in [their] contracts.” In addition, contractors are prohibited from engaging in “law enforcement activities,” although they may “stop, detain, search, and disarm civilians” where the clients’ safety requires it or if such functions are specified in their contract. 18

15 Until January 2009, as specified in the 2004 CPA memorandum, contractors working for US government agencies were immune to Iraqi law with regard to all actions performed in fulfillment of their contractual obligations. In theory, all contractors remained subject to the provisions of extra-territorial jurisdiction of their respective home countries. However, civilian law enforcement agencies are not usually prepared to conduct criminal investigations in war zones. 19 Indeed, during the first five years of US occupation not a single contractor in Iraq was prosecuted for acts of violence against locals, including contractors implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

16 In the aftermath of the Nisour Square shootings, formal mechanisms to regulate the industry and the behavior of individual contractors were tightened considerably. In January 2009, the Iraqi government lifted the immunity of contractors to local law, thus making it possible for Iraqi authorities to criminally prosecute security contractors for unlawful behavior. Moreover, in 2007, the US Congress passed the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) Expansion and Enforcement Act (H.R. 2740), subjecting all contractors working for the US government in war zones to the jurisdiction of US criminal law. The Act was first applied in December 2008, when five Blackwater guards were indicted for their involvement in the Nisour Square shootings.

17 Besides legal accountability, political oversight also seems to have improved as both the Department of Defense and the Department of State agreed to extend their oversight responsibilities. 20 The Department of Defense has since established an Armed Contractor Oversight Division and “significantly [increased] the number of Defense Contracting Management Agency personnel.” 21 The State Department has taken steps to improve on-site monitoring of contractor activities through video surveillance of privately protected convoys, among other things. 22

Informal Regulation

18 In contrast to the top-down logic of formal regulation, informal regulation refers to the norms, rules, and values that are internalized by individuals as a central element of their sense of self and identity. As a consequence, behavior is guided through continual self-surveillance and self-regulation instead of the threat of external sanctions. 23

19 Informal regulation is a fundamentally inter-subjective process, in that identity is, above all, a social matter, for one arrives at a sense of selfhood predominantly through identification with others. In this sense, the concept of “social identity” refers to “that part of individuals’ self concept which derives from knowledge of their membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.” 24 Theories of social identity are typically based on three premises: individuals are motivated to create and maintain a positive self-concept; the self-concept derives largely from group identifications; and individuals establish positive social identities through normative comparisons between favorable in-groups and unfavorable out-groups. 25

20 Social identity research has demonstrated that individuals tend to invoke their group identifications in many decision contexts, since the norms, values, stereotypes, and behavior patterns associated with a particular identity provide a sense of certainty and may inform their choice among decision alternatives. 26 When informal regulation is effective, individuals will voluntarily conform to an inter-subjectively shared system of rules and values, which in turn establishes their social identity and shapes and constrains their behavior. In theory, informal control may well exist in the absence of formal laws and disciplinary practices, thereby providing for a modicum of order and predictability in an otherwise more or less anarchical environment.

21 More commonly, however, informal regulation extends and intensifies formal regulatory practices. As a result, control is effectively maximized if both formal and informal regulations reinforce each other. By contrast, when rules, norms, and values are not internalized, we can expect formal regulation to be considerably weakened. For instance, in military operations where the rules of engagement (i.e., formal regulation) are ambiguous or non-existent, behavior may be controlled by the norms and values that constitute the identity invoked in that situation (i.e., informal regulation).

22 The security industry has recognized the utility of this type of informal regulation and has begun to provide strong incentives for companies to monitor the behavior of their employees and adopt self-regulating mechanisms. For instance, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), an umbrella organization representing the interests of the “peace and stability operations industry,” seeks to “promote high operational and ethical standards of firms.” For this purpose, the IPOA developed a voluntary code of conduct calling on members to respect human rights and operate with integrity, honesty, and fairness. Moreover, member contractors agree to recognize and support legal accountability; work only for legitimate and recognized governments, international and non-governmental organizations, and lawful private companies; and ensure adequate training and vetting of their personnel. 27 As of March 2010, the IPOA serves a total of 56 corporate members, all of whom have signed its code of conduct and have pledged to abide by the ethical standards established therein. 28 Self-regulation seems an attractive choice for many companies; IPOA membership has more than doubled since 2006.

23 Although the impact and effectiveness of industry self-regulation has been the subject of recent research, 29 to date there has been no systematic analysis of the values, self-conceptions, and ethical standards of individual security contractors. Neither has there been an analysis of the extent to which the IPOA standards for ethical conduct have been internalized among contractors in the field. Is the image of the unscrupulous and thrill-seeking mercenary, propagated by the media and some academic observers, justified? If so, there is a danger that formal regulation, as well as industry self-regulation, will be seriously undermined. By contrast, the reported human rights violations could have been committed by a few black sheep and therefore need to be considered as exceptional instances rather than indicative of more general attitudes within the industry as a whole. The following section presents the results of our empirical survey of US security contractors with operational experience in Iraq.

Design, Subjects, Measures

Subjects and Design

24 Because of contractual prohibitions, we were not able to survey contractors currently deployed in military operations. Fortunately, the CivPol Alumni Organization, a non-profit organization founded in 2007 to “promote the accomplishments of American police officers serving in post-conflict environments throughout the world,” agreed to support our research and solicit volunteers from among its members to complete the security contractor survey. 30 Active members of the CivPol Alumni Association are typically American police officers who have completed at least one tour of duty on contract in a conflict region. Usually, these police officers receive a leave of absence from their regular jobs and are recruited to participate in international civilian police activities and local police development programs in countries around the world.

25 To date, the CivPol Alumni Association sponsors some 1,400 active members, all of whom received an e-mail from the Association President with an Internet link to the security contractor survey and a request to complete the survey online at their convenience. This approach made any identification of respondents impossible, thus ensuring the anonymity of all information provided on the survey. Between March and May 2009, 355 active CivPol Alumni Association members followed the link and responded to at least part of the survey (a 25 percent response rate). In all, 223 respondents answered every question on the survey and were included in our response sample.

26 All respondents in the CivPol sample were US citizens with a law enforcement background and the vast majority were male (216 or 96.9 percent), white (77.5 percent), and married (77.1 percent). All respondents had completed at least high school (34.5 percent) and almost half (49.8 percent) held undergraduate degrees, while 15.7 percent had graduate degrees. Almost two-thirds (136 or 61.5 percent) of respondents had served in the military and 79 percent of those who served in the military (108) had been directly involved in combat. Of the respondents with a military background, almost all had served as enlisted personnel (95 percent) and nearly three-fourths (71 percent) were discharged at the ranks of either corporal or sergeant. At the time of survey administration, respondents had an average of 4.7 years of experience working for the private security industry with a median of three years. About one-quarter of respondents (23.7 percent) had less than two years of private security work experience, 44.9 percent had worked 2-5 years, 23.7 percent 5-10 years, and 16 respondents (7.7 percent) had worked for more than ten years in the private security sector. Almost one-third of respondents (69 or 30.9 percent) reported that their jobs required them to “engage in actual fighting/security detail or security protection,” and more than three-quarters (171 or 76.7 percent) reported providing advisory and training services (multiple responses were possible to this question).

Value Measures

27 In order to assess their value-orientations and attitudes, respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with 61 separate statements. Responses were scored on a five-point numerical Likert scale (from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”) and mean response values were calculated. Survey items measuring the same concept were combined into separate scales and mean scale values were computed. 31 For this research, we adapted seven separate value-scales that had been employed successfully in earlier research examining social identity and personal and professional self-conceptions. 32 Since contractors assume roles traditionally reserved for military professionals, we specifically examined respondents’ adherence to the following value-scales that had been administered to military professionals in earlier research (the exact wording of the scale items can be found in Table 1):

  • Patriotism (PAT): National attachment and patriotic motivations have been primary reasons for young people to pursue military careers and for enlisted personnel to make sense of their mission assignments. 33 Patriotic feelings are reinforced especially through experiences that enhance a sense of unselfish service to one’s country. 34
  • Warriorism (WAR): Based on Huntington’s classic findings that soldiers typically believed in the permanence, irrationality, weakness, and evil in human nature and believed in the inevitability of war, we assessed respondents’ propensity for warfighting. 35
  • Machiavellianism (MACH): Following the writings of Machiavelli, Richard Christie and Florence Geis developed a series of hypothetical personality traits that someone who is effective in controlling others (high MACH) should possess, among them a relative lack of affect in interpersonal relationships, little concern with conventional morality, and a focus on getting things done. 36
  • Ethical Conduct (ETH): To further explore respondents’ ethical perceptions, and to supplement the results of the MACH scale, respondents were asked about their attitudes toward the ethical provisions specified in the IPOA Code of Conduct.
  • Social Dominance Orientation (SDO): Consistent with social identity theory, SDO is “the degree to which a person desires to establish and maintain the superiority of his or her own group over other groups.” 37 This predisposition may lead to the establishment of hierarchical beliefs discriminating between a hegemonic group at the top of the social system and a negative reference group at the bottom. In our analysis, SDO serves as a proxy to assess respondents’ propensity for attitudes that could lead to discriminating behavior in the field.
  • Masculinity (MAS): This category is designed in part to examine the extent to which security contractors may have a particular propensity for violence, which has often been correlated with high levels of masculinity. 38 Deborah David and Robert Brannon identified four essential elements in defining how a man is expected to behave: avoidance of emotional expression; achievement of a level of social status; emanating an air of toughness, confidence and independence; and willingness to take risks and engage in violence. 39 These elements were the basis for the Brannon Masculinity Scale, a shortened version of which was used to assess the level of masculinity among contractors in the present sample. 40
  • Job Engagement (JOB): Psychological research has shown that individuals who view their job as an integral part of their identity will feel a personal commitment to doing well and will, consequently, tend to perform better. 41

Click here for the Table 1 PDF

Social Identity Measures

28 Instead of presenting respondents with a forced-choice list of possible in-groups and out-groups, the social identity of respondents in our sample was assessed by analyzing group affiliations that are meaningful both cognitively and emotionally to them. While most standard survey approaches induce prearranged, yet normatively inconsequential in-group categorizations, we examine social identity within the operational experience of private security contractors, thereby extending social identity theory to a new genuine field setting.

29 To assess the social identity of contractors, the security contractor survey presented respondents with this statement: “As individuals in society we all belong to a variety of groups, e.g., social (club, family, friendship), religious, ethnic, academic, occupational, geographic, ideological, etc.” Next, respondents were asked to identify “in order of priority up to five groups that you very strongly identify with, whose beliefs and values you share, and that affect how you see yourself as a person.” Respondents were then provided with space to list up to five groups in order of importance to their self-conception. Each respondent’s list of groups was recorded verbatim, and classification codes for social reference groups were converted to group entries belonging to the same category. 42 Two judges independently reviewed the entries and assigned a numeric code to each of the groups listed based on instructions found in the codebook. 43

Data Analysis and Findings

Most Important In-Groups

30 Asked about their primary reference group — the in-group listed as most important — half of the respondents listed either a religious (primarily Christian) group (24.8 percent) or their family (22.8 percent). For ten percent of the respondents, either the police (10.4 percent) or the military (9.9 percent) were the most important reference groups, followed by law enforcement (7.9 percent) and the United States (6.9 percent).

Potent Identity Images

31 To account for contextual variations in the way that multiple identities interact and shape value orientations, respondents were not only compared in terms of their most important in-group but also in terms of whether they viewed any military, religious, or occupational groups as important to their self-conceptions. Respondents were assigned to one of two groups: those who listed any social, military, religious, or occupational group, irrespective of their rank order, among their five most important in-groups and those who did not. Those placed in the former group were considered to have a potent or salient social, military identity. Respondents who did not list any of these groups among their most important in-groups were considered to have a less potent (i.e., latent) social, military, or occupational identity.

32 Next, we compared respondents with potent and latent family, religious, national, military, police, law enforcement, security firm, or social issue (e.g., gun rights) identifications in terms of the strength of their value-orientations. 44 The potency of respondents’ family and religious identities did not show any statistically significant effects on their overall value-orientations, and too few respondents listed a private security firm (N=8) or a gun rights groups (N=21) to conduct meaningful statistical analysis. Exploring the impact of the potency of military, national, and lawpol (combining potent law enforcement and police in-groups) identities on respondents’ value-orientations rendered a few statistically significant differences displayed in Table 1. 45

33 Overall, the mean scores for the value-orientation scales indicate that respondents in our sample were highly committed to their jobs and to ethical conduct on the job. They also tended to score higher than average on the patriotism and warriorism scales and lower on the Machiavellianism and social dominance orientation scales. 46

34 Almost all respondents viewed their work as security contractors as a calling to serve their country. Given this sentiment and the relatively large proportion of respondents in our sample with a military background and combat experience, it is not surprising that, overall, respondents scored high on the patriotism and warriorism scales. In this respect, their scores were comparable to the scores of military professionals captured in earlier research. 47 The following section highlights the most significant findings by type of social identity. A comprehensive overview of the survey results is provided in Table 1.

35 Military Identity. Not surprisingly, respondents with a potent military identity (referred to hereafter also as “strong identifiers”) scored significantly higher on the warriorism scale than their cohort peers with a latent military identity (referred to hereafter also as “weak identifiers.”) While more than half (53 percent) of respondents with a potent military identity did not expect to “engage in actual fighting;” almost two-thirds of respondents with a latent identity (62 percent) did not expect to engage in fighting. While respondents with a potent military identity showed higher job engagement levels, both groups were strongly committed to their jobs. Asked whether “civilian contractors performing in combat or combat support roles should be regarded as military professionals,” six-in-ten strong identifiers (58 percent and 61 percent respectively) agreed compared to fewer than half of weak identifiers (48 percent and 49 percent respectively). In addition, significantly more weak identifiers (31 percent) thought that “the use of civilian contractors in combat roles is compatible with the military ethos” than did strong identifiers (17 percent). Finally, and somewhat surprising, significantly more weak identifiers felt that their company “provided them with the appropriate training, equipment, and materials necessary to perform their duties” (74 percent with 15 percent disagreeing) than did strong identifiers (65 percent with 32 percent disagreeing). Similarly, significantly more weak than strong identifiers said they had “received instruction in ‘rules of engagement’ prior to deployment” (83 percent versus 73 percent).

36 National Identity. Compared in terms of whether respondents listed a national (for example, “US,” “American,” or “my country”) reference group also rendered some statistically significant differences. Strong identifiers were more warrioristic. While only two-thirds of weak identifiers (67 percent) thought war was inherent in human nature, almost nine-in-ten strong identifiers (88 percent) believed in the inevitability of war. Similarly, fewer weak identifiers expected to engage in fighting than strong identifiers. Other notable differences included respondents’ views on contractor roles and legal status. More than half of strong identifiers (51 percent) but less than one-third of the weak identifiers (31 percent) felt that a man should not show pain. While nearly half of the strong identifiers (42 percent) agreed that “there are no functions performed by military personnel that, in principle, cannot be performed by a civilian contractor,” less than one-quarter of weak identifiers (23 percent) shared this view. Asked whether “civilian contractors employed by the enemy in a combat zone should be regarded as unlawful combatants,” about one-quarter (28 percent) of strong identifiers agreed and 58 percent disagreed, while four-in-ten (43 percent) of the weak identifiers agreed (38 percent disagreed). No significant differences were found in terms of respondents’ patriotism, Machiavellianism, or ethical conduct scores or in terms of their preparation for contractor service.

37 LawPol Identity. Although comparing respondents in terms of the potency of their identity as police or law enforcement professionals rendered no significant scale score differences, a number of individual statements showed significant differences between weak and strong identifiers. Significantly more strong identifiers believed that “all citizens should be willing to fight for their country” (88 percent versus 75 percent of weak identifiers), and that “one should take action only when it is morally right” (59 percent versus 34 percent). At the same time, significantly more strong identifiers felt that civilian contractors performing combat or combat support roles should be regarded as military professionals (55 percent for both statements) than weak identifiers (49 percent and 46 percent respectively). Finally, while almost two-thirds of weak identifiers (63 percent) agreed that “the use of civilian contractors in combat roles is compatible with the military ethos,” only half of strong identifiers (50 percent) agreed.


38 With this research, we set out to explore the identity and values of private security contractors to improve our understanding of the self-conceptions of individuals who sign on with private security firms. Specifically, we wanted to find out whether there is an emerging professional identity among private security contractors and examine the utility of this identity as a measure of informal control of the rapidly rising security industry. Much of the media reporting and academic research that has accompanied the rapid rise of the private security industry has portrayed contractors as money-grabbing, gun-toting, thrill-seeking, Rambo-type mercenaries with little to no moral inhibition or concern for ethical conduct. Although much of this portrayal has been based on anecdotal evidence collected through interviews and observation 48 or gathered from reports of shooting incidents or human rights violations, 49 to date there has been no systematic analysis of contractor identity and values, nor has there been any methodological attempt to understand the process of informal control in guiding the behavior of security contractors.

39 Our findings reveal a more differentiated picture of the self-conception of individuals who are drawn to working in the private security industry. Overall, respondents in our sample, irrespective of identification with social groups, seemed to share a similar professional outlook, showing very few significant attitudinal differences. This suggests that our respondents are part of a fairly homogeneous cohort of security contractors. From the data at hand it is impossible to determine the extent to which the members of the CivPol Alumni Association are representative of contractors with different personal or professional backgrounds or of the industry as a whole. Consequently, we are unable to generalize our findings beyond the population of American contractors with professional backgrounds in law enforcement. Despite the homogeneous nature of our relatively small sample, we can still draw some interesting preliminary conclusions about the self-image of a distinct subset of private security contractors.

40 Overall, individuals in our sample viewed their job as a calling and appeared highly committed to professional norms and ethical standards. The high degree of job engagement in combination with the relatively low Machiavellianism and social dominance orientation scores suggest that the norms and values guiding formal political and legal control have been internalized among respondents in our sample. In other words, we did not find any respondents representing the profiteering gun-slinger types that have brand-marked much of the industry. Rather, the overwhelming majority of respondents adhered to and endorsed the Code of Conduct developed by the IPOA as an ethical standard for its corporate members. Since adherence to these standards is voluntary and enforcement tenuous, the existence of an effective informal control mechanism cannot replace formal regulation. For our sample, however, we might expect informal self-conceptions to strengthen and reinforce adherence to formal prescriptions.

41 From the data at hand, it appears that a large number of security contractors in our sample think of their current occupation as a logical continuation of their previous military careers. In fact, a majority of contractors thought they should be regarded as military professionals (see Table 1, C1-C7). In addition, a large plurality felt their engagement in combat roles was compatible with the military ethos even though a majority agreed that certain military functions should never be performed by a civilian contractor. These results point to a desire for the development and recognition of a professional identity in the security industry. Given that armed contractors possess expertise in combat, in the provision of technical and logistic services, and have acted as agents of the US government, David Isenberg observed, “In the view of some, contractors have become virtually a fourth branch of government.” 50 Indeed, a recent Defense Science Board report characterized contractors as the “fifth force provider in addition to the four services,” 51 and military sociologists David Segal and Karin De Angelis have argued for a “broader . . . definition of who constitutes the profession” that also includes contractors. 52

42 Nevertheless, the highly fragmented nature of the industry, its multitude of firms, heterogeneous labor pool, and short-cycle deployment rotations have made it difficult for the industry to forge a common corporate identity through coherent and consistent indoctrination, training, and educational experiences. Elsewhere, Volker Franke and Marc von Boemcken have argued that the nature of the operational tasks performed by contractors encourages small group cohesion but not necessarily the development of a distinct professional identity. 53 Unlike the military, there is no enforced conformity in all aspects of life for civilian contractors over an extended period of time that could forge a common identity. 54

43 The overall lack of a corporate identity of security contractors may explain some of the difficulties regulating the industry effectively through formal control mechanisms. Furthermore, the lack of a common professional identity also demonstrates the merits of informal control and the need for further internalization of ethical standards and professional norms and values. Although members in our sample seemed to adhere to a set of common values, this value-identification may also be the result of their prior professional socialization in the military and/or in the law enforcement sector. Nevertheless, these results point to the need for further research on the professional self-conceptualization of contractors from different occupational, cultural, and national backgrounds and from different firms working for a range of contracting agencies.

44 Notwithstanding our findings, it is important to note that individuals’ self-image, as reflected in their responses to a survey, does not necessarily correspond to their actual behavior in the field. The self-image of respondents in our sample, however, appears to correspond with the norms and values guiding formal political and legal regulation of the industry. Future research should assess whether adherence to values and norms as measured through survey responses really translates into ethical behavior on the ground. In addition, future research should also broaden the scope of the analysis by targeting subjects with different demographic, professional, national, and cultural backgrounds to assess the generalizability of the results presented here. On the basis of such research it would then become possible to develop a typology of professional identities prevalent in the security industry, reflecting a continuum from low to high degrees of informal regulation.

Volker Franke is an Associate Professor of Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University.

Marc von Boemcken is a Senior Researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Bonn, Germany.

1 Doug Brooks, “From Humble Beginnings in Freetown: The Origins of the Code of Conduct and its Importance for the Industry,” Journal of International Peace Operations, vol. 3, no. 5, 2007, pp. 8-9, found at, accessed 23 February 2012.
2 Robert G. Kennedy, “Why Military Officers must have Training in Ethics,” p. 3 found at, accessed 27 January 2010.
3 Samuel P. Huntington, “Power, Expertise, and the Military Profession,” Daedalus 92, Fall 1963, p. 785.
4 More recently some have argued that the area of expertise for military professionals has expanded to include “human development,” “political-cultural expert knowledge,” and a “moral-ethical cluster.” Don Snider, “The US Army as a Profession,” in Don M. Snider and Lloyd J. Matthews, eds., The Future of the Army Profession, Revised and Expanded Second Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Primis Custom Publishing, 2005), p. 12.
5 “They belong to the officer corps in its capacity as an administrative organization of the state, but not in its capacity as a professional body.” Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 12.
6 Moshe Schwartz, “The Department of Defense’s Use of Private Security Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan: Background, Analysis, and Options for Congress,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700, 19 January 2010, found at, accessed 9 March 2010. See also Government Accountability Office, “Rebuilding Iraq: Actions Needed to Improve Use of Private Security Providers,” Washington, DC: GAO, July 2005, found at, accessed 20 July 2009; Congressional Research Service, “Private Security Contractors in Iraq: Background, Legal Status and Other Issues,” Washington, DC: CRS, 25 August 2008, found at, accessed 20 July 2009; Human Rights First, “Private Security Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity,” New York: Human Rights First, 2008, at accessed 20 July 2009.
7 Throughout history, states have relied on hired contractors to fight their battles. For a concise overview of the history of privateering, mercenaries, and mercantile companies, see Janice E. Thompson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extra-Territorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 21-40. A comprehensive overview of the roots and the rise of the modern-day private security industry can be found in Peter W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008).
8 Volker Franke, “The Emperor Needs New Clothes: Securitizing Threats in the 21st Century,” Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, December 2002, pp. 1-20.
9 Congressional Research Service, “Private Security Contractors in Iraq,” p. 5.
10 Vasemaca Rarabici, “Iraq: Death is a Price of Blood Money,” CorpWatch, 2 May 2006, found at, accessed 20 July 2009.
11 David Isenberg, “No Justice on Contractor Rape,” Cato Institute/United Press International, 18 April 2008, found at, accessed 20 July 2009.
12 Human Rights First, “Private Security Contractors at War,” p. 5.
13 Ginger Thompson and James Risen, “US: Plea by Blackwater Guards Helps Indict Others,” The New York Times, 9 December 2008, found at, accessed 30 March 2009.
14 United States House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “memorandum,” Washington, DC: House of Representatives, 1 October 2007, p. 1, found at, accessed 30 March 2009.
15 Richard Norton-Taylor, “Fears over huge growth in Iraq’s unregulated private armies,” Guardian, 31 October 2006, found at:, accessed 26 July 2009.
16 See homepage of the Private Security Companies Directorate, found at, accessed 26 July 2009.
17 Coalition Provisional Authority, “Order Number 3 (Revised): Weapons Control,” CPA/ORD/31 December 2003, found at, accessed 26 July 2009.
18 Coalition Provisional Authority, “Memorandum Number 17: Registration Requirements for Private Security Companies (PSCSs),” CPA/MEM/26 June 2004/17, pp. 11, 7, 10, found at, accessed 26 July 2009.
19 Marc von Boemcken, “Die Internationalisierung und Militarisierung der deutschen Sicherheitsindustrie”, in Reinhard Mutz et. al., eds., Friedensgutachten 2006 (Münster: LIT Verlag), pp. 275-284.
20 Congressional Budget Office, “Contractors’ Support of U.S. Operations in Iraq,” p. 15.
21 Congressional Research Service, “Private Security Contractors in Iraq,” p. 42.
22 Ibid., p. 45.
23 Michel Foucault, “Prison Talk,” in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980); Nancy Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” PRAXIS International, no. 3 (1981).
24 Henri Tajfel, Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (London: Academic Press, 1978), p. 63.
25 Volker Franke, Preparing For Peace: Military Identity, Value Orientation, and Professional Military Education (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1999).
26 Dominic Abrams and Michael A. Hogg, Social Identity and Social Cognition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); Michael A. Hogg, “Intergroup Processes, Groups Structure and Social Identity”, in W. P. Robinson, ed., Social Groups and Identities: Developing the Legacy of Henri Tajfel (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996); Michael A. Hogg and Dominic Abrams, Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes (London and New York: Routledge, 1988); Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif, The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation (Middletown: Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1988); Jim Sidanius, “The Psychology of Group Conflict and the Dynamics of Oppression: A Social Dominance Perspective,” in Shanto Iyengar and William J. McGuire, eds., Explorations in Political Psychology (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); Jim Sidanius and Hillary Haley, “Person-Organization Congruence and the Maintenance of Group-based Social Hierarchy: A Social Dominance Perspective,” in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, vol. 8, no. 2, 2005; and Paul M. Sniderman, Richard A. Brody, and Philip E. Tetlock, Reasoning and Choice: Explorations in Political Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
27 The latest version of the IPOA Code of Conduct, adopted in February 2009 found at, accessed 29 March 2009. In a similar fashion, the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC), which aims “to promote, enhance and regulate the interests and activities of UK-based firms and companies that provide armed security services in countries outside the UK,” has committed itself to a number of ethical criteria in its Charter. For example, its member companies have agreed to decline any “contracts for the provision of security services where to do so will conflict with applicable human rights legislation.” See, accessed 27 July 2009.
28 Found at, accessed 9 March 2010.
29 Andrea Schneiker, Die Selbst- und Koregulierung privater Sicherheits- und Militärfirmen (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2009).
30 For further information on the CivPol Alumni Organization see, accessed 14 December 2009.
31 The following scale results were obtained for the sample: (1) six-item patriotism scale (PAT: M = 3.92; SD = 0.57; range = 2.17-5.00; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.71); (2) five-item warriorism scale (WAR: M = 3.46; SD = 0.54; range = 1.80-5.00; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.47); (3) six-item Machiavellianism scale (MACH: M = 2.36; SD = 0.47; range = 1.00-3.83; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.45); (4) five-item job engagement scale (JOB: M = 4.80; SD = 0.27; range = 4.00-5.00; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.75); (5) nine-item social dominance orientation scale (SDO: M = 2.15; SD = 0.51; range = 1.00-3.78; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.75); (6) eight-item masculinity scale (MAS: M = 3.04; SD = 0.51; range = 1.86-4.43; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.66); and (7) five-item ethical conduct scale (ETH: M = 4.65; SD = 0.45; range = 2.80-5.00; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.84).
32 S.P. Brown, “A Meta-analysis and Review of Organizational Research on Job Involvement,” in Psychological Bulletin, no. 120, 1996; Thomas Britt, “Aspects of Identity Predict Engagement in Work under Adverse Conditions,” in Self and Identity, no. 2 (2003); Robert Brannon and S. Juni, “A Scale for Measuring Attitudes about Masculinity,” in Psychological Dimensions, no. 14 (1984); James Burk, “National Attachments and the Decline of the Mass Armed Force,” in Journal of Political and Military Sociology, no. 17 (Spring 1989); Richard Christie and Florence Geis, Studies in Machiavellianism (New York: Academic Press, 1970); John Faris, “The Looking-Glass Army: Patriotism in the Post-Cold War Era,” in Armed Forces & Society¸ no. 21 (1995); Volker Franke, Preparing for Peace; Gregory M. Herek, “On Heterosexual Masculinity: Some Psychical Consequences of the Social Construction of Gender and Sexuality,” in American Behavioral Scientist, no. 29 (1986); Jessie L. Krienert, “Masculinity and Crime: A Quantitative Exploration of Messerschmidt’s Hypothesis,” in Electronic Journal of Sociology (2003), found at:, accessed 8 August 2009; Myriam Miedzian, Boys will be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence (New York: Doubleday, 1991); Daphna Oyserman, “The Lens of Personhood: Viewing the Self and Others in a Multicultural Society,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, no. 65 (1993); Jim Sidanius, Erik Devereaux, and Felicia Pratto, “A Comparison of Symbolic Racism and Social Dominance Theory as Explanation for Racial Policy Attitudes,” in Journal of Social Psychology, no. 132 (1992); Jim Sidanius and James H. Liu, “The Gulf War and the Rodney King Beating: Implications of the General Conservatism and Social Dominance Perspectives,” in Journal of Social Psychology, no. 132 (1992); and Marc D. Weinstein, Michael D. Smith, and David L. Wiesenthal, “Masculinity and Hockey Violence,” in Sex Roles, no. 33 (December 1995).
33 Volker Franke, Preparing for Peace; and James Burk, “National Attachments and the Decline of the Mass Armed Force.”
34 John Faris, “The Looking-Glass Army.”
35 Volker Franke, Preparing for Peace.
36 Richard Christie and Florence Geis, Studies in Machiavellianism.
37 Jim Sidanius and James H. Liu, “The Gulf War and the Rodney King Beating,” p. 686.
38 Gregory M. Herek, “On Heterosexual Masculinity;” Jessie L. Krienert, “Masculinity and Crime;” Myriam Miedzian, Boys will be Boys; Weinstein, and “Masculinity and Hockey Violence”.
39 Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon, “The Male Sex Role,” in Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon, eds., The Forty-Nine Percent Majority (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1976).
40 Robert Brannon and S. Juni, “A Scale for Measuring Attitudes about Masculinity.”
41 S.P. Brown, “A Meta-analysis and Review of Organizational Research on Job Involvement;” and Thomas Britt, “Aspects of Identity predict Engagement in Work under Adverse Conditions.”
42 For instance, specific law enforcement affiliations (e.g., “FBI,” “California Highway Patrol,” “Texas Crime Prevention Association”) were classified as “law enforcement” and subsumed under the overall category of “professional/occupational” in-group. Similarly, survey entries of “Army,” “Marine Corps,” or “American Legion” were coded separately and also subsumed under the main category “military in-group.” Based on respondents in-group entries, similar super-categories were devised for “social” (including “family”), “religious/church,” ethnic/racial,” “geographic” (including “US/American/country”), “ideological/political,” and “social issue group” (including “National Rifle Association”).
43 Initial agreement among the judges was high (interrater reliability of .9197). The interrater reliability was computed as (n-d)/n, where n = number of total ratings and d = number of disagreements. Note that consistent disagreements, i.e., coders consistently disagreed on how to classify a particular response, were included only once in the number of disagreements. For instance, one judge consistently coded “Fraternal Order of Police” with the code for “police,” while the other judge consistently coded this more generally as “Professional Organization.” Discussing coding differences among the judges led to agreement to the same numeric code for each entry, thereby improving interrater reliability to 1.00.
44 Selection of these identifications was based on types of in-groups most often listed in subjects’ responses.
45 Means difference tests of scale and statement mean scores were conducted as t-tests using SAS software; differences in terms of levels of agreement with individual statements were conducted as χ2-tests using SAS software.
46 For comparison purposes, respondents in the present sample tended to score about as high on the patriotism and Machiavellianism scales as respondents in military samples had in the past and lower on the warriorism scale (See Volker Franke, Preparing for Peace; Volker Franke and Lindy Heinecken, “Adjusting to Peace: Military Values in a Cross-National Comparison,” in Armed Forces & Society, vol. 27, no. 4 (1991); and Volker Franke and Karen Guttieri, “Picking Up the Pieces: Are Officers Ready for Nation Building?” in Journal of Political and Military Sociology, vol. 37, no. 1 (Summer 2009), pp. 1-25.
47 Volker Franke, Preparing for Peace; Volker Franke and Lindy Heinecken, “Adjusting to Peace: Military Values in a Cross-National Comparison;” and Volker Franke and Karen Guttieri, “Picking Up the Pieces.”
48 Robert Young Pelton, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006); and Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books, 2007).
49 Human Rights First, “Private Security Contractors at War.”
50 David Isenberg, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2009), p. 20.
51 Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Institutionalizing Stability Operations within the Department of Defense (Washington: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, September 2005), pp. 14, 31, 33, 38, and 49.
52 David R. Segal and Karin De Angelis, “Changing Conceptions of the Military as a Profession,” in Nielsen and Snider, eds., American Civil-Military Relations, p. 212.
53 Volker Franke and Marc von Boemcken. “Attitudes, Values and Self-Conception of Private Security Contractors in Iraq: An Exploratory Study,” Final Research Report, German Peace Research Foundation (Bonn: BICC, August 2009).
54 Gary Schaub and Volker Franke, “Contractors as Military Professionals?” Parameters, 39, no. 4 (Winter 2009-10), pp. 88-104.