How Mercenaries Work

When a hail of gunfire left 17 Iraqi citizens dead and 24 others wounded on Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater USA (now Blackwater Worldwide) became a media buzzword. So did the word "mercenary." In fact, in October of that same year, a panel of independent U.N. human-rights experts issued a report accusing the U.S. of using a "new kind of mercenary" in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Blackwater employees who opened fire in Baghdad, the report said, are representative of a global trend in which recruits from one country are hired to perform military jobs in another.

Blackwater sign
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A sign marks the entrance of a Blackwater training facility in Illinois­. The private military contractor has had a huge presence in Iraq.

Some may ask what m­akes this kind of mercenary activity new at all. After all, mercenaries have been part of warfare ever since Persian prince and general Cyrus the Younger hired the Ten Thousand, a large army of Greek mercenaries, to seize the throne of Persia from his brother Arsaces. That fateful battle, which left Cyrus the Younger and many Greek soldiers dead, occurred in 401 B.C. -- some 2,400 years ago.

The style of warfare was certainly much different in 401 B.C. -- the combatants were hoplites, or soldiers who fought with spears and shields, often in a phalanx formation -- but how different was the practice of employing mercenaries? Were ancient mercenaries really different? Were they perceived as negatively then as they are now? Did the use of mercenaries give way to other military trends and strategies, only to be resurrected recently? Or have soldiers of fortune, as they're often called, been a permanent fixture of major political conflicts?

­This article will address those questions and more. In particular, we'll examine why mercenary armies are attractive alternatives for countries at war, as well as the risks and controversies surrounding their use. Our first step is to clarify what the word "mercenary" means. As we'll see in the next section, the military definition of mercenaries is precise and has serious implications for those who decide to become professional soldiers.


The Meaning of Mercenary

Name Calling

Mercenaries have been called many things over the years. Most colloquialisms reflect the public's low opinion of professional soldiers:

  • soldiers of fortune
  • soldiers for hire
  • hired guns
  • dogs of war (from the play "Julius Caesar")

The word "mercenary" comes from the Latin "merces," which means "wages" or "fee." Thus, taken literally, a mercenary is any person who serves merely for wages. Although this definition could apply to many of us in the working world, it's most closely associated with the professional soldier, or someone who is hired by a political entity to fight in a conflict. That conflict could be a war, a coup attempt or a prohibition campaign designed to reduce illegal drug trade.

­Historically, ­a mercenary was usually a soldier hired for service in the army of a foreign country. For example, in the Revolutionary War, Great Britain hired German mercenaries to fight against the American colonists. Likewise, the Continental Army, under the guidance of George Washington, also employed its share of mercenaries. These soldiers fought alongside colonial militia and members of the regular army. The chart below compares these three types of military forces.

  Mercenary Army
 MilitiaRegular Army
Definition­Group of professional soldiers hired by state or nation
 Military force made up of civilians
The force of a country's army that remains even in peacetime
Not citizens of the country they serveCitizens of the country they serveCitizens of the country they serve

Not residents of the country they serve

Residents of the country they serveResidents of the country they serve
Paid for service, usually more than ordinary armed forcesNot paid for servicePaid for service
Political Allegiance
No allegiance to the country for which they fight

Strong allegiance to the country for which they fight

Strong allegiance to the country for which they fight
Permanent Force

B­y the 19th century, warfare was changing, and the mercenary with it. For example, the French Foreign Legion formed in 1831 to absorb European refugees who were streaming into France in the wake of the July Revolution of 1830. As Legionnaires, these foreign-born soldiers fought as a branch of the regular armed forces of France. So in the strictest sense of the definition, they were mercenaries because they were hired to serve in a foreign army. But they were required to serve a five-year contract, and they could ask for French nationality after three year's service.

Clearly, the division between mercenary and non-mercenary soldiers was getting fuzzy. The four Geneva Conventions had to account for these nuances as they tried to formalize rules regarding how combatants and noncombatants would be treated during wartime. According to the Geneva Conventions, a lawful combatant is a soldier who belongs to the armed forces of a state. Lawful combatants can legally participate in hostilities with an enemy of the state and must be granted prisoner-of-war status if captured. Notice that members of the French Foreign Legion are lawful combatants by this interpretation.

One of three amendments ot the Geneva Conventions, the first Protocol of 1977 clearly defines all of the criteria that a soldier must meet to be considered a mercenary. A mercenary is a person who:

  • Is speci­ally recruited to take part in a conflict, but isn't a member of the armed forces of the state that recruited him
  • Ac­tively engages in hostilities
  • Is motivated by private gain and is paid substantially more than the ordinary armed forces of the state
  • Isn't a national of the states involved in the conflict
  • ­
  • Doesn't reside in a territory controlled by the states involved in the conflict

As such, a mercenary isn't a lawful combatant and enjoys no protection under the Geneva Conventions. He can be executed or charged with murder if he kills either a combatant or a noncombatant.

In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that outlawed the use of mercenaries. However, only 30 countries have ratified the resolution to date. Many countries, including the United States and Iraq, have not signed the accord, mainly because mercenaries, while discouraged by international law, offer several advantages that make them attractive to countries at war. In the next section, we'll find out what those advantages are.



Why are mercenaries used?

The reasons for using mercenaries have changed over the years. In ancient times, mercenaries were a necessity. Standing armies weren't available, so rulers had to look elsewhere for soldiers after they exhausted their supply of able-bodied citizens available to fight.

For example, the Hundred Years' War, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, took its toll on the English and French armies. As the prolonged war grew in dimension, so did the number of mercenaries. Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince, made good use of mercenaries to carry out a method of warfare known as chevauchée. In chevauchée, small groups of mounted soldiers stormed through a territory, burning and pillaging everything in their path. Chevauchée was very effective, and it made being a mercenary a lucrative profession. Soldiers from all over Europe flocked to France to get their share of the loot, which included both salary and whatever they could plunder.

Swiss Guard
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See those pikes? The Swiss Guards know how to use them.

­When the Hundred Years' War ended, the demand for mercenaries evaporated. Some remained in France and continued to wreak havoc there. Others ­became part of free companies, freelance soldiers who sold their services to various princes and dukes. Free companies would often specialize in certain forms of combat or in certain weapons. It became possible to hire, not just additional soldiers, but soldiers who possessed a specific skill.

Two mercenary armies amplified this trend in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first was the Swiss Guard, whose soldiers became so skilled with close-combat weapons, especially the spearlike pike, that warlords all over Europe began recruiting them for battle. The German Landsknechte also used the pike as their primary weapon, but they weren't one-dimensional. Other soldiers supported the pikemen with swords. And the Landsknechte were much more likely to use firearms, such as the arquebus, a musketlike weapon. These characteristics made the Landsknechte the dominant mercenary force until the development of political standing armies in the mid-17th century.

German mercenaries upheld their reputation as skilled warriors into the 18th century. Many came to America during the Revolutionary War to support the British, who simply didn't have enough troops. In fact, most of the soldiers the Americans fought weren't British; they were German.

In World War II, the German army took advantage of foreign-born soldiers. Known as freiwillige, or volunteers, these fighting men came largely from German-occupied countries to fight for the Third Reich. Technically, the freiwillige weren't mercenaries because, as volunteers, they were treated the same as other German soldiers. Their use, however, illustrates another reason why mercenaries were popular: By cultivating recruits internationally, a nation could capitalize quickly on all available manpower to build an even larger fighting force.

After World War II, the use of mercenaries declined. Many went to work in Third World countries, especially in Africa, where they were hired both by government and antigovernment groups. Mercenaries, especially those from Europe, participated in various postcolonial wars across the African continent -- in Congo, Angola and Sierra Leone. They were hired to train soldiers, to advise military leaders and to actively engage rebel forces. Many prominent mercenaries were captured and either executed or imprisoned during this time.

­As a result of the co­nflict in Africa and the unsavory mercenary activity it inspired, the international community strongly discouraged the use of mercenaries. Countries continued to hire foreign soldiers, but they exerted much more control. They also limited the activities of these soldiers to supporting roles only, freeing the regular army to focus on dangerous or mission-critical activities. Today, several companies exist to provide this new breed of mercenary. They are known as private military companies, or PMCs. On the next page, we'll examine PMCs more closely.


The Modern Mercenary: Private Military Companies

After the Cold War, the world's standing armies began to get smaller. Meanwhile, the nature of warfare was changing. Low-intensity conflict began to replace large-scale wars. In such a conflict, armed force is just one small part of an expansive menu of social, economic and political tools available to engage an enemy.

Accompanying this trend was a dramatic increase in the use of advanced weapon systems. Maintaining these systems became a serious challenge. Soldiers spent more time monitoring weapons and learning how to operate them. With resources already stretched thin, armies were having trouble keeping up. They started looking to private contractors, or private military companies (PMCs), to fill the gaps.

The number of PMCs mushroomed in the 1990s. Generally, they didn't provide combat soldiers but rather civilian contractors to perform any number of noncombat duties, from monitoring advanced weapon systems to rendering technical assistance and logistical support. A few, however, engaged in combat.

The company Sandline International made headlines in 1997 when it sent troops to fight against rebel forces on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific. And Executive Outcomes led a coup attempt in 2004 to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. Simon Mann, an ex-officer of the British army, ran both of these companies. The media and the international community condemned Mann and his soldiers as mercenaries, and when Mann was captured and arrested in March 2004, both companies folded.

Simon Mann
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Simon Mann (left, in handcuffs), the leader of the group of 70 mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe on charges of trying to topple the president of Equatorial Guinea

The ABCs of PMCs

The market for private security forces is enormous, so it's no surprise that many different companies have emerged to capitalize on the billions of available dollars. The following is a partial list of PMCs that have existed or currently exist:

  • Blackwater Worldwide
  • Control Risks
  • DynCorp
  • Erinys
  • Executive Outcomes
  • Global Strategies Group, formerly Global Risk Strategies
  • Kroll
  • Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI)
  • Olive Group
  • Sandline International
  • Triple Canopy
  • Vinnell

The private military company wasn't dead, however. If anything, the conflict in Iraq led to an unprecedented proliferation of PMCs and nonmilitary contractors. Today, contractors make up a second, private army that's larger than the entire U.S. military force. The exact number is debatable, but some estimates suggest that more than 180,000 individual contractors of many nationalities work for the U.S. government in Iraq, doing an assortment of jobs that the U.S. has paid more than $100 billion for [source: Risen].

Blackwater Worldwide is probably the most visible PMC operating in Iraq. Headquartered in North Carolina, Blackwater provides most of the security for U.S. embassy personnel in Iraq. Although the security guards are armed, they don't execute offensive operations. In fact, their rules of engagement are very clear: They can use proportionate force only when attacked. But the lines can get blurred easily, as evidenced by the September 2007 shootings involving Blackwater guards. The incident, which Blackwater says was prompted by military aggression against their ranks, left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and 24 wounded. No soldiers were among the casualties. An investigation into the incident revealed that 14 of the shootings were unjustified and broke deadly force rules in effect for security contractors [source: Johnston and Broder].

In light of such events, it's easy to see why many critics would describe private military contractors as mercenaries. And yet a majority of contractors working in Iraq rarely, if ever, engage in any sort of armed combat. So what do they do with their time? That's the topic of the next section.


Life of a Mercenary: Soldier in the French Foreign Legion

There's a popular notion that mercenaries participate in grand adventures all over the world and get paid handsomely to do it. And yet being a professional soldier, like any career, has its positives and negatives. To understand what it's like to be a modern mercenary, we need to consider the two different kinds: the soldier and the contractor. A member of the French Foreign Legion should serve as a good example of the former; a security contractor of a private military company, such as Blackwater Worldwide, should serve as an example of the latter. Let's start with life as a Legionnaire.

In its early days, the French Foreign Legion tended to recruit down-and-out individuals. Many existed on the fringes of society or were criminals who saw the Legion as a last resort. Today, this can still apply to some recruits, but the majority are upstanding citizens. Some have even served as soldiers in traditional armies.

French Foreign Legion Soldiers
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Are you a Francophile with a dodgy past? Why not join the French Foreign Legion?

There are no recruiting offices located outside of France, so interested citizens from other countries must to travel to one of several Legion information centers in mainland France. They make this trip at their own risk, because there are no guarantees that the Legion will accept them. You might think this would discourage foreign-born volunteers, but it doesn't. The approximately 8,000 Legionnaires hail from 136 countries, including France itself [source: French Foreign Legion].

After receiving some basic information, all recruits report to a Legion recruitment center for preselection. The preselection process includes an initial medical checkup and a "confirmation of motivation" to ensure recruits are serious about joining. Recruits who are preselected proceed to Aubagne, France, for formal selection. In Aubagne, recruits receive a more thorough medical examination and additional motivation questions. They must also complete a series of logic, sports and personality tests to determine their strengths and skills. Those who are selected must sign a five-year contract of service.

Basic training lasts 15 weeks and takes place in Castelnaudary, a country town located in southern France. Training is meant to introduce new Legionnaires to military life, to their comrades and to the French language. At the end of basic training, Legionnaires receive their képi blanc, the traditional white-peaked hat of the Legion, as well as their assignments.

After basic training, new soldiers split off into 11 regiments. These regiments are located throughout France and in other countries, such as Afghanistan, Chad and the Ivory Coast. Legionnaires may work side by side with regular French military forces, with French police and with soldiers of other nations. For example, they were deployed with U.S. military forces in Somalia in 1992 and have been part of peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Rwanda, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

French Foreign Legion soldiers clearing mines
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Soldiers from the French Foreign Legion were part of a 2002 peacekeeping mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. These soldiers are clearing a village of explosives.

Legionnaires train with the standard weapons and equipment of the French infantry, including grenades, 9 mm automatic pistols and rocket launchers. The primary weapon is the Famas automatic assault rifle. Legionnaires have carried this weapon into numerous battles over the years, and many have died in combat. Since 1831, more than 35,000 Legionnaires have been killed in battle or during service to the organization [source: Moore].

­That's a glimpse inside the life of a more traditional mercenary. Now let's find out what life is like working for a private military company.


Life of a Mercenary: Private Security Contractor for a PMC

Private security contractors are employees of a corporation, but they're similar to mercenary soldiers in many respects. For example, private military companies find their employees all over the world, from Russia and Europe to Africa, the Americas and Asia. At Blackwater Worldwide, a PMC based in the United States, some positions are available only to U.S. citizens. Others are open to anyone.

Most contractors have already had another career, either in the military or in law enforcement. British PMCs often hire ex-members of the Special Air Services, or SAS, a special-forces regiment within the British army. It's not unusual to find contractors who were honorably discharged from the service or who have several medals for heroism. Former military personnel and ex-policemen are especially well suited to serve as security guards.

To be considered for a position, a candidate must complete an online application or send a résumé to a company's corporate office. Former military personnel may have to submit a Form DD-214, Report of Separation. This form contains information that will verify a person's military service.

Security contractors may be deployed anywhere in the world and may be used by military forces, government agencies or corporations. Here are some possible assignments:

  • Training and protecting guards in the Democratic Republic of Congo in an effort to stop poachers who threaten endangered animals, such as the black rhino
  • Providing site security, security force training and security planning for global corporations, such as BP, Exxon and DeBeers
  • Guarding high-ranking civil servants or other political dignitaries, such as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq or the U.S. secretary of state
  • Protecting Iraq's oil installations
  • Conducting counter-drug operations in Columbia

Contractors are paid well in these assignments. Individual contractors on the ground typically earn about $600 to $700 a day. Some can earn $1,000 a day, depending on qualifications and experience. However, most contractors don't receive any benefits. That means part of their salary must cover federal taxes, including Social Security matching, as well as health care and retirement payments. After these deductions, a contractor's take-home pay may be comparable to someone serving in the military.

Security contractors protecting an oil exploration site
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These security contractors are assigned to protect an oil exploration site in Uganda. Africa has long been a place where guns for hire have found work.

Of course, security contractors don't always face the same level of danger as regular army soldiers. That's because they don't conduct offensive missions. Their role is to provide protection and defensive security, and in fulfilling that role, they must abide by rules for the use of force. According to these rules, contractors can defend themselves, the person or asset they've been contracted to protect and any civilians under imminent threat. Even taking a defensive position, contractors can -- and often do -- find themselves in a firefight. Those that fire on civilians or engage troops in an offensive manner face serious repercussions. In fact, contractors who accompany an armed force in the field are subject to all provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ. The UCMJ forms the foundation of U.S. military law and precisely spells out all of the offenses that can result in punishment by court-martial.

In an active combat zone, ambiguity is inevitable. It is this ambiguity that makes security contractors controversial. Next, we'll look at some other risks associated with using mercenaries.


Risks of Using Mercenaries

Mercenaries can give an army a huge advantage, but they can also be a liability. When contemplating whether to use mercenaries, leaders must consider a full range of economic, political and military risks. Let's look at these in detail.

Conventional wisdom says that mercenaries should save governments money, but that's not always the case. Hiring high-quality soldiers that rival regular military forces can be expensive, as the U.S. is finding out in Iraq. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. government has awarded contracts in Iraq worth about $85 billion from 2003 to 2007, or 20 percent of the total costs of the war [source: Risen]. However, governments that skimp often regret it. History is full of stories about mercenaries who desert the battlefield because of their employers' unwillingness or inability to pay.

Blackwater helicopter flying in Baghdad
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The private military company Blackwater has had a huge presence in Iraq since the U.S. invaded in 2003. This Blackwater helicopter circles above a roadside bomb in Baghdad that targeted a convoy of Western security guards.

Then there's the related question of loyalty. Can foreign soldiers be trusted explicitly? A well-known story from the 14th century describes how the almogávares, Spanish frontiersmen who served as mercenaries, turned on the Byzantine leaders who hired them. After helping to defeat the Turks, the almogávares attacked the Byzantine town of Magnesia and then continued to ravage the area for two years. Even if such wholesale disloyalty is uncommon, desertion isn't.

The Supernatural Soldier

Mercenaries won't face extinction anytime soon on the battlefield -- or in books, movies and video games. And sometimes they just won't die. Consider Casca, the eternal mercenary and the central character in a series of novels written by Barry Sadler. In Sadler's imagination, Casca is the Roman soldier who speared Jesus Christ as he suffered on the crucifix. He is then condemned to walk the Earth as an immortal soldier, a mercenary who must face history's most horrible battles.

Another mercenary with supernatural powers is the Headless Horseman. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving tells us that the horseman is the disgruntled spirit of a Hessian mercenary who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. Every night, the phantom scours the countryside on a fire-breathing horse, looking for a head to replace the one he lost.

Remember mercenaries are beholden to the foreign government or corporation that pays for their services. As a result, the mercenaries may not support the same goals as the homeland citizenry. In addition, the public sees the sacrifice of a soldier fighting for his or her country as honorable. Many people don't feel the same way about a mercenary who fights, not for a cause, but for a paycheck.

The biggest risks are probably military in nature. Mercenaries generally fight next to soldiers of the regular army, so there needs to be some integration and coordination. But often mercenaries don't readily share information with troops or with other mercenary armies that share the field. This communication breakdown can obviously have serious consequences during a battle.

Finally, the presence of high-paid mercenaries can weaken a country's military force. Why? First, retention rates are lowered as quality soldiers leave the armed forces for more lucrative positions as mercenaries. Second, as paid soldiers assume responsibility for more tasks, the connection between military professionalism and public service can be eroded.

Because of these risks, some countries have argued for a general prohibition on mercenary activities. But critics argue that outlawing mercenaries will do more harm than good. After all, mercenaries, when promptly paid and governed by strict, clear guidelines, are effective soldiers that can benefit the military in many ways.

March on over to the next page for related stories on stuff that might interest you, like military snipers and the Green Berets.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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