Mercenary Warfare: A Dirty Old Trick?


With Russian recidivism threatening in Ukraine and the sting of the Crimean take-over still rankling the international community, there is much grasping for new concepts to explain the situation. And in a sense, ascribing novelty or peculiarity to an event such as this masks its true nature: relatively new terms such as ‘hybrid’, ‘asymmetric’ or ‘sub-state’ belie the more enduring aspects of what has taken place. Less generously, one could even say that neologisms like these in international affairs often hide profound strategic oversight. It is safer to appear momentarily wrong-footed by a new aspect of the character of war than to be seen to have overlooked an aspect of its enduring nature, to borrow two Clausewitzian terms. Not predicting a truly new development in warfare is one thing; being surprised by a form of warfare previously consigned to the annals of history is quite another, and more difficult to accept.

This article suggests that the only peculiar thing about recent events in Eastern Europe is their proximity, and their unexpectedness for the West. In a sense, this perception of recent events should highlight to us not their anomalousness, but the all-too-hasty willingness to believe that warfare had evolved, so that certain developments could be ruled out. Since the so-called ‘end of history’ proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1989, the West has been subject to a whole series of strategic rude awakenings, each showing that no aspect of warfare can truly be ruled out in an anarchic international environment. Whether fighting a fourth Afghan War or contemplating the emergence of new and unpredictable nuclear powers, ‘never again’ scenarios are trumped as reliably as they are proclaimed. So too with the reawakening Russian bear in Eastern Europe; the strategy might be different to what the West had expected, but it is scarcely novel. Rather, it stands as the latest iteration in a long history of the employment of mercenaries, carefully chosen and cleverly executed so as to be almost impossible to deal with.

And in a world where the liminal boundaries for the employment of regular forces have been set extremely high, the mercenary has come full circle with renewed appeal. Mercenaries allow the home nation to retain a stake in a conflict whilst ostensibly detached from it, circumventing much public, media and even governmental scrutiny. Furthermore, when these forces are raised or recruited indigenously, the conflict retains the semblance of being internal and, crucially, the moral and political high-ground remain up for grabs. The irony is that public perception of the unusualness of Russia activity in Ukraine seems totally at odds with current activity in Syria and Iraq, where the West is supporting mercenary units like the Golden Division in much the same way. But should this way of operating really come as a surprise? In a globalised world where the glare of media scrutiny – both individual and corporate – is more intense than ever, it may simply be that the de facto way for governments to achieve strategic results is through the use of hired hands.

The Mercenary: An Ancient Profession

The history of war is not, in fact, a history of professional military forces or permanent establishments. Whilst this has certainly been the case since World War II, it is worth pausing to reflect on just how small a sliver of the military tradition the standing army really is. To begin with, the great European militaries only really started their traditions in the 17th century, prior to which Europe relied on many hundreds of years of feudalism, where local aristocrats would raise armies as part of their fealty to their monarch. And even with the establishment of these standing armies, it was not until the very start of the 19th century that the world’s militaries truly began to ‘professionalise’, with the founding of the great institutions that exist today: the École Militaire in France, Sandhurst in England, and West Point in the United States. Widespread professional soldiering only became possible thanks to the changes in production processes and industrialization that the 18th and 19th centuries brought with them. The dissemination of materièl and information in the form of doctrine to equip and train these large standing forces depended on required the new, centralized and scalable processes – industrial or administrative – to make the professional soldier more than a social niche. By the 19th century, it was already plain to the astute observer that societies that continued to profession of arms in this way, such as the Samurai class, were putting themselves increasingly at risk.

Even the ancient Greeks, whose system of warring city-states or poleis is often held up as the prototype of the modern international landscape, relied heavily on mercenary forces. The truly professional fighting force – in the sense of a paid, permanent and discrete body of soldiers loyal to only one authority – was something of a rarity, and a far cry from the popular imagination of serried ranks of hoplites all loyal to their city. This is because permanent forces of this kind were notoriously costly and difficult to maintain in a whole variety of ways. Even the fearsome Spartans, often dubbed one of the earliest and most effective professional fighting forces, only constituted 10% of their city’s population, with the other 90% being helot slaves more often than not roped in to boost numbers in conflicts. Not only this, but the helots worked, served and farmed in order to enable the relentless Spartan focus on military training. Yet the Spartan system was an anomaly, and severely limited its strategic reach because of this extremely imbalanced social structure. As history would prove, it was not until the proud Spartans were willing to dilute themselves with the assistance of Persia that they could countenance being a truly strategic force, and extend their influence beyond the Peloponnesus. Indeed, there were certainly Greeks among the ‘barbarian’ armies of the Persian King Xerxes when he famously invaded in 484 B.C., contravening the neat distinction of Greek and barbaric forces that often persists in modern culture: even the heroic Greeks had their price, and could be Persians for a fee.

After the era of large standing armies had dawned in the 18th century, it too was no stranger to the employment of mercenaries, most notably through the infamous East India Companies: these were joint-stock corporations formed to further trade in the region, but which had de facto authority over large swathes of India and employed large, professional private armies. Though the most famous of these, the British East India Company, was eventually absorbed by the Crown, for over a quarter of a millennium from 1600 it operated as one of the most influential non-governmental powers in the world. Nor was this the only model in widespread use: ‘Foreign Legions’ of various denominations were formed throughout this period, in some cases becoming very significant components of national power, but crucially falling into the category of mercenary force, with all the advantages that this entailed. From the King’s Foreign Legion, to the Gurkha forces of Nepal and the French Foreign Legion, governments continued to place great reliance on the mercenary not simply as a temporary supplement but as an integral component of the way in which power was projected and employed in the international sphere. Indeed, even the proud British Commonwealth today is nothing if not a derivation of a contractual agreement of foreign parties in pursuit of ‘common wealth’, from Antigua to Zambia, and all 51 states in between.

Total War: An Aberration of History

Despite the long history of the mercenary in warfare – longer, indeed, than that of the standing army many times over – the knock of the Second World War resulted in a degree of cultural amnesia. The demands of the conflict suffused every nation involved to such an extent that there was no need for the softer, more politically detached touch of a mercenary force – every man and woman was part of the war effort, to the extent that countries faced-off not only militarily, but economically as well. In this scenario of ‘total war’, the need for nuanced intervention options quite simply evaporated. Each nation state was singularly directed towards the war effort because it was politically united around the existential threat posed by the enemy, so the war took on the attributes of an industrial confrontation, with every aspect of each nation’s productivity – human, monetary, agricultural, or otherwise – directed towards increasing fighting power.

But of course the mercenary has returned to prominence as an important component of state power in the post-war environment. And not just recently, but throughout the Cold War, which still shared the characteristics of a fundamental opposition of states that had characterised World War II. But crucially with the Cold War, the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ extinguished the possibility of total war altogether, because of the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In a sense, the nuclear capability restored a level of anarchy to the international system, precluding the standing armies of the major powers from becoming engaged for fear of total war with an unconscionable nuclear dimension. Thus the mercenary was catapulted into a position of even greater prominence during the Cold War than could ever have been imagined, particularly in the two Superpowers’ peripheral spheres of influence. From the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to Charlie Wilson’s War in Afghanistan, mercenary forces were relied upon – successfully or not – for significant strategic effect, effect that regular forces simply could not have exerted without unacceptable backlash. More than this, they were no longer the ‘disunited, ambitious and ill-disciplined’ forces that Machiavelli so deplored in his infamous treatise The Prince, but highly professional and disciplined. For the wily political operator, the true beauty was having such forces in one’s back pocket: by definition, they were also conveniently at arm’s length.

PMCs: The Modern Mercenary Profession

The 21st century is in many ways continuous with the Cold War, against Francis Fukuyama’s prediction and that of many others when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Still bound by the ‘nuclear umbrella’, major powers also have to operate within the context of increasing public scrutiny for their foreign interventions, whether military or non-military, from the post-ISAF training mission in Afghanistan to the role of international development activity in the MENA region. Dubbed Private Military Companies (PMCs) rather than mercenaries, these 21st century forces take the hired-hand to a new level of professionalism. Often recruited from Special Forces units, they have many years of regular service to draw upon. In a sense, they embody the shift of national power from the ‘official’ space of the regular force to a deliberately less transparent, less accountable business model. This is reflected nowhere more clearly than the shift in semantics of the word ‘professional’ itself: the definition by no means implies a state affiliation as it once did, but rather an objective, recognized standard of training, discretion and commitment to the mission at hand. But should this be viewed as an entirely sinister development?

One could argue that PMCs are simply the logical response of governments hamstrung by the unprecedented levels of public scrutiny of the internet age. This cuts both ways: not only are governments wary of being perceived as ‘meddling’, but even in the most publicly supported wars, the political cost of casualties even when tactically insignificant can be strategically debilitating, as the loss of US Rangers in Somalia in the early 1990s proved. Furthermore, not only are these forces more discrete, but they are scalable, highly efficient businesses, reflecting in many ways the migration of many previously national services to the private sector, from energy supply to transport. Companies like MPRI are now deliberately worked into US foreign policy by the State Department, and its management structure consists of former high ranking military officers that have quite literally been outsourced in order to provide not only the economic but political efficiencies that a tentative 21st century government requires when engaging in foreign affairs. Like a ‘professional’ IT company, is it really so hard to imagine the ‘professional’ soldier also becoming anathema to the ‘official’ one, free of inefficiencies, costs, and substandard kit? Are we not already, in fact, witnessing the migration of perceptions in this direction?

Even the pattern of NATO engagement post-1989 points to PMCs as a logical solution to the 21st century geopolitical dilemma: damned if you intervene, damned if you don’t. Sustaining political will has become the biggest strategic problem for the Alliance, whether in Somalia as previously mentioned or in Afghanistan for the 14 years since 2001. Even the air campaign in Kosovo is illustrative of the fact that the Alliance is struggling to convince its respective publics of the need for involving its troops: the air campaign was fêted as the solution to risking the lives of ground forces, one which ultimately proved ineffective. The unwillingness to commit forces to Eastern Europe persists, and the way in which NATO is engaging neatly mirrors the Russian approach: the new Rapid Reaction Force is symbolic rather than overly-threatening, being based on a British brigade and designed to be small, highly mobile and scalable. It is not an act of war. The real fight in Ukraine has only smatterings of incidental evidence, such as NATO 5.56 magazines, Blackwater deployment, and Russian-made weapons. Yet with the public acknowledgement of pro-Russian separatists as well as NATO ‘advisers’ in the region, it is clear that subliminal military activity is rife, and being kept deliberately out of view. The answer, it seems, is in being proactively subliminal in international affairs.

But what makes Ukraine worthy of singling out? For the first time, a major power is taking the proxy war model to the very borders of its political competitor’s central sphere of influence. Quite understandably, this has created ‘deep concern’, to borrow the hackneyed diplomatic phrase at the top of the list. What is remarkable is that major Western powers such as the US and UK are responding in kind, investing heavily in the softer elements of their own military power. In the UK, a new ‘Chindit’ formation has been raised, so-called because it shares the same designation of ‘77 Brigade’ as its infamous World War II antecedent founded by Orde Wingate. Similarly, the US has boosted the budget for SOCOM (its Special Operations Command) by $30 million, in official recognition of the resurgence of the murky, non-state dimension to modern warfare. We may be witnessing not only the resurgence of the mercenary, but a new demand made of modern military forces: that the hired-hand forms a fundamental part of the political and strategic calculus in the future. The so-called ‘enabling’ elements of modern militaries are receiving increased investment at a time when regular forces are being cut, and mercenaries and Special Forces are evermore in demand. This is every bit as unnerving as it sounds, since it opens up the possibility of a foreign policy entirely divorced from the public it is meant to serve. But on the other hand, it is the logical ‘de-risked’ response by governments whose publics are risk-focused as never before.

Dirty War: Just Warriors

And yet, in Iraq and Syria, the character of the mercenary is altogether different to that found in Ukraine. The Golden Division fighting there is hired, trained and equipped by US Special Forces, and subject to a rigorous selection process where recruits are only known to each other by a faceless number. But it is an indigenous force: it stands as a beacon of unified, indigenous and non-sectarian potential for the region. It draws from Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi men, and is proudly ‘above sectarianism’ according to its commanding officer, General Fadhil al-Barwari. The Golden Division has been instrumental in the fight against Daesh in Iraq, and has recently fought a brutal defence of Ramadi, the city encircled by the extremists in a bid to win a symbolic victory just shy of Fallujah and Iraq in Al-Anbar province. The city is also a hub for trade thanks to its highly strategic location on the Euphrates and on the western road into Syria and Jordan.

Yet the highly trained, Special Forces-type troops of the Golden Division are simply not designed to be employed in such operations: agile and lightly equipped, they are suited to the targeted missions normally associated with their American or British SF equivalents. Recently, their lean number of 4,000 – a mere brigade in strength – has been stretched thin over an area that dwarfs the UK. And crucially, their mercenary status is beginning to grate against their own men, as they begin to reach the limit of their physical and psychological capacity to continue the defence without further US support. The problem seems to be a lack of political will to offer this support to a mercenary force, no matter how noble their aims or justified their formation. For after all is said and done, the concept of the mercenary still retains a tacit element of distastefulness, even to his employers, leading to just such a scenario where the Golden Division appears to have been left high and dry, unable to hold Ramadi and just last week forced to withdraw. These just warriors seem to have been dirtied by something as superficial as their terms of employment.

As the West reorients itself to the way that modern warfare will increasingly be fought, it is crucial that it also rebalances its cultural attitude towards the militaries it employs – albeit on different terms to its regular troops. ‘Mercenaries’ such as the Golden Division are no less worthy of our respect and full support, yet they still carry the burden of their designation: these soldiers are some of the most combat-hardened, brave and unwavering in a conflict where it would be all-too-easy to melt away into the ancient Mesopotamian sands. If new circumstances are to be created in regions such as these, NATO must avoid the old employer’s trick and not withhold the payment due to them: either in blood as well as treasure.

Dr. Andreas Stradis

Senior Research Fellow

Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom

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