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Erik Prince’s ‘New Band of Flying Tigers’ is a Sequel We Don’t Need

It shouldn’t be too surprising that in his recent New York Times op-ed calling for an infusion of private contractors into Afghanistan, Erik Prince sidestepped any discussion of Blackwater’s history in Iraq. The company had such a poor record that Prince has changed its name numerous times in the years since: he now is the CEO of the Frontier Services Group.

Instead of leaning on his own company’s history, Prince opened his op-ed with a historical analogy that he used to buttress his case: “In 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, a group of volunteer American aviators led by Gen. Claire Chennault known as the Flying Tigers fought Japanese aggression in China. They were so successful that many people believe they were decisive in holding back Japan, eventually leading to its defeat. Although they were paid volunteers rather than members of the American military, they were not denigrated as ‘mercenaries.’ The Flying Tigers — who now would be called contractors — fought for China and the United States and, like paid American contractors in theaters of war today, fought as bravely and patriotically as American soldiers.”

A debate quickly ensued about the propriety of the New York Times running the op-ed but lost in the shuffle was a basic question: does Prince’s historical analogy hold up? It’s a question that is worth addressing because we shouldn’t let Prince have the last word on his substantive argument (in essence, that there is a historical basis for using large-scale contract fighters in the midst of an American war). The problem is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Prince’s historical analogy doesn’t hold up. 

There is a fuller history here that Prince doesn’t delve into, even though he is selling a “new band of Flying Tigers.” When Chennault retired from the Army in 1937 he was only a Captain. Chennault went to China in 1937 as an aviation advisor employed by the Chinese government (who hired various foreign advisors) and then in 1940, Chennault returned to the United States and made his case to the Roosevelt administration (before Pearl Harbor) for American planes to be sold to China and for pilots released from active service so they could go to a help protect the Burma Road. Much of this was done through an intermediary corporation with whom the pilots signed their contracts.

The plan was not one designed by the United States government, and it wasn’t done under the supervision of a “General” who was overseeing the group (Chennault wasn’t made a General until he rejoined the Army later in the war). The idea was put forward and circulated by actors largely outside the U.S. government: the idea originated with the Chinese government and then Chennault, along with Tommy ‘the Cork’ Corcoran (one of the first K-street lobbyists), T.V. Soong (the Chinese ambassador), and Joe Alsop (the columnist) helped to push the Roosevelt administration to take action. There was even a middle-man, William Pawley, who stood to make a fortune from the sale of the P-40 fighters to China.

This is a fascinating historical story, but not one that should be the blueprint for our strategy in Afghanistan. The American Volunteer Group was a risky operation, one that General George Marshall recognized could inadvertently bring us into war, and he took steps to ensure that the group would not get bombers, as some had proposed.

The strategic rationale for the Roosevelt administration was that this offered a means to extend some assistance to the Chinese, who were being battered by the Japanese after years of war, while having some plausible deniability for the United States about providing assistance to the Chinese. In that sense, it was more analogous to the sort of covert operations that would come to typify U.S. foreign policy in the post-WWII era than as an example of the use of “contractors” in a warzone, as Prince describes them.

The original unit at least had some strategic value for the U.S.: it offered some assistance to China in a way that couldn’t be done through the U.S. Army. But Prince offers no reason why we should use contractors over soldiers for the tasks that he lays out in Afghanistan beyond a vague assurance that his plan would “eliminate[e] the stigma of a foreign occupying force,” but he offers no evidence for that dubious claim. It’s unclear exactly what these men would be doing: they’d be “adjuncts to the Afghan army” but would be accountable to our Uniform Code of Military Justice “just as active-duty American troops are now.” Precisely who these men would be working for, or how they would be accountable, is left unclear and there is no distillation of why we should prefer this “new band of Flying Tigers” over U.S. soldiers for the mission he lays out.

Prince does get one thing right: the American Volunteer Group did perform “bravely and patriotically” when they entered combat (which happened after Pearl Harbor) but the Army quickly realized that they didn’t want Americans as part of a foreign air force operating in a war-zone outside the U.S. chain of command so they offered Chennault the opportunity to rejoin the Army Air Corps, this time as a General. He accepted the offer and in July 1942 the American Volunteer Group was folded into the U.S. Army Air Corps. Chennault, and many of those pilots, would go on to serve in the U.S. Army for the duration of the war and many of the original Flying Tigers would lose their lives or be captured while wearing their Army uniform.

Prince is selling a “new band of Flying Tigers” but as with so many things, the sequel doesn’t get what made the original special in the first instance and we shouldn’t try to recreate it. The Flying Tigers were the product of a unique circumstance when they were developed in 1940/1941 and while their heroism was admirable in the early days of World War II, they don’t provide support for Prince’s claim that we should have large-scale contractors along with American soldiers in Afghanistan. If anything, it suggests the contrary: the Flying Tigers were ultimately folded back into the Army Air Corps a few months after the United States entered the war.

Image: Robert T. Smith/Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

is a graduate of Yale Law School and the author of a forthcoming book on the Flying Tigers (Viking, 2018).