Mercenaries have been around for a very long time; so long, in fact, that working as a “sell sword” is regarded as a prime candidate for the title, “The Second Oldest Profession”; the Freedomist even covered this previously. During the Italian Renaissance, the sometimes substantial forces of various condottieri mercenary captains had a noted and significant impart on Western History. In the modern day, from 2003 onwards, this has been exemplified by the rise of the “Private Military Company” (PMC).
While some people may think that mercenaries are a relatively recent phenomena, having been largely eliminated after the Napoleonic Wars, the truth is that the profession has continued on up to the present day, albeit on a more individual level, more than massed units like the hired Hessian troops of the American War of Independence.
(An important note is that those to whom the 19th Century term “filibusters”, as related to military activity, applied were not ‘mercenaries’ in the traditional sense, as military filibustering was rarely done at the behest of any internal faction in a country. Military filibusters were essentially well-armed bandits with political aspirations.)
Many military figures of world history were mercenaries at one time or another, figures like the Athenian general and historian Xenophon, author of The Anabasis, which chronicles the withdrawal of some ten thousand mostly-Greek mercenaries from the Achemenid Empire, to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian professional soldier who joined George Washington’s army, and had such an impact on it, that he is regarded as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the United States Army.
In the aftermath of the overthrow and ultimate execution of French king Louis XVI, France instituted what we would now refer to as “national mobilization”, the vast size of the armies the revolutionary government was able to field proved so attractive to nations everywhere, notions of unique national character were deliberately reinforced. As a result, it came to be considered odd – if not more than a little dirty – to serve in the armed forces of another state.
And yet such service, primarily for money, continued. The French Foreign Legion, established in 1831, was created to place foreigners who had previously served as mercenaries in French royal service, into the French Army for service outside of France. Smaller such units appeared from time to time, but after about 1820 or so, the “Soldier of Fortune” phase began in earnest, first with the Filibusters, but soon incorporating many individuals, mostly former soldiers but also a few pure amateurs, who were what we would now call “adrenaline junkies”, following reports of wars breaking out in various places around the world, where formal military education and technical abilities were scarce. The advanced education and experience of many of these individuals often proved invaluable to their employers. As just one example, British Royal Navy Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was instrumental in creating the revolutionary navies of Brazil, Chile and Peru, in the 1820’s and 30’s.
By the 1890’s, “freebooters” and soldiers of fortune were seemingly everywhere, fighting for almost all sides in world conflict zones. With the advent of weapons such as practical machine guns and quick-firing artillery, coupled to a highly permissive “cash-n-carry” environment for buying weapons, meant that those individual’s technical skills were often absolutely decisive in conflicts in remote areas.
Following World War’s 1 & 2, however, the world saw the return of mass national mobilization, and a reinforcement of the perceived uniqueness of national character. As a result, aside from long-established units like the French Foreign Legion, “mercenary work” mostly vanished completely, for about fifteen years. As the tensions of the Cold War increased, however, the decolonization of Africa initiated a series of “proxy wars”, which would define much of the following thirty years. In 1961, mercenaries returned to the world’s consciousness in force – both literally and figuratively.
In 1961, Thomas Michael Hoare (who would come to be known as “Mad Mike”), a former officer in the British Army and veteran of the Burma Campaign in the Second World War, was hired by Moïse Tshombe, the leader of the nascent breakaway province of Katanga, to form the core of an army to secure the state’s independence.
Although that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, Tshombe – in the absolutely wild world of Congolese politics (YouTube link; language warning) – was recalled to become the country’s fifth Prime Minister in mid-1964, to deal with the so-called “Simba Uprising”, a massive and extremely bloody rebellion in the vast state’s northeastern regions. Tshombe, in turn, recalled Hoare to recruit a force of mercenaries to act as a spearhead to the wavering Congolese Army. Hoare promptly recruited mercenaries through newspaper advertisements in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and formed his unit as “5 Commando, ANC”.
Although the force got off to a rocky start, it was quickly whipped into shape (mostly by enforcing a regimen of discipline that western armies had long ago abandoned.) Hoare quickly began rolling up the Simba’s, in a series of operations that resulted in the liberation of Stanleyville (now Kisangani). In traditional mercenary fashion, Hoare’s c.300 mercenary troops and their Congolese allies happily sacked the city in the aftermath, blasting open bank vaults and looting anything not nailed down. Atrocities – although nowhere near the levels committed by the Simba’s – were rampant. Hoare’s unit would ultimately be disbanded in 1967, after some six years of mostly-successful operations. A few other pseudo-units of (mostly White) mercenaries came and went in the Congo during the 1960’s, contributing to actions that would leave the Congo devastated into the modern day.
Mercenary activity simmered for another twenty years, with Western mercenaries – usually, but not always, former soldiers – taking part in many, possibly a majority, of the conflicts of the 1970’s and 80’s. In the aftermath of the rise and fall of “Executive Outcomes” (defunct in 1998, but recently reestablished), the prototype for the modern PMC, the United Nations passed a frankly idiotic and laughably unenforceable prohibition against mercenaries, “formally” outlawing the practice and denying them status as prisoners of war under the increasingly irrelevant Geneva Conventions…which were rarely, if ever, extended to captured mercenaries, in any case.
The September 11th, 2001 attacks are what ultimately rode to the rescue of the mercenary profession. The reason was painfully simple: With the end of the Cold War in 1991, most of the nations of the world severely trimmed their massive military establishments, leaving their capability to deploy military force critically short. As there were no national mobilizations after the attacks, and the dawning of the “Global War on Terror” mostly took the form of actions by small units of superbly (and expensively) trained special forces units, backed up by comparatively small numbers of conventional troops, the military landscape seemed to have changed.
However, this change was actually a mirage, an image warped by a declining lack of military knowledge among the general population. In fact, the cuts in manpower during the 1990’s had been so deep, across the globe, that military forces – including those of the United States – were left completely incapable of operating for any length of time in a war zone. With the various wars and military actions abroad becoming increasingly unpopular “back home”, there was no interest in trying to expand the manpower numbers of western military forces (which is an entirely different story on its own), a solution had to be found, and quickly.
This is what led to the rise of the 21st Century PMC.
Private Military Companies are a polite legal fiction, designed to hide their status as mercenaries (thus avoiding legalistic maneuvers by nations of the UN) by usually referring to them as “security contractors”, who insist that they take no active role in military actions, merely defending themselves. It’s a paper-thin dodge, and one no one with any concept of self-decency ever really believed.
As of the beginning of 2022, however, the world’s military calculus has begun to shift once again. With military actions such as the Tigray War and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the return of mass warfare (long thought vanished as a realistic possibility) has returned, with a vengeance.
Massed wars – “main force conflicts”, if one prefers – like these in the modern era are inimical to most flavors of PMCs. Fighting insurgents armed with individual small arms and a few light weapons is one thing – contesting a battlefield against a first-tier military state is another matter, entirely. To borrow the words of author Thomas Ricks, few “contractors” within any PMC has a dog in any fight like that.
While PMC’s will continue to be employed in the short term, it is a virtual certainty that the non-state supported, independent PMC will vanish within ten years.
…Assuming, of course, that Western States can fix their broken military forces.
Let that sink in.