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.
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.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Military Snipers Work
- How the U.S. Army Works
- How the Army Rangers Work
- How the Green Berets Work
- How Delta Force Works
- How the Future Force Warrior Will Work
- What's an NLOS cannon?
- How Transparent Aluminum Armor Works
- What will the additional 21,000 U.S. troops be doing in Iraq?
More Great Links
- Mercenary/Private Military Companies on GlobalSecurity.org
- CNN Spotlight: Soldiers of Misfortune
- Life in the French Foreign Legion
- Blackwater Worldwide
- AP. "U.S. slams U.N. report on mercenary use." MilitaryTimes, Oct. 18, 2007. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Astier, Henri. "French soldiers of fortune still roam Africa." BBC News Online. June 20, 2002. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Avant, Deborah. "Private Military Companies and the Future of War." Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes. April 2006. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200604.military.avant.privatemilitarycompanies.html
- "The Baghdad boom." Economist.com. March 25, 2004. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.sandline.com/hotlinks/Economist-Baghdad.html
- Dupur, Ernest R., Gay Hammerman and Grace P. Hayes. "The American Revolution: A Global War." David McKay Company. 1977.
- Encyclopedia Britannica 2005, s.v. "mercenary." CD-ROM, 2005.
- Encyclopedia Britannica 2005, s.v. "law of war." CD-ROM, 2005.
- French Foreign Legion Web Site. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Online encyclopedia on The History Channel, s.v. "mercenaries." (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Glanz, James and Alissa J. Rubin. "From Errand to Fatal Shot to Hail of Fire to 17 Deaths." The New York Times. Oct. 3, 2007. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/03/world/middleeast/03firefight.html?_
- Hemingway, Mark. "Warriors for Hire." The Weekly Standard. Vol. 012, Issue 14. Dec. 18, 2006. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Johnston, David and John M. Broder. "F.B.I. Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause." The New York Times. Nov. 14, 2007. (Aug. 22, 2008)
- Kennedy, Bruce. "CNN Spotlight: Soldiers of Misfortune: Mercenaries play major roles in 20th-century conflicts." (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Koch, H.W. "Medieval Warfare." Crescent Books. 1978.
- McGorman, Evan. "Life in the French Foreign Legion." (Aug. 25, 2008)
- "Mercenaries in Africa's conflicts." BBC News. March 11, 2004. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- "Mercenary/Private Military Companies (PMCs)." GlobalSecurity.org. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Moore, Molly. "Legendary Force Updates Its Image." The Washington Post. May 13, 2007.
- "Outsourcing Sacrifice: Should Americans Honor the Soldier for Hire?" University of Buffalo News Center Press Release. Feb. 14, 2008. (Aug. 25. 2008)
- Risen, James. "Use of Iraq Contractors Costs Billions, Report Says." The New York Times. Aug. 11, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- "Security Contractors Questioned After Blackwater Shooting." Transcript from The Online NewsHour. Originally Aired Sept. 18, 2007. (Aug. 25, 2008)
- Stephenson, Michael. "Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought." HarperCollins. 2007.