Politicians' desire to make war often exceeds citizens' desire to be sent to war. Such are the challenges of foreign policy in a free market with an all-volunteer military. What do you call the people who fill the gaps arising when politicians insist on going to war anyway?
There are 20,000 "private security contractors" in Iraq: This is the number - and name - widely used to describe the legions who are outside the armed forces of the US and its allies, but doing work remarkably like the work military people do.
But "20,000 mercenaries" is another phrase that pops up as well. Two different names for the same army?
"Mercenary" derives from Latin - note the "merc" root, meaning "market," which it shares with "commerce" and "merchandise" and other such words. In the English language since the late 14th century, it originally referred to one who did any kind of work for pay.
But early on, the word seems to have picked up a whiff of filthy lucre. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites as a usage example from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (1386) a line wherein the Parson is described as "a shepherde and noght a Mercenarie." With a little bracketed note ("Cf. John x:12") Oxford refers us to the New Testament's Gospel of John, which contrasts the "good shepherd," who "giveth his life for the sheep," with the hireling, "whose own the sheep are not."
Whatever the conditions of their employment, let's note that the soldiers of this army of 20,000 have, in fact, been paying the ultimate price in numbers roughly comparable to those of regular armed forces.
The usage history of "mercenary" illustrates what we might call Gresham's Law of language: narrower, "bad" meanings tend to drive the more neutral, nonjudgmental ones out. A few lines below the Chaucer quotation, the OED notes that "mercenary" now refers "exclusively" to "a professional soldier serving a foreign power."
The "foreign power" aspect of the definition has many people bristling against the use of "mercenaries."
Over the past summer, the BBC solicited on its website comments on contractors in Iraq, and experiences from those working for private security firms in Iraq.
"Ahmed" in Edinburgh, Scotland, had this to say: "When foreigners not part of an army get caught in Afghanistan they're 'illegal combatants,' however when they serve the mighty USA they're honourable 'contractors.' America needs to cut down on this sort of hypocrisy if it wishes to be a responsible superpower."
The BBC also quoted "Ian" in Baghdad, working for a British security firm, which he defended as providing "a professional, low-profile service attuned to the operating environment." He further noted, "While private security contractors are a concern, they are not - at least not typically - used in an offensive role thus the term mercenary is not correct."
Security analyst John Robb has coined the term "global guerrillas." He uses it specifically to refer to Latin Americans who were trained by the United States to prosecute drug wars in the jungles and who now find themselves with time on their hands, ready and willing to work in Iraq for much less money than veterans of the US military typically get from private security firms.
To whom do these people answer? Where do they fit in the rules of war? Those are questions for lawyers and lawmakers. But the wordsmiths should help think them through.
• This appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy