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How Mercenaries Work

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.