Between privilege and precarity: European soldiers remobilising as private security contractors in Africa. An interview with Jethro Norman

What happens to soldiers after they leave the military? From the Middle East to Africa, increasing numbers of demobilised soldiers have found work in private military and security companies or as security consultants, military trainers, and risk management professionals. While often in the news, sustained ethnographic research with this group is limited, and they are rarely acknowledged as individuals with complex desires, fears and anxieties. 

What follows is an interview with Jethro Norman about his novel multi-sited research following, interviewing, and living with security professionals across Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan. His upcoming book project, tentatively titled Military Afterlives: private security contractors in Africa, dislodges assumptions about private security contractors as either destabilizing mercenaries or the unwitting proxies of states. Instead, Jethro radically reconceives private security work as a struggle for community and solidarity amidst the trauma of demobilisation and the precarity of the labour market.

The conversation highlights the heady mix of privilege and precarity that defines contemporary private security work. Whilst money is an indisputable motivation for many, Jethro’s research shows that there is far more to this line of work. Among other things, we discuss the allure of life in (post)conflict zones and the complex desires and fears of former soldiers, including escapism and colonial nostalgia. Jethro also shares his personal experiences of conducting research in post-conflict areas, his ‘uncomfortable positionality’ and some of the quandaries involved in anthropological research with groups often considered undesirable or repugnant.     

This interview was initially conducted on November 25th 2022, for a WARFUN podcast.  

This version has been edited and amended for clarity.


Heidi: Jethro, I have so many questions I want to ask you but let us start from the beginning. What made you study former European soldiers turned private security contractors?

Jethro: I initially studied History and Politics at university, but the course mostly focused on Great Power conflict, International Diplomacy, and so on, which I quickly discovered was not my vibe. However, in my final year I took a course with a transnational historian who had interviewed foreign fighters travelling to the Balkans in the 1990s. I was immediately struck by how these war volunteers’ messy experiences did not align with the relatively birds-eye and state-centric image of the world that formed the basis of most of my university coursework. So, energised by this newfound transnational angle, I became interested in private military companies. At that time, around 2014, there was still much alarmist and frankly ahistorical talk about the rise of “corporate mercenaries” meaning the end of the Weberian state and a regression to some kind of neo-medieval era (Singer 2010; McFate 2014). Scholars like Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams were already pushing back at this, but for me, there was a larger problem: the voices of these individuals were largely absent from the conversation.

As such, I did a Masters by Research where I reached out to some security contractors working in Somalia. Funnily enough, my initial contact point was through LinkedIn, where some of these guys were starting to market themselves. I approached some of them and asked if they would agree to a Skype interview. Quite a lot just ignored me and a few unsurprisingly told me to ‘F off’, but far more than I had expected had a genuine desire to talk about their experiences.

The Masters was interesting, but you cannot build a relationship with people over Skype, nor understand what is really going on in these places. So next, I applied for PhD funding and spent the best part of a year travelling around East Africa talking to people working for private military and security companies, as well as security consultants, military trainers, humanitarian security professionals and corporate risk management professionals.

At first, I was concerned with mapping ‘the industry’: the companies, the clients and the contracts etc. Over time, though, I ended up focusing more on the individuals themselves rather than the specific companies they worked for. Because what became apparent to me was that, lying behind a mirage of companies and LinkedIn profiles was a transnational community, the core of which is a bunch of former soldiers trying to build a new life in Africa, connected by the shared experience of both military service and their own privatization.

Heidi: I see. You alluded to this already, but why do you believe it is important that we take these ex-soldiers and private security contractors seriously, as you argue in one of your forthcoming articles (Norman in press)?

Jethro: Partly because security contractors are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. On the one hand, contractors are quite often maligned, even caricatured as mercenaries. At other times, they are treated as soldiers or veterans, but often through a Foucauldian lens as a kind of “docile automaton” – machines disciplined by training and just following orders. However, the individuals I got to know through my research were not unthinking war machines, nor were they motivated purely by money or material gain. Many had strong political convictions and were often highly critical of the nation-state militaries and political establishments they once fought for.

Hence, we need to acknowledge, on the one hand, how diverse these people are, and on the other, that they are a group of human beings that have shared some very particular experiences in the military and then subsequently as private contractors.

Moreover, I believe we can learn a lot from ‘taking them seriously’ and understanding them through long-term ethnography, as I have done. As other scholars have argued (e.g., Catherine Lutz, Ken MacLeish and Zoe Wool), soldiers can teach us a lot about the way our world works, not least by complicating the neat boundaries between war and peace, and soldier and civilian.

In my case, the group of former soldiers I got to know provided a unique window into western society. Many of them experienced defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan first-hand and are acutely, viscerally aware of the declining power of the west. Moreover, they are angry about it and seek ways to escape or rebel against this new world.

Heidi: The idea of taking people seriously has become a bit of a cliché or buzzword in Anthropology, but that does not mean it is unimportant. Arguably it is what ethnographic research is all about. And, as you suggested, it might be especially important when it comes to people who are frequently caricatured and misinterpreted.
Of course, there must still be space for criticism and critique. However, as Astuti (2017: 119) argues, “when people—living human beings—are firmly center stage, one is bound to see temporal and contextual transformations that make it impossible to give a one-dimensional account.”
Jethro, please share more from your fieldwork. What research methods did you use, and how did you go about building trust and relationships with your interlocutors in what I can only imagine must have been an environment characterised by mistrust and secrecy?

Jethro: The mainstay of my research is semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations. This kind of private security work is quite an insular world, and there are a lot of closed and informal networks. So, it should come as little surprise that it took a long while before I made any real breakthroughs. Initially, some people would not talk to me, and if they did, they would be quite suspicious and give abrupt or even hostile interviews. I vividly remember one of my very first interviews, which was with a towering man, ex-Special Forces, very successful in the business. As I blurted out my first question he stopped me mid-sentence, looked me in the eye and gruffly said, “now, do not be alarmed”, before flourishing a pistol from somewhere around his midriff and placing it on the table, where it sat between him and me for the duration of the interview. This kind of display was something of an outlier, most of my interviews were not like that. And fortunately, after some months, I had made friends and been invited for beers, to watch sports and so on. And at that point, things started to snowball, and doors began opening everywhere.  

This methodological experience also explains why the central concept in the book is what I call the contractor community. I argue that whilst private security is an intensely competitive and cutthroat industry, behind the companies and the contracts there still lies a community of mostly ex-military figures who know each other and socialise with each other through their work and military background. So, at some point I had managed to become at least tentatively allowed into this community. I was sometimes asked “who I had served with in the military” or “which security company” I was with, for example. I was always upfront that I was a PhD researcher and that whilst I wanted to hear their perspective, I still stressed my own academic freedom of interpretation. But I did not hide the fact that fieldwork was also an opportunity for me at that time to explore and travel, which I think resonated with a lot of these guys.

I should say here that there is some uncomfortable positionality to this fieldwork. I was a white guy in my early twenties who liked to play rugby and football and did not mind sitting in a bar until 4am. This certainly made things easier. That is not to say that there were not some ethical quandaries that I struggled with, especially when conversations included misogyny or racism.

Lastly, aside from fieldwork, I also visited the national archives in Nairobi and London because I was interested in how contemporary private security work in East Africa had aspects of continuity between the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Heidi: That is very interesting, and we will return to some of it later. However, I first wanted to ask you about the contractors’ relationship with the military and their past lives as professional soldiers. Contrary to popular opinion, soldiers often characterise war zones as spaces of freedom, something you also touch upon in your work. Yet you write that the ex-soldiers you worked with also contrasted the freedom they experienced as private contractors to the rigidity and bureaucratization of the contemporary military in their home countries. Can you elaborate on this? 

Jethro: I think security work promises an opportunity to recapture some of the rhythms and facets of soldierly life. You are surrounded by your former comrades, you work overseas and leave your family at home, and you go to places deemed to be exciting, dangerous or exotic. Hence, for some of these individuals, security work is an opportunity to remobilise –a second chance for a life of travel, comradeship, and adventure.

That said, many of the contractors I got to know were not merely hoping to get back to how things were in the military; they were trying to find something the military could not give them in the first place! Some of them had very ambivalent, if not openly hostile, relationships to the militaries they had served in. And some suggested that security work offered greater freedoms and opportunities than military institutions, which they increasingly saw as bureaucratised – even feminised. And this is strange. Because the private security industry can be brutal, with short-term contracts and under-regulation that often leave these former soldiers in a precarious position. In my book, I explain their embrace of freedom and risk-taking as a means to rationalise their own precarity in the present. However, it is also a way to criticise the military establishment they came from.

The other irony is that their work often directly feeds into the very same bureaucratised systems they are critical of. During my fieldwork, I managed to access an oil camp in Kenya through a private security contractor I knew. One thing that struck me was these incredibly over-the-top security procedures they had to enforce through which everything was ordered and controlled to the minute degree. At that time, I had been living outside of the camp for around a month, talking to communities living around the oil sites. And it became immediately apparent that those inside the camp had no idea what was going on outside of their bubble. Hence, for most contractors, it is probably more the idea of freedom rather than a lived reality.

Heidi: That is an important distinction. Let us talk more about the ex-soldiers’ motivations to remobilise as private security contractors. In my own work, I have been particularly interested in the question of what attracts people to participate in wars they do not believe in or have any personal stakes in, but you make the point that your interlocutors were also trying to escape something in their home countries. Can you say something more about this? 

Jethro: I think there is always a mix of push and pull factors, and the question of agency is a thorny one indeed. There are several contexts that are important here in explaining the push as well as the pull of security work.

First, as I mentioned, many contractors had experienced the military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan first-hand, and then returned to societies that were reeling from the global financial crisis. A lot of the conversations we had were about specific issues related to demobilisation, such as marital issues, a feeling of not fitting into society, or finding meaningful work, or indeed finding work at all. And the book I am writing tries to front this context – by reconceiving private security work as not simply about money – but at its heart, a struggle for community and solidarity amidst the trauma of demobilisation and the precarity of the labour market.

So this context helps us understand the turn to private security work at this specific moment in time in the 2010s. But the broader backdrop is the steady decline of western authority and influence at the twilight of empire. In the book, I focus historically on the UK and US, and argue that much soldierly work outside of the formal military during the 20th century – mercenarism if you want to call it that–  often took place in the context of the decline of empire, with ex-soldiers fighting anti-colonial movements in Africa and elsewhere. I argue that we must also understand this phenomenon as part of a larger history in which soldiers circulated from Europe to Africa through the colonial and postcolonial periods to the present day.

Zooming back to East Africa in the 2010s, one of the things that surprised me was how a number of these contractors were reading colonial histories and travelogues of colonial adventurers. Through this, they could recast their private security roles in terms of these colonial adventurers. In effect – I think they found refuge in an imagined settler-colonial past, reinscribing colonial and postcolonial legacies into exploitative neoliberal work practices in order to make the precariousness of private security palatable. So private security becomes a way to escape, or even rebel against this new world. Contractors do not see themselves as futuristic, dystopian corporate agents of ‘new wars’ as some academics would suggest, but as the exact reverse – they view their privatised roles as akin to colonial adventurers and explorers.

Of course, much of this is specific to the East African context. Britain’s Kenya colony was constructed as ‘white man’s country’(Jackson 2011), but these settlers were not just any white men. It was very much a place of elite privilege, an aristocratic playground in pristine nature, a place of escape, where the ordinary rules did not apply. And this legacy is still alive today – and partly explains the contemporary allure of working there amongst certain former soldiers, especially from higher ranks.

Heidi: Colonialism has so many afterlives. These expressions of colonial nostalgia and revival are both disturbing and fascinating. They also remind me of Norwegian ex-soldiers who remobilised as private security contractors in Congo and were charged with espionage and murder. While imprisoned in Kisangani, the two men formed a club for other ex-pat prisoners, which they called ‘Expatriate Club Stanleyville Prison’ (a reference to the Belgian colonial name of Kisangani). They also regularly expressed nostalgia for colonial Africa (Bangstad and Bertelsen 2010).

Before we conclude the interview, I wanted to ask you about another part of your work that I found intriguing and which unsettles popular imaginaries of war and conflict zones.  In one of your upcoming articles, you look at the international green zone in Somalia, which you argue served as a space of not only protection or safety, but also recreation and entertainment. This reminded of the work of historian Meredith Lair (2011), who discusses how boredom was an enemy to the U.S. mission and efficiency in Vietnam and how, in order to combat this boredom, the military created a standard of living for troops in Vietnam which often was higher than what the soldiers enjoyed at home. Could you please tell us more about the role of entertainment and recreation in the international green zone in Somalia?

Jethro: I think there is some resonance with Meredith Lair’s work that you describe, especially in relation to the disappointment that some individuals felt – that their military experience was not as exciting or life-changing as they perhaps expected it to be. Quite a number of contractors I spoke to claimed they had seen far more ‘action’ in their post-military careers than they ever did in decades of military service. At the same time, it is a curious thing that places like Mogadishu or Juba are deemed areas of extreme risk, areas of hardship for international workers, and yet they are also places that some individuals quietly enjoy. Some security contractors for example, seem to find these austere, regulated, and militarised spaces more familiar and even desirable to live in.

Over time, they become not just a place to work but to live. I remember one contractor in Mogadishu telling me how nice it is: ‘Kabul with seaside’ he joked. At the airport, you can buy shark jaws and other curios to take home as souvenirs. People tell stories of some of the best fishing on the planet, with the ocean teeming with fish. Again though, the risk and reward calculation comes into play, as there are numerous sharks in the water (graphically illustrated by a photo circulating of an unfortunate pilot who had gone harpoon fishing and had his leg bitten off by a shark).  One interpretation of this is that this kind of extreme-sport leisure and recreation becomes a way to deal with the disappointment of not getting the real ‘action’ that many had sought out or expected when travelling to somewhere like Mogadishu. These are important rituals for military masculinities, where social and leisure activities are not separate from war, but constitutive of it.

One of the crucial points here is that these places, like the green zone airport compound in Mogadishu, were always supposed to be temporary – they are supposed to disappear once the mission was complete and stability restored. These are designed as nonplaces – spaces of transience, buildings made of prefabricated material, scattered about in patchwork style. But decades later, they are still there. And as the temporary slides into the permanent, leisure becomes increasingly important to maintain the balance between the comfortable inside and the chaotic outside that is the hallmark of enclaves everywhere.

Heidi: That is very interesting. To conclude, I want to return to the question of your personal experience of studying these private security contractors up close. You mentioned previously that you considered fieldwork in East Africa as an opportunity to travel and explore, and that you did not mind sitting at the bar until four in the morning and chatting with your interlocutors. At the same time, you also underlined that it was difficult and time-consuming to gain trust and acceptance and that you sometimes struggled with ethical quandaries, for instance when your interlocutors expressed racist and misogynistic attitudes.  Would you say that you had similar experiences of joy, freedom and precarity as your interlocutors, or did your research provoke other feelings and experiences? And how did you deal with the ethical quandaries you mentioned?

Jethro: The short answer is –to a degree. Going back to my ‘uncomfortable positionality’, I certainly felt some similar emotions at that time in my life. I suppose it is a part of why I was able to be accepted –that in some senses, my emotions were aligned. However, I would caveat by saying that there were plenty more times when I felt boredom and frustration – and especially in the first six months, rejection – rather than intense thrill or joy, or even fear. 

However, is only to a degree, because I certainly would not say that I experienced the same precarity. True, I was a broke PhD student paying for fieldwork costs out of my PhD scholarship. But I did not have a family, I did not have any responsibilities really. Moreover, I had never been a soldier, I had not experienced war in that way. So, in that sense my experience was clearly not comparable. 

I have already noted how my rather uncomfortable gendered and raced positionality meant I possessed relevant cultural capital that made accessing this particular community easier. Yet there were also some ethical quandaries that I faced. Do you challenge racism and misogyny when it emerges in conversations, for example? What are the limits of the things you will accept in the quest to gain access? Having said that, I want to point out that I experienced an awful lot of this kind of thing from other international actors, especially humanitarian aid workers, albeit often in a more subtle or less blunt manner.

What I would like to end on is to emphasise is the importance of fieldwork, and especially when it concerns politically and emotionally charged topics such as war, or apparently ‘unlikeable’(Pasieka 2019) groups of people such as mercenaries or security contractors. This point becomes more essential in our current era where long-term fieldwork is becoming more and more difficult. I think the future of sustained fieldwork looks a little bleak right now, but I hope I am wrong!

Heidi: I hope so too! Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences, and good luck with finalising your book – I very much look forward to reading it.

Astuti, R. 2017. Taking people seriously. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(1): 105-122

Bangstad, S and Bertelsen, B.E. 2010. Heart of darkness reinvented? A tale of ex-soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anthropology Today 26(1):8-12

Jackson, W. 2011. ‘White man’s country: Kenya Colony and the making of a myth. Journal of Eastern African Studies 5(2):  344–368.

Lair, M. 2011. Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

McFate, S. 2014. The modern mercenary: Private armies and what they mean for world order. Oxford University Press.

Norman, J. 2023. Tensions of modernity: privilege, precarity and colonial nostalgia amongst European security contractors in East Africa. Comparative Studies in Society and History, in press.

Pasieka, A. 2019. Anthropology of the far right: What if we like the “unlikeable” others? Anthropology Today 35(1): 3-6

Singer, P.W. 2010. ‘Corporate warriors’, in Corporate Warriors. Cornell University Press.

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