The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Mercenary Debate

Mercenaries are inevitable and, if employed wisely, they can be
effective adjuncts of U.S. policy.

Published on May 1, 2009

Mercenaries get a bad rap. The very word has become so anathematized that it is no longer used by those it describes, practitioners of one of the world’s oldest professions. Nowadays they prefer to be called “security contractors” and their employers prefer to be known as private military or security companies. This is an understandable if not entirely logical consequence of the state monopolization of warfare, which began in the late 18th century when governments became strong enough to conscript their own citizens to fight rather than rely on hired “free lances.” The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars seemed to confirm that citizen armies were superior to the traditional mix of aristocrats and mercenaries employed by the ancien régimes, and before long almost everyone was emulating the French example. Along the way there arose the widespread belief that the use of citizen-soldiers was superior not only practically but also morally; there was something distasteful, even unethical, about hiring a professional soldier, often a foreigner, to fight on one’s behalf. Much better, leaders assumed, to force their own civilians to fight upon pain of punishment. This mindset has now become so deeply entrenched that it is easy to ignore the long and distinguished history of mercenaries, and their legitimate uses down to the present day.

As Peter W. Singer points out in his invaluable book, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (2003), “Hiring outsiders to fight your battles is as old as war itself. Nearly every past empire, from the ancient Egyptians to the Victorian British, contracted foreign troops in some form or another.” The Greek city-states that founded Western civilization were heavily reliant on specialized units of mercenaries such as Cretan slingers and Thessalian cavalry to supplement their native hoplites. One of the great classics of literature, Xenophon’s Anabasis, chronicles the journey of 10,000 Greek mercenaries through what is today Iraq after participating in a Persian civil war. By the end of Alexander the Great’s stunning campaign of conquest, his army was made up primarily of foreigners, not Macedonians. Hannibal, likewise, scored his great victories against Rome in the Second Punic War with an army of hired hands. And although the Roman Empire by the end became overly reliant on unassimilated “barbarians” for protection, it thrived for hundreds of years by enlisting foreigners as auxiliaries to its legions.

The tradition continued into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when Italian mercenaries, organized into “companies” and hired through the condotta (contract) system, pioneered the very concept of the corporation. Some of the most feared soldiers of the period were Swiss infantrymen, who were hired in 1502 to protect the Pope and are still on the job today. The use of contractors reached new heights in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), when the leading role on the Catholic side was played by Count Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Czech-born military entrepreneur who repeatedly bested the forces of Protestant monarchs. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden finally defeated Wallenstein with a force made up mostly of German, English and Scottish fighters.

Contractors were also important at sea. Indeed, some of the most illustrious names in naval history—Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and John Hawkins—were privateers who fought in large part for economic gain. Many of the ships that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 were hired from these independent captains, who in turn were given commissions in Queen Elizabeth’s service. The United States, for its part, relied heavily on privateers to fight the Royal Navy during the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Well into the 19th century, soldiers and sailors could supplement their meager wages with “prize money” from seized enemy vessels or looted enemy cities.

Nor should we forget the important contribution of foreign mercenaries such as Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette toward the winning of American independence. Granted, many of these men were concerned with promoting a good cause, not getting rich. But the two need not be in conflict. Thousands of British mercenaries, mainly unemployed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, fought on behalf of the nascent Latin American republics during their wars of liberation from Spain for a combination of idealistic and avaricious motives. From 1818 to 1822, Chile’s navy was led by Thomas Cochrane, a celebrated Scottish captain who is said to have been the model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s novels. Cochrane later fought with many other foreigners on behalf of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. The “Philhellenes” of the 1820s were mainly motivated by their devotion to classical Greek civilization, but they also were paid for their efforts. Cochrane, for one, made a mint from his adventures.

Mercenaries remained important in colonial warfare even after their use declined in Europe. France, Britain and the Netherlands all chartered East India Companies that raised their own fleets and armies to carve out empires in Asia. The British government finally ended the East India Company’s independence following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, but Britain continued to rely on numerous mercenary regiments in its own army. The most famous of these were the Nepalese Gurkhas, who were first recruited in the early 19th century and continue to serve to this day. (Visiting a NATO base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, recently, I saw a table full of Gurkhas dining at the mess hall.) France famously won and defended much of its empire with the polyglot Foreign Legion, which also remains very much in business.

While most of these examples have been European, there is nothing un-American about employing mercenaries. The contributions of Lafayette and von Steuben have already been mentioned. But there were many other notable mercenaries in U.S. history, few of whom fit the conventionally negative stereotypes of “soldiers of fortune.” John Paul Jones, one of our most storied naval heroes, became a Russian admiral in 1788 after his service in the Continental Navy. Various Indian allies provided invaluable help for American settlers in conflicts starting with the establishment of the Jamestown colony in 1607 and not concluding until the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. During the Civil War, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided intelligence for the Union, as well as personal protection for President Lincoln. The Lafayette Escadrille, a French air force squadron in World War I, was composed of Americans. Douglas MacArthur, after stepping down as Army Chief of Staff, served in the 1930s as a field marshal in the Philippines. The Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots led by Claire Chennault, helped Chiang Kai-shek to battle Japanese invaders. The Eagle Squadron, a unit of the Royal Air Force in the early days of World War II, was composed of American pilots. And Montagnard tribesmen were recruited and organized by the CIA and Army Special Forces to fight communists during the Vietnam War. All were mercenaries, yet all performed invaluable service.

This very brief historical review is not intended as a whitewash. It goes without saying that freelance fighters have committed numerous abuses. They have often deserted and sometimes rebelled against their own employers. But the same can be said of native-born soldiers. There is no real reason to assume that the former have behaved any worse than the latter. On the whole, mercenaries provided good service in keeping with the outlook pithily expressed by the 17th-century Scottish soldier of fortune Sir James Turner: “We serve our master honestly, it is no matter what master we serve.” If they didn’t provide good service, after all, they would not have long remained in business.

While the use of mercenaries has been in a centuries-long decline, it has experienced a resurgence since the end of the Cold War—a time when armed forces have declined in size even as many areas of the globe have become more unstable. Most private military companies today offer logistical, training and other non-combat services, but some do provide armed security personnel as well. An even smaller number engage in offensive military operations. The most famous of these were the closely linked South African firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline. They are now out of business, but in their heyday in the 1990s they helped the governments of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone, among others, to put down savage insurgencies at a time when the rest of the world stood idly by. In 1995–96, for instance, Executive Outcomes made short work of a rebel movement in Sierra Leone known as the Revolutionary United Front, which was notorious for chopping off the limbs of its victims. As a result, Sierra Leone was able to hold its first free election in decades. Another private firm, MPRI, helped to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia in 1995 by organizing the Croatian offensive that stopped Serbian aggression. Today MPRI provides trainers who operate side by side with local poppy-eradication forces in Afghanistan—a mission that NATO refuses to take on.

Somehow these interventions seem illegitimate to some people because they are undertaken for profit, not patriotism. But what’s wrong with that? After all, regular soldiers receive salary and benefits; few would serve otherwise. This was a point made in a famous 1969 exchange between Milton Friedman, who favored an all-volunteer military, and General William Westmoreland, who wanted to maintain a draft. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an “army of mercenaries.” Friedman interjected, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” The general drew himself up and said, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” Friedman replied, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.” He went on to say, “If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.”1 If, as Friedman noted, we expect the profit motive to deliver virtually everything else we need, why should military services be any different?

Thinking along those lines in fact led to our present reliance—some might say over-reliance—on security contractors. In the 1990s, the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations cut the size of U.S. active-duty armed forces by a third. To perform many of the functions once undertaken by soldiers, they hired private companies such as KBR, which won its first Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) contract in 1992. This shift was supposed to bring cost-savings and greater efficiencies, and it proved largely uncontroversial until the war in Iraq. No one then anticipated that we would employ 160,000 contractors in Iraq, of whom 20,000 to 50,000 would carry guns.2 This massive use of contractors came about not, as some conspiracy-mongers have it, because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sought to undermine the Constitution or pay off their big business buddies, but because the forces they sent into Iraq were too small for all the tasks thrown their way. The U.S. government had no choice but to rely on private firms to perform functions, such as safeguarding convoys and dignitaries, that in the past would have been undertaken by soldiers.

This has caused numerous problems that have received plenty of attention from the press and antiwar partisans. These include allegations that hired interrogators were implicated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan. The most high-profile case cited by critics was the September 16, 2007 deadly shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. In January 2009 the government of Iraq revoked Blackwater’s license to operate in that country. U.S. prosecutors have also filed charges of manslaughter against five Blackwater employees; one Blackwater employee has already pled guilty and agreed to testify against his former colleagues. In a bid to escape its notoriety, Blackwater Worldwide has now changed its name to Xe.

Whatever happened in Nisour Square (a court must still sort out the facts), there have been plenty of other instances of contractors in Iraq shooting wildly, careening through traffic, and causing unnecessary mayhem. This has been the consequence in part of questionable hiring practices that, in the rush to fill burgeoning requirements, resulted in poorly trained, undisciplined gunslingers being set loose in a war zone. But an even bigger issue has been the fact that contractors are paid only to achieve narrow objectives—typically getting a convoy or VIP from point A to point B. Broader counterinsurgency concerns such as maintaining the support of the local populace are not on their agenda. Thus they are often too heavy-handed in protecting their charges, not caring that they leave hatred in their wake.

There also have been major coordination problems between contractors and military personnel. For instance, in March 2004 four Blackwater contractors entered Fallujah without Marine commanders being aware of their presence. Their subsequent murder triggered an ill-fated offensive that upset carefully laid Marine plans to reduce resistance in the city.

In addition, there have been numerous reports of contractors overcharging for work or not delivering what was promised. The Vinnell Corporation, for instance, was hired to train the Iraqi army in 2003 and did such a poor job (admittedly for reasons not entirely under its control) that it set back the entire American war effort.

Even when contractors do an admirable job, there have often been hidden drawbacks. An example is the work of KBR and its affiliates in running a string of American military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. Encouraged by a “cost plus” billing system that has imposed little incentive for austerity, they have performed amazing feats of logistics, creating miniature Americas in the middle of a war zone complete with well-stocked gyms, PXs selling large-screen TVs, and dining facilities offering multiple flavors of ice cream. But the very opulence of these facilities has isolated American troops from the population and made it harder for them to pacify the country.

All these problems are undeniable, but what is the alternative? It is rare to hear the voices that castigate Blackwater, KBR, DynCorp and their ilk call for a massive increase in the size of the active-duty military. Yet that is what it would take to decrease our reliance on contractors while maintaining existing military commitments. As it happens, I favor a large increase in the size of the armed forces. I think the Army needs to grow from its current active-duty strength of around 540,000 soldiers to at least 700,000 soldiers—its size at the end of the Cold War. But such a large and costly increase could not be accomplished overnight, and even when complete, years from now, it would not allow us to banish contractors altogether. As long as we continue to rely on volunteers rather than conscripts, we will never have enough soldiers to meet every possible need, and it will never make sense to assign many mundane chores to scarce soldiers when they could be performed by hired civilians. Ideally, contractors operating alongside U.S. troops would be limited to support functions. Realistically, however, we will need to employ private guards too, whether protecting installations in the United States or abroad.

In a perfect world, Congress would bring the size of our armed forces into closer alignment with our massive defense commitments. But our legislature, like most democratic legislatures, is loath to spend what’s needed on defense, and it is even more reluctant to conscript its citizens. Yet it also has no desire to curtail sprawling global commitments that most agree do enhance our security and prosperity. Just as Victorian parliaments stinted on the size of the British army, forcing reliance on regiments raised in India, so too our Congress will never provide enough uniformed personnel to address every perceived need. Indeed, demands on the United States are so numerous and elastic that even if we did have far more resources, calls for intervention would still grow faster than we could handle them. Thus, in all likelihood, we will continue to muddle along with a mixture of private and public providers of security services.

Given that reality, the imperative is not to vilify contractors, as so many have done, but to figure out how to get better value out of them. It is scandalous that only in 2008, after five years of war in Iraq, was the first contractor convicted of a crime—an Iraqi-Canadian translator who stabbed a colleague. By contrast, hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed, and there is no reason to think that contractors are better behaved than their uniformed counterparts—quite the opposite.

The problem is that contractors operate in a gray area of the law. Until the conclusion of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in late 2008, they enjoyed immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. That was just as well, given the corruption and limited capacity of Iraqi courts in the immediate post-Saddam period. But it is not clear to what extent they can be held liable under U.S. law, especially when they often operate under Byzantine subcontracting arrangements that obscure their relationship with the U.S. government, the ultimate paymaster. Congress has passed legislation to specify that contractors fall within the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as civilian law (the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act), but there are questions about whether these provisions will withstand legal scrutiny. In addition, there are obvious difficulties in conducting investigations and prosecutions in the middle of a war zone.

If we can impose justice on soldiers, however, there is no reason we cannot impose it on contractors as well. Congress and the Executive Branch need to devote greater resources to this task—and not only in high-profile cases such as the Baghdad shootings by Blackwater. One way to do this would be to pass legislation that was approved by the House in 2007 but never voted on in the Senate. This bill, authored by Congressman David Price (D-NC), would have made it easier to prosecute contractors in Federal courts and would have created an in-theater team of FBI agents to investigate possible abuses. Among its co-sponsors was then-Senator Barack Obama, who could now mount a renewed push for such legislation as President.

Beyond punishing private personnel for misconduct, we need to do a better job of integrating them with military units. Coordination has improved in the past few years, but more still needs to be done. Malcolm Nance, a veteran intelligence operative who has worked as a contractor in Iraq, made an intriguing suggestion in Small Wars Journal: Create a “force protection command” within the U.S. military that would be responsible for overseeing contractor operations. The details need to be worked out, but this could be a way to make contractors more responsive to the military chain of command.

Another way to enhance accountability would be simply to put contractors into U.S. military uniforms. Most American contractors are already veterans, but a change in Department of Defense regulations would be necessary to enroll their foreign counterparts. The Pentagon has already launched a trial program to enlist a thousand foreigners who have vital linguistic or medical skills that are in short supply in the force today. It would make sense to expand this effort to sign up more foreign recruits (even those with no prior military experience) who would be willing to serve for a set period in return for one of the world’s most precious commodities: American citizenship. We could even create a “Freedom Legion”, made up of foreign-born recruits led by American officers and NCOs, on the model of the French Foreign Legion. Such an organization might raise some hackles, but it would be less “mercenary” and more accountable than the legions of contractors currently hired on an ad hoc basis.

If we manage to increase their accountability, we can think about employing contractors creatively in some areas where we may not want to send our own troops. Think of Darfur, a humanitarian tragedy that has consumed an estimated 200,000 lives. An African Union peacekeeping force proved ineffective, and its United Nations successor has not done any better. Yet there is scant chance that the United States or our NATO allies will send troops or even warplanes to provide air cover. There simply doesn’t seem to be enough of a national interest to justify a potentially costly commitment, especially at a time when we are fighting major wars elsewhere. So does that mean we should stand by and let the genocide proceed unabated? Should we limit our response to passing ineffectual United Nations resolutions? Not necessarily. Blackwater has publicly offered to stop the killing for a relatively modest price. There is little doubt that private security firms that employ veterans from the top Western militaries could accomplish this task more effectively than any force of blue helmets drawn primarily from ragtag Third World militaries. So why not hire them? That idea, which I’ve been pushing for a few years, has been endorsed by no less an eminence than the liberal political philosopher Michael Walzer.3

This proposal is stymied in part by its own novelty and in part by the prevalence of anti-mercenary prejudices. Some of these concerns, admittedly, are justified. Even if their exploits were romanticized in such movies as The Wild Geese (1978) and The Dogs of War (1980), “Mad Mike” Hoare, Bob Denard and other Western soldiers of fortune in the post-colonial era gave their trade a bad name in Africa. More recently a group of mercenaries led by Simon Mann, a former British SAS officer and co-founder of Sandline, has been imprisoned on charges of plotting a coup in the oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea. But while mercenaries have a checkered record in Africa, so do United Nations peacekeepers. The blue helmets have been accused of sex crimes against children, corruption and other abuses for which they have received little if any punishment. A private company could actually be held to a higher standard simply by inserting language into the contract that would give the International Criminal Court or a national criminal court jurisdiction over its actions.

Preferably such a force would be dispatched by the United Nations; failing that, by NATO, the African Union or some other international organization; and if that doesn’t work out, by an individual country or group of countries. In theory, if the legal issues could be resolved, even a private citizen such as Bill Gates or George Soros could hire a force to protect Darfur. (A possible precedent is Ross Perot’s hiring of mercenaries in 1979 to smuggle his employees out of revolutionary Iran.) That might, in fact, be one of the most useful acts of charity that anyone could perform. Would sending mercenaries to Darfur be the ideal outcome? Of course not. Would it be “democratic”? Again, no. But it would be better than nothing.

However uncomfortable mercenaries may make us feel, we need to accept that they have always been with us and always will be. We can’t eliminate them, and stigmatizing them serves no purpose. So we need to focus on how to make better use of them. If history is any guide, they can perform exemplary service under the right circumstances.


1 Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People (University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 380.
2 See my “Accept the Blackwater Mercenaries”, Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2007, and Peter W. Singer, “Sure, He’s Got Guns for Hire, but They’re Just Not Worth It”, Washington Post, October 7, 2007.
3 Walzer, “Mercenary Impulse”, New Republic, March 12, 2008.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books, 2002) and War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (Gotham Books, 2006).