10 Things You Don't Know About Mercenaries


By Sean McFate, co-author of Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel

Sean McFate is a former paratrooper in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and private military contractor—mercenary to some—working mostly in Africa. His novel is based on his experiences as a “private sector soldier.”

1.  It’s the second oldest profession.

Much of military history is privatized. The word “mercenary” comes from the Latin merces ("wages" or "pay"); today it connotes vileness, treachery, and murder. But it was not always so. Being a mercenary was once considered an honest albeit bloody trade, and employing mercenaries to fight wars was routine throughout most of military history: King Shulgi of Ur's army (2094–2047 BC); Xenophon's army of Greek mercenaries known as the Ten Thousand (401–399 BC); and Carthage's mercenary armies in the Punic Wars against Rome (264–146 BC), including Hannibal's sixty-thousand-strong army, which marched elephants over the Alps to attack Rome from the north. Rome regularly employed mercenaries, and mercenaries were how wars were fought in the European Middle Ages. In fact, they were called condottieri or “contractors,” and they formed multinational companies, termed “free companies,” just like Blackwater and Aegis today. Private military force has been the norm rather than the exception in military history, and the last four hundred years of big national armies are outliers.

2. The merc trade was resurrected by the US

For a few hundred years, states cooperated to outlaw mercenaries and privateers (mercenaries of the sea). This came undone after the Cold War. Surprisingly, mercenaries were not revived by weak and failing states seeking security in an insecure world. Rather, it was the world’s military superpower—the United States—that invested billions into the private military industry. For example, in 2010 the Pentagon appropriated $366 billion for contractors; that's 5 times the UK's entire defense budget. Today’s private military industry is a multi-billion dollar affair.

3. Contracting may be the new American Way of War

Why did the US, with the world’s most powerful military, need contractors? Because the All Volunteer Force could not recruit enough American’s to sustain two “long wars.” In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Iraq War would last: "Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." When it didn’t, policy makers faced ugly choices. They could withdraw and cede the fight to al Qaeda. They could have a Vietnam-like draft to fill the ranks. Or they could contract out the difference. They went with contractors. In Iraq, 50% of the US force was contracted. In Afghanistan it was 70%. In WW2, it was only 10%. Is contracting America’s new way of war? It’s a fair question.

4. Most contractors who fight for America aren’t even American

When I was in the industry, I worked alongside people from all over the world: Mexico, Ghana, Australia, Canada and so forth. Private military companies are just like any other multinational corporation: they recruit globally. They also pay people different wages. For example, a specialforces soldier from Honduras with similar training and background as me would get paid much less. Just like shirt sweat shops around the world, the private military industry looks for cheap labor.

5. More contractors were killed than troops in recent US wars

 Contractors are also making the ultimate sacrifice for America’s security. Research shows that more contractors were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan than soldiers. The actual number of contractors killed is probably higher than we know, since the US government doesn’t collect such data and the companies generally do not share it (it would be bad for business).

6. Mercenaries are proliferating

 Hiring private military companies isn’t just a US thing anymore. Now that the US has stopped employing large numbers of private military companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, this multi-billion-dollar industry is seeking new clientele. Consequently, the market for force is expanding, finding new supply and demand. In the past year alone, mercenaries have appeared in many combat zones: United Arab Emirates hired them to fight in Yemen , Nigeria hired them to defeat Boko Haram, Putin hired them to fight in eastern Ukraine; they’re fighting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Mercenaries are fighting pirates too.  The US's heavy reliance on military contractors both increased their numbers and also de facto legitimized their use. Now other countries and consumers are following the US lead, globalizing the industry.

7. The private military industry threatens democratic accountability

Relying on the private sector to do America’s bleeding is not only un-American, it’s dangerous. It creates a strategic dependency on the private sector to sustain war. It also offers policy makers “plausible deniability”; when a mission is politically sensitive or risky, policy makers may turn to the private sector rather than risk US Army soldiers doing something questionable. Contractors don't count as "boots on the ground" and threaten democratic accountability of the armed forces. Congress often has no idea of who's being contracted, why and for how much, even though they write the checks. This facilitates mission creep and lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

8. More mercenaries means more war

Mercenaries are incentivized to start and expand war for profit. Out of work mercenaries may become brigands, preying on the weak. Or they become racketeers, demanding “protection” money from cities and states, like the mafia. In other words, more mercenaries means more war. There’s a lot of historical evidence for this from the European Middle Ages, when mercenaries were routinely used. Even popes hired mercenary armies.

9. You can’t regulate mercenaries

If the US regulated this industry to harshly, the industry would move offshore, beyond the reach of regulators. Worse, there are no robust international laws to regulate this industry. Even if there was a new Geneva Protocol on the topic, it would be difficult to enforce. For example, who’s going to arrest mercenaries? They shoot back, and can kill your law enforcement. Realistically, no president is going to send II Marine Expeditionary Force into Yemen to arrest mercenaries. Nor will the UN.

There is an attempt among some industry actors to self-regulate, called The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers' Association (ICoCA). However, it’s a laughable affair since private military companies must generally self-report crimes, which they’re not incentivized to do. Even if they do, there are few serious consequences for them. Lastly, the mercenaries that we’re seeing emerge in places like Africa and the Middle East are least likely to sign up for the ICoCA in the first place.

10. Mercenaries are a symptom of something far more unsettling

Mercenaries change war and world order. Offering the means of war to anyone who can afford it alters who, how and why we fight. Mercenaries are becoming more common, and the ultra-wealthy and corporations will become new kinds of superpowers.

What will this world look like? It is already here, operating unseen. Today, the Fortune 500 are more powerful than most countries, and they can hire military and intelligence capabilities. And they do. Conflicts today are fought for an uncomfortable range of reasons that include national, commercial and private interests.


Sean McFate. Photo courtesy HarperCollins

Shadow War is set in this new world and is based on actual events and my own experiences. Tom Locke, the main character, is a high-end mercenary caught in a very complex and dangerous geopolitical game. LeCarre used George Smiley to expose what was really going on during the Cold War, as only a MI6 officer would know it. Similarly, Tom Locke reveals what’s truly going on in our post-Cold War world. And it’s not what you see on cable news.


Shadow War is out now.

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