Blogs > Cliopatria > Why Did Mercenary Armies Largely Cease to Exist?

Aug 18, 2005 1:12 pm

Why Did Mercenary Armies Largely Cease to Exist?

[P]rivate soldiers have been on the battlefield for thousands of years. As P.W. Singer, a scholar of privatized warfare at the Brookings Institution, recounts in his book ''Corporate Warriors,'' mercenaries served in the army of the King of Ur two millennia before Christ; the ancient Greeks supplemented their forces by contracting out for cavalry and for specialists in the slingshot; and private bands of Swiss pikemen, infantry with 18-foot-long weapons, proved themselves superior to cavalry in the late 13th century and made themselves a necessary expense to the warring rulers of Europe for hundreds of years.

But mercenaries began to fade from the battlefield around the Age of Enlightenment. Partly this was because of breakthroughs in the science of warfare. Better weapons demanded less skill from the fighter. The experience of the mercenary was needed less. With a decently designed musket, a fresh soldier could be trained fairly swiftly and dispatched to the front. And then, too, the 18th and 19th centuries brought new ideas about the sanctity of the nation and the honor of the citizen in soldiering for it. ''Those who fought for profit, rather than patriotism,'' Singer writes, ''were completely delegitimated.'' Still, the British hired 30,000 German Hessians to help them battle the revolutionaries in the American War of Independence. Yet gradually the work of the mercenary grew more and more marginalized and disdained, and in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 it was essentially outlawed, at least in wars between nations.

Mercenaries carried on in the ignored and anarchic places of the world; through much of the second half of the 20th century, they played notorious roles in the insurrections of Africa. But then, in 1995, in the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone, private soldiering made a morality-twisting appearance. A rebel army was burning villagers alive and starting to develop its signature atrocity: hacking off the hands of civilians and letting them live as reminders of rebel power. Desperate, the country's ruler hired a South African firm, Executive Outcomes, that was run by a former apartheid-era military commander. It presented itself as something other than a violent, shadowy employment agency for apartheid-era veterans. It had glossy brochures outlining its military services. Its leader called himself a chairman. Its work wasn't that of ''mercenaries'' or ''dogs of war''; it would soon adopt the term ''private military company.''

In Sierra Leone, using a few aircraft and about 200 men, Executive Outcomes rapidly drove the rebel army of perhaps 10,000 back to the country's hinterlands. Brutality erupted again as soon as Executive Outcomes left, but the world had seen that a small, well-trained private force could accomplish immeasurable good.

Not long afterward, a London company led by a former British lieutenant colonel, Tim Spicer -- whose latest firm now has a nearly $300 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq -- tried again to rescue the West African country. Spicer failed but emerged as a kind of spokesman for the moral value of private military companies. ''The word 'mercenary,' '' he told The Daily Telegraph of London in 1999, ''conjures up a picture in people's minds of a rather ruthless, unaligned individual, who may have criminal, psychotic tendencies. We are not like that at all. All we really do is help friendly, reasonable governments solve military problems.'' (No matter that Spicer had once considered providing his help to Mobutu Sese Seko, the tyrannical dictator of Zaire, for a price.) Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and a former United Nations under secretary general, Brian Urquhart, were soon talking about the possible use of private military companies to aid the U.N. in stabilizing the world's conflict zones. The U.N. wasn't remotely ready to hire private armies to end civil wars, but a subtle shift in perception had started to take place.

In 2002, the U.S. government hired about 40 private gunmen, from the American company DynCorp, to keep President Hamid Karzai alive in Afghanistan. And in the spring of 2003, as Gen. Jay Garner, retired, established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the short-lived precursor to the C.P.A., as the occupation's governing body in Iraq, the Pentagon put a small contingent of South Africans and Nepalese Gurkhas from the British firm Global Risk Strategies in charge of protecting him and his staff. ''That,'' Garner told me when we spoke last month, ''was the genesis'' of the rise of private security companies in Iraq.

The numbers, at the start of the occupation, were not large. Then, in the second half of 2003, as the C.P.A. expanded its presence across the country in its attempt to rule and rebuild, and as the insurgency mounted, the C.P.A. turned away from the coalition forces, which had been providing a measure of protection, and looked to the companies for safety. Andrew Bearpark, the C.P.A.'s director of operations during that period, explained to me that he was closely and strongly advised by the U.S. military in Iraq -- and financed by the Department of Defense -- to make this move.

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