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The Return of the Mercenary

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev on Apr 20, 2004

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The recent carnage in Iraq has made public a dirty little secret: some of the personnel on duty there are not volunteer patriots dedicated to bringing liberty to Iraqis but paid professionals — private military contractors, or, more plainly, mercenaries. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution estimates that private contractors now make up the second largest military contingent in Iraq, after the (official) U.S. military force.

Mercenaries are being hired by governments for a number of duties once thought to be the function of the military, from providing security for diplomats and heads of state (including Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai) to enforcing peace settlements and training fledgling militaries. More than 20,000 private contractors are operating in more than 50 countries from Albania to Zambia.

The use of private entities to carry out the governmental functions of waging war (and peace) is no longer an isolated phenomenon. This is why Congress should examine the recommendations made in a 2002 British government Green Paper for a “licensing regime” to distinguish between “reputable and disreputable” private sector military operators.

Mercenaries — professional soldiers who fight for pay rather than out of ideological conviction — have been the rule rather than the exception in the history of warfare. If war was the sport of kings, then mercenaries, immortalized in Biblical verse and Shakespearian drama, were the professional athletes of their day.

The British hired more than 30,000 German soldiers — the famed Hessians, some of whom were defeated by George Washington in his Christmas Eve attack across the Delaware River. In fact, more than a third of the “British” forces in America were hired guns. Meanwhile, the United States turned to private merchants to operate naval vessels (privateers) under letters of marque. And America’s first naval war hero, John Paul Jones, later found paid employment in the Imperial Russian navy.

Mercenaries fell out of favor because they tended to view war as a pragmatic, if risky, business enterprise. Neither heroes nor martyrs, their loyalty was to an employer, not to a cause or country. The rise of mass armies filled by low-paid conscripts indoctrinated by patriotism (beginning first with the levee en masse in France in 1793) eliminated the need for governments to hire professional soldiers.

For much of the 20th century, mercenaries were hired either by aspiring dictators or by multinational corporations. Defense Systems Ltd., a British-based mercenary firm, has contracts with major oil companies such as Texaco and Chevron to protect their assets and infrastructure in volatile places like Angola or Nigeria.

But in a post-nation-state era, the mercenary is making a comeback. In a world no longer characterized by Great Wars, but rather by low-level insurgencies and nation-building, in a political environment when the death of a single soldier — whether draftee or volunteer — can create enormous pressure to terminate a mission, the mercenary is filling the manpower gap in a number of dangerous parts of the world.

Why use mercenaries? Expertise, for one. Leading firms advertise around the world for candidates who have at least five years of experience. In some countries, such as Chile, experienced police officers find that employment with a private military company brings double or triple the salary.

And no one weeps for mercenaries. When a handful of U.S. soldiers died in Somalia in 1993 during Operation Provide Comfort, the outrage among Americans helped to scupper the entire mission. By contrast, the continuing death toll among American private contractors aiding Colombia’s war against narco-terrorists barely makes the headlines.

Mercenaries can be a force for good, as long as they remain on the job. When the South African firm Executive Outcomes was hired by the government of Sierra Leone in 1995, the outside contractors helped to defeat the notorious RUF guerrillas — famous in the West for amputating the arms of their captives. Mercenaries trained the armed forces and created stable conditions for democratic elections to be held. All of this was done with a fraction of the numbers and the cost of an “official” UN peacekeeping force. But when their contract expired in 1997, the professionals left. Four months later, the democratic government in Sierra Leone was overthrown.

But mercenaries should not be mistaken for an armed version of the Peace Corps. They expect to be paid — in some cases, by obtaining valuable natural resource concessions. And a private firm that today might be training police forces in a democratizing country might tomorrow be hired by a repressive regime to crack down on opposition political movements. Most firms operate with little governmental oversight and almost no accountability for the behavior of their personnel. This is especially true when their employees are operating in areas where the rule of law is weak or non-existent.

So what’s to be done? John-Peter Pham, an international diplomat with extensive experience in coping with African civil conflicts, concludes, “Privatized peacekeeping may be the only feasible alternative to watching thousands die. Better to co-opt the phenomenon than to continue to piously denounce it while offering no real alternatives.”

If governments are going to use mercenaries, they should deputize them so that they are held to the same rules as uniformed soldiers. It also means that governments that hire private forces must be prepared to hold them accountable in courts of law for their actions — just as privateers had to appear in special “prize courts.” Congress could take an important step by developing a code of conduct for private military contractors and encouraging other states to do the same.

King David and St. Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit Order), former mercenaries both, would approve.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.