Acquiring the Formula for Mercenaries
Back when I was thirteen years old or thereabouts, I read a book by Frederick Forsythe, “The Dogs Of War”. I don’t intend this to be a review of the book (I’ll leave that for another time); its significance lies solely in that it describes in great, and at times excessively painstaking detail just how one goes about getting together a group of mercenaries to mount a coup d’etat for taking over an African nation, in this case a fictional one called Zangaro. As always with Forsythe plots, it had some rather large holes, which, of course, one was supposed to ignore, but the central theme was one which the world has seen over and over: soldiers for hire who rent out their fighting skills to those with the money to pay, in this case a British financier who wants a mountain full of platinum ore that lies in the Zangaro hinterland and wants to install a puppet ruler who will sign the mining rights over to him for a song.
At the time, I didn’t know that the book was researched under highly suspicious circumstances, and that Forsythe himself was implicated in planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea, a coup that in the event never went through. I also didn’t know that the book seemed to have served as an instruction manual for conducting a later coup in the Comoros Republic, where the French mercenary Bob Denard (who was mentioned en passant in The Dogs Of War and of whom more anon) landed along with a small force by rubber dinghy from a cargo ship and overthrew the virtually defenseless (and, incidentally, left-wing) government of President Ali Soilih (and murdered him two days later). It did, however, focus my attention on mercenaries, a species of whom I had been cognizant but of whom I’d never spent much time thinking.
Those were the days of privately run ad hoc mercenary commandoes led by self-styled “colonels” like “Mad Mike” Hoare, Denard, and their ilk; white men, usually of right-wing political orientation and possessed of a certain amount of military training, who found in the numerous civil wars of post-colonial Africa plenty of paymasters who would employ them to do what they liked to do anyway: kill the black Untermenschen whose upstart regimes and rebellions had often robbed them of their farms and estates (Hoare, for instance, loved to shoot up African villages at random as his commando moved through them). Those commandoes often had the tacit support of Western nations wishing to retain political, economic and military influence in their ex-colonies, but they weren’t usually employed directly by them.
Nowadays, though, as everyone who isn’t information-challenged is aware, things are a bit different. When Bob Denard landed by rubber dinghy and ousted Ali Soilih, he was emulating Cat Shannon, the mercenary hero of The Dogs Of War in more ways than one. He had the tacit backing of France, which was eager to re-establish de facto control over its ex-colony, Comoros, but his direct employer was the man he, Denard, himself had overthrown in an earlier coup to put Soilih in power. Like Shannon, and like “Mad Mike” Hoare in the 1960s Congo Civil War, he found his own men and put together his own commando for the mission. He was doing something that was pure old-style mercenary, but that would put him in the dinosaur ranks of mercenaries today.
These are the days of the huge “private contractor” companies; giant corporate entities with permanent offices, stock issues, boards of directors, and so on, who employ hundreds or thousands of “private contractors” from different countries and who have extremely close and organic connections to certain governments who are closely involved in fighting wars of choice around the globe; companies with names like Blackwater (now, Xe, the earlier name having become something of an embarrassment), Aegis Defence Services, (whose men in some infamous videos were seen driving around Baghdad shooting up Iraqi vehicles at random), and Titan Corp. These firms are now openly and visibly employed in helping wars of occupation by these nations, both in direct combat, as guards, and as line-of support personnel. So close and organic are their ties to the occupying forces that they have become virtually an extension of the formal forces of the occupation, and the reasons for this require study.
To do this, we shall have to begin with a brief study of the origins of mercenaries; or, to put it another way, we should know just what a mercenary is.
The Beginnings of the Mercenary Soldier
There are many levels on which we can approach the phenomenon of mercenarism. On the surface, of course, it’s nothing new. Mercenaries have been around ever since the first village paid its more warlike neighbours protection money and then extended it to paying them extra for guard services against roving bandits. Most early standing armies were primarily mercenary armies, because only professional soldiers could find a market for their skills and they would serve whoever paid them.
Here in India, we have a long and ultra-rich history of mercenarism. We Indians have been mercenary by nature, readily hiring ourselves out to foreigners and always prepared to help said foreigners against our “own” people. Roving bands of soldiers-for-hire were a staple feature of Indian wars of the middle-to-late Mughal Empire period, for instance. And it’s not that well-known to non-Indians that the British forces who took over the Indian subcontinent weren’t under the control of the British government, but of a private company called the East India Company. They were, therefore, employees of that company and not of the British government, and were therefore ipso facto mercenaries. In fact most of them were mercenaries twice over because in the hundred year period between 1757 and 1857 the great majority of the East India Company’s levies weren’t British, but Indians who enlisted in the British service and happily murdered and oppressed their fellow Indians at the orders of the white capitalist master. Later still, Indians in very large numbers began to enlist in the service of the British Indian Army which took over from the East India Company in 1858. In my book they were mercenaries, but theoretically (since during the period from 1858 to 1947 the British government ruled India) they were members of a regular army and therefore not mercenaries.
No such consideration can be given to the Gorkhas who till today form regiments in the British and Indian armies. These are not Indians, but Nepalis and have no locus standi for engaging themselves in service to the Indian and British governments except personal gain. Since Nepal was never formally a British colony, its people were never British subjects and never came under British law. So, every Gorkha who ever took service in the British army or the Indian army was, is, and has been, not a soldier but a mercenary.
Now let me clarify what I’m talking about. I consider a mercenary (my definition) to be “a person who hires his military skills to a foreign organisation, whether governmental or non-governmental, or to a domestic non-governmental organisation, for pecuniary or other personal benefit and not primarily for ideological reasons.”
By “other personal benefit” I include Indians who rushed to enlist in the US armed forces during the invasion of Iraq in return for citizenship, and a substantial number of whom were blown away by the resistance. I do not, therefore, include such ideologically driven figures as Che Guevara or the members of the International Legion who fought in the Spanish Civil War (such as Robert Jordan of For Whom The Bell Tolls) as mercenaries. Even if there is a pecuniary reward involved, if the primary motivation is ideology (and it was never so for the African mercenaries like the aforementioned Bob Denard, who as many as four times overthrew governments in the Comoros after himself putting them in power) the person concerned can’t be called a mercenary.
Similarly, the Islamic “holy warriors” who rush to defend the faith in such parts of the world as Kashmir or Chechnya from distant parts of the planet can be called many things, but they can’t, except as a piece of hollow and self-serving propaganda, be called mercenaries. On the other hand, by my definition, the legionnaires of the French Foreign Legion ought to be considered mercenaries, because even though they aren’t paid much, they join the Legion for, primarily, two purposes, the search for adventure or because they are fugitives from the law; and, in modern times, after three years of Legion servie they can apply for French citizenship, which is another inducement. Therefore, their motives for joining are personal gain, and, therefore they are mercenaries. (The fact that the Legion has only ever been used by France for control over its colonies and ex-colonies makes them a kind of early government-run private contractor firm: mercenaries in the service of imperialism).
Also let me make a further declaration: a mercenary today, in my considered belief, is a substantially different creature from the soldier-for-hire of late Roman times; he has to be treated as a modern phenomenon if only because the circumstances under which he operates are far different from those of the flintlock-carrying freebooter of the Thirty Year’s War. At the time the degree of difference between a mercenary and a soldier was often only that the mercenary, being a fighter for hire, was more self-aware than the soldier who was usually an illiterate peasant pulled off the land to serve in the local baron’s levies, and then further shanghaied into the king’s colours to be killed fighting people of whom he had never heard. Standards of behaviour were little different and just about anything went in wartime; the Crusades had some wonderful instances of mass murder, rapine and pillage, and Chinggis Khan (“Genghis” Khan) and Timur-i-Leng (“Tamerlane”) were even worse.
Today, however, a mercenary operates in an environment where there are definite rules in war and a concept called “war crime”, even if that concept isn’t always honoured. These rules are applicable to all soldiers, and violation is (at least allegedly) punishable by military law. However, the soldier is also entitled to protection by law, such as the right to be treated according to the Geneva Conventions if he is taken prisoner, for his dignity to be protected, and for any and all punishment to be conducted after military tribunal and under military law.
But this is the crucial point: none of these is binding for the mercenary. The mercenary, who is specifically called an unlawful combatant by the Military Commissions Act and the Geneva conventions on prisoners of war, is either a civilian operating as a soldier but, being outside the structure of a legitimate army; has no call on its protection or that of military law; or he is a foreigner serving for his own personal benefit and for no other important reason in another army. In either case, explicitly in the first instance and implicitly in the second, any and all actions of a military nature that he commits is a crime. If a foreigner comes to your town to do a series of contract killings, would he not be a criminal? So in what way is he less a criminal if he comes to your town to kill people as a member of some privately run militia?
A mercenary, therefore, is automatically a criminal. Any acts committed by him as a mercenary are automatically criminal acts. He has no right to any protection and can, and in my opinion ought, to be hung upside down and skinned alive by his captors as a warning to his peers.
Disrobing the Mercenary Comic Book Hero
I confess: I don’t like mercenaries. I don’t like Frederick Forsythe, who probably wrote The Dogs Of War as a fallout of an attempt at actually organising a coup in Equatorial Guinea. And exterminating mercenaries on sight wouldn’t faze me at all.
Now that we’ve got my bias out in the open, let’s say something more: semantic games don’t grab me. You can call a mercenary a “private security contractor” and thus try and sound as though you’re supporting free enterprise; you can call him a “freedom defender”, a “dollar earner”, “Lord High Adventurer” or whatever you wish; he still remains the same character who fulfils the criteria I set forth in my definition above, which was, let’s remember, a person who hires his military skills to a foreign organisation, whether governmental or non-governmental, or to a domestic non-governmental organisation, for pecuniary or other personal benefit and not primarily for ideological reasons. A mercenary by any other name would smell just as bad.
Talking about smelling bad, mercenaries have been repeatedly lionised in the Western press. I remember Reader’s Digest fawning over Bob Denard and gushing over how he “liberated” the Comoros from Ali Soilih; it forgot, naturally, to mention that Denard used his position as “liberator” to become the Comoros’ de facto strongman and went on to carry out two more coups to retain and regain his power. Also, British and Australian tabloids of the sixties and seventies used to carry articles lionising mercenaries in Southern Africa’s wars, in Angola and Rhodesia for instance; I still remember a photo of a British mercenary standing, in the manner of a big game hunter, over an Angolan corpse. Nowadays we don’t need the media to protect and promote mercenaries; the governments of those nations I talked about are too integrally connected with them for them to need other support. When four American Blackwater mercenaries – illegal combatants according to the laws of war – were killed by the Iraqi resistance outside Fallujah in 2004, the response of the occupation was to bombard that city until it was virtually destroyed. Blackwater, which is notorious for its crimes, has been virtually immune to date.
Mercenaries, by whatever name, are becoming more and more important to certain nations nowadays, therefore, and here are some of the reasons:
1. Mercenaries are outside the usual chain of command and discipline and can be used to do dirty work. Such dirty work may include planting car bombs and so on to foment a low grade civil war that would serve as an excuse to maintain an otherwise untenable occupation, or to torture suspects illegally, and so on in the service of more law-bound entities.
2. Mercenary casualties are “invisible casualties” and in a war of body-bags and troop counts they can be camouflaged. We have a fair idea of how many American servicemen have been killed by the freedom movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, but do we know how many mercenaries have been destroyed? No. If we knew, and we added those numbers to the total American casualties, what would the body count look like now? Certainly even less like a “victory”. (This works even better when a substantial fraction of the mercenaries are disposable foreigners.)
3. Mercenaries can be used to make a bad situation look less bad. For instance, they can be used to serve as bodyguards-cum-controllers of a foreign puppet ruler like, oh, Hamid Karzai, whose own people can’t be trusted not to tear him into confetti. And they can be used to control a foreign country when you can’t have officially troops on the ground. You can always say the foreigners have a right to employ whoever they want.
4. Mercenaries can be used to channel funds into private hands. This can be useful on three levels:
i. If you are a free-market fundamentalist you want all monies to end up in private hands, meaning, of course, the hands of giant corporations.
ii. If you look at the history of recent American governments, for instance, there has been a lot of no-bid contracting and kickbacks being shoveled around; you can’t usually get an army to pay you back out of the money you authorise your government to pay it, but a private entity can easily do that.
iii. You can reward ideologically similar corporations in the expectation of large scale funding at election time; and in most modern “democracies” there is no such thing as electability without access to gigantic amounts of money.
Mercenaries and Privatized Industry
Since we live in a world where prisons and water services are being privatised and there is every expectation that we’ll someday have to pay some “purifying agency” for the air we breathe, private mercenary armies grow in importance, and multinational corporations might each acquire its own little army to protect its “interests” abroad and at home, including access to “key markets”. Yes, I can see mercenary armies fighting each other over markets. I think that will become almost inevitable, and also, as global warming kicks in with famine and desertification, mercenary armies will find more and more work helping the ethnic groups who employ them to secure access to water and arable farmland.
And I can see certain nations privatising their normal militaries just as they did their railways and airlines. First it will be by selling shares on the market in the interests of “private participation”. Then a corporatisation will take place of the management, while the actual operations will still be left in the hands of professional soldiers; but those soldiers will become, like the officers of the East India Company, no more than employees of the corporate board and bound to do its bidding. Once that happens, market pressures alone will demand that this military be used constantly in order to achieve the profits demanded by the shareholders and the board.
The problem of the private military corporation is, of course, that its business is fighting. Conventional armies don’t thrive on war; even bush-level (or Bush-level) conflicts can run them ragged (look at Iraq and Afghanistan and what they have done to the US military). Conventional militaries make money by preparing for high-tech wars they have no intention of actually fighting because those would be materially and financially ruinous.
On the other hand, the private mercenary company is a profit-driven organisation like any other company. It can only make a profit when it’s hired by someone to fight. Therefore it has a vested interest in war; in fighting wars and fomenting wars and planning for yet more wars. The African mercenaries of Hoare’s and Denard’s era didn’t actually begin wars; they were hired to fight wars that had already been begun by someone else. But private corporations which have the ear of the men in power (be they “construction” businesses like Halliburton or “destruction” businesses like Blackwater/Xe) can arrange for wars to be started. So can you imagine the situation if and when conventional militaries are privatised? This is a recipe for Endless War.
But then we already have an Endless War going on, haven’t we? Mercenary firms and all?