War as a human phenomena knows only a barely constructed ideal of nationality as an identity for the soldier. The pejorative connotation of the modern age for the foreign national combatant of a national war, the mercenary, is a relatively recent development, as historical example shows repeatedly. It is also not a norm embraced even now, and the use of the idea of the mercenary as a framework for the conflict of the private and the public soldier in the contemporary age of corporate militaries is a tricky issue (and one I’ll be returning to in future posts). Much of the debate is subjective in our mythologies of war, namely, in the way we view soldiers, military institutions, and the profession of violence projection, whatever its form. The UN, building on the best of three centuries of western ethical and philosophical underpinning, declared the mercenary illegal, and his profession abominable.
There is no denying, however, with historical reflection, that making a profession of violence for private gain is a historical constant more faithful than most. In antiquity, certain communities particularly skilled in violence, and often under pressures of population, exported persons to fight on behalf of communities in need of their skills. Rhodeans and Cretan missile troops, noted for their skills with slings and bows, marched along with the Greek contingent of the Persian Prince Cyrus against Artaxerxes, King of Persia, as is recorded in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Their skill allowed the Greeks, in general noted for their export of heavily armed men to the wars of the near east, to make the famous ‘March of the Ten Thousand’ out of the heart of Iraq and back to the Aegean after Cyrus’s expedition collapsed, commemorated most recently in the guise of the 1965 novel and 1979 film, The Warriors.
The roots of the rise of the modern military profession in European history arguably lie with mercenary services. The scutage payments made in lieu of the military obligations of service in a King’s army by knightly landowners in Western Europe were meant to compensate Kings for the loss of serviceable aristocratic cavalry, and service for warfare was increasingly provided by paid soldiers. The English were among the earliest to pay their increasingly infantry-heavy forces in France, and the result were larger armies of skilled infantry with longbows. At the same time, communities of similar specialists in aggressive anti-cavalry warfare in Switzerland began that countries’ long history of exporting soldiers to European monarchs, as, similarly, heavily armed Scottish descendants of Norse Hebrideans arrived in Ireland to add a contingent of specialists in melee combat to the armies of Gaelic Irish nobles. Increasingly came the necessity of paying professional soldiers, in land sometimes, but also in money. With the changes of technology favoring large blocks of infantrymen, the mercenary element was seized upon in order to create large armies of trained soldiers, which increasingly lost heterogeneous identities so that no one thought it strange that a French general would command Spanish, Polish, Belgian, German, Irish, and Scottish troops against the King of France.
In the Early Modern period, considered the pinnacle of mercenary activity in Europe, the concept of national armies remained the lonely call of decidedly anti-mercenary philosophers like Machiavelli and Lipsius, inspired by the idealist model of the citizen-armies of Republican Rome and Hellenic Greece (which themselves often relied on specialists from other communities). Commanders, contracted as generals and recruiters by their sovereigns, relied heavily on troops without allegiance to country or monarch. As Sir James Turner, a Scottish mercenary of the 17th Century, remarked to the effect: “As long as we serve our master honorably, it does not matter in particular which master we serve”. The slow nature of war, the ill state of national bureaucracy, and the limited strategic aims of early modern armies meant that in fact the mercenary market served these objectives quite well. Only with the improvement of the power of monarchs and states did the preponderance of large mercenary armies cease their hold on the mechanisms of soldiering, as the State came to find soldiers in its unemployed citizens. Still, this did not prevent entire state armies being equipped and hired out, famously Hessian and Brunswick Regiments in the American War of Independence, trained and armed by the German states Hesse and Brunswick, but supporting, and paid for, by the British Crown.
(Yosemite Von Sam, the Hessian, as the antagonist of Bunker Hill Bugs Bunny)
Only with the idealism of the French Revolution, whose royalist opponents included the Swiss Guard of the French King (The French had emigre regiments from Ireland and Scotland as well), did the mercenary image start taking a turn from simply a means to an end in wartime, but a means of tyranny. Never enjoying a good reputation due to the excesses of mercenary troops (though I would argue this rarely overdid the excesses of “native” troops), the paid forces of monarchies were targeted by the French in their polemics, famously in La Marseillaise (Mugir ces féroces soldats ? Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!). The soldier of fortune was increasingly seen as a relic of monarchy, and modern western democracies have struggled hard to professionalize the national soldier, who undertakes warfare as a civic career or a public duty, with the hope that this will lead, in some way, to stability and a propensity for heroic conduct out of love of country and dedication to ideals higher than a paycheck (this is the Machiavellian school of thought). The mechanisms of nation states worked increasingly to prevent mass demobilization after conflict (by providing social supports to veterans and disarming their troops), long the launching point of new mercenary adventures, from producing offshoot bands of soldiers in the years after war, and mercenaries have been legislated against by the international community to stop their potential use to destabilize peaceful nations.
Nevertheless, from Syria to the Congo, Ukraine to Mexico, foreign nationals have continued to fight, advise, and ply their trade under dubious status throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Even as European states shied away from contracted soldiers in favor of citizens in a national professional military corps, areas in which such national consolidations have been arbitrary within colonial state lines, or basically nonexistent, have furnished rich opportunity for soldiers of fortune. The recent rise of Private Military and Security Companies like Blackwater and Executive Outcomes (though neither are now known by that name because of rebranding) offer services the west has often identified with mercenaries, especially EO’s full scale Counteroffensive against the RUF in Sierra Leone which included full ground and air support, and even now operate services in support of national militaries from Angola to the United States.
As the experience of the last ten years of extensive military and security outsourcing has shown, these activities and the corporate structures that support them are controversial, yet in many ways seem to be going nowhere fast. The balance of history shows that specialists in war who are willing to travel for work have never been out of a job for long.