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Most nations are understandably nervous about trusting foreigners to run their armed forces. Yet mercenary troops have long been a logical way for rulers to control their subjects while avoiding revolution spawned in the local military barracks. Often, mercenaries are hired because it’s cheaper, or not enough citizens are willing, or able, to be effective soldiers. The Iraq war reminded Americans that the United States was also a user of mercenaries. This has been the case for centuries, although it became more common in the 20th century as the U.S. became more involved with foreign nations.


The war in Iraq saw extensive use of mercenaries mainly because the Iraqis with the most security and military experience, the Sunni Arabs, were the least reliable. It was safer to bring in foreigners (non-Iraqis) for security work. You could use soldiers for this, but the troops were needed for more dangerous and complex work. More than 30 firms were used to hire people for security work. This included three types of security. First, there was guarding of bases. The Green Zone (a large chunk of central Baghdad) employed thousands of these mercenaries. Other large bases employed many more. The second type of work was convoy security. On the main supply routes, the guys driving the trucks, as well as the security guards, were all foreigners. The most dangerous routes were generally used only by military-run convoys.  The third type of security was as bodyguards, and this is where the most expensive mercs (usually former special operations soldiers) were employed.


Most of these mercenaries had military or police experience, and they came from all over the world. By 2005, some countries were passing laws outlawing the recruitment of their citizens for this work. The main reason for this was that active-duty soldiers and police were being recruited, and the mercenary pay was much more than what they were making at home. These laws didn’t really work. The word was out that high-paying, not-too-risky work was available in Iraq. The recruiters could operate via the Internet, or potential recruits could simply go to a neighboring country and apply there.



There was some danger, but the casualty rate was low (less than one-sixth of what U.S. troops experienced in Vietnam). The security companies usually covered medical expenses and paid life insurance benefits. The risk was no deterrent to the many people who kept applying for the jobs.


Getting reliable mercenaries has always been a problem, but the security firms working in Iraq screened their people pretty well. There were only a few terrorist attacks inside bases guarded by the mercenaries.


This was in line with past U.S. experience with mercenaries. During the Vietnam War, many mercenary units were formed, some for special operations (e.g., Chinese Nung mercenaries for long-range reconnaissance patrols). Besides its primary mission to recruit and train indigenous troops, the U.S. Army Special Forces also is trained to recruit and use mercenary troops. Most of the Special Forces experience goes back to World War II, where mercenaries were common in many of the more obscure theaters of war (where there were never enough U.S. troops).



Mercenaries are increasingly being used for peacekeeping. While the UN is uneasy with this practice, relief workers in need of protection are not so sensitive. Some of the major security firms, like Blackwater, have offered to provide brigade-size units of peacekeepers, staffed by former soldiers and police, to do the work that many nations are reluctant to send their own troops to do. The UN turned this down, mainly because of an institutional dislike for mercenaries. Too many UN member countries are vulnerable to mercenary-backed coups, and this translates into the institutional bias.



The British are familiar and at ease with the use of mercenaries and have an even longer history of it than Americans. The Gurkhas from Nepal still serve in the British and Indian armies and increasingly show up in other parts of the world, including Iraq. In the merc world, the British also participate by supplying officers and NCOs to many nations. In the 1970s and 1980s, this old tradition was very much alive in the Persian Gulf, particularly in Oman. In the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, the Soldiers of the Queen, though less overtly active, continued to press on.



The rulers of the Persian Gulf states are generally local strongmen whose power the population prefers to recognize rather than resist with arms. So, raising troops from among the locals is not a good way to sustain the strongman’s power. An obvious solution is to use mercenaries. Troops are easy to obtain; many groups in the area have traditionally served as mercenaries for whomever could afford it. Individual Baluchi tribesmen of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan soldier for the highest bidder. Baluchis tend to be outstanding soldiers—which is one reason why they can become an internal problem for both Iran and Pakistan.


Other forces from the region, particularly Pakistan, are available (officially or otherwise) to serve appropriate foreign rulers (“appropriate” means non-Israeli). The Pakistani government has made several defense arrangements with Persian Gulf potentates, “lending” brigades and fighter-bomber squadrons for local defense. The deal is that the lendee pays for maintenance, training, and other expenses, and Pakistan gets trained troops and well-maintained equipment when it needs them (for example, prior to a war with India).


One problem with using local, homegrown armed forces is the danger of their being lured into local political intrigues. Of course, mercenary leaders can also become involved. In December 1989, Colonel Robert Denard, a French mercenary commanding the 500-man Comoro Islands’ presidential guard, organized the assassination of Comoro Islands’ president Ahmed Abdallah. Denard, while allegedly connected to French intelligence services, was something of a classic mercenary lone wolf. In 1995 he tried it again, but this time the French promptly sent in troops and arrested him and his men.



The British Army, however, retains direct links to its officers and NCOs “seconded” to foreign service; the Brits remain Soldiers of the Queen. For this reason, Gulf rulers have always looked favorably on obtaining British officers and NCOs to lead mercenary troops or even the local armed forces. British officers and NCOs serving in foreign armies often “resign” from the home forces for the duration of their foreign service.


They just as often rejoin the British Army afterward—with their foreign service time conveniently counting toward retirement. What is more striking about this foreign service is that the British mercenaries actually command foreign troops in the service of a non-British ruler. This arrangement serves all concerned and demonstrates why some mercenary forces survive and will most likely continue to do so. The British arrangements are unique for mercenary service; however, in almost all other cases, the nation the mercenaries come from has little or no interest in regulating the activities of its freelance warriors.


In any army, the officers and senior NCOs are the keys to effectiveness and reliability. The British Army has had several hundred years’ experience in leading mercenary forces and has acquitted itself well in this capacity. While the British government has not been averse to interfering in the affairs of the Gulf states, it has generally done so with diplomacy and tact. The United States, Russia, China, and Iran rarely display such tact. The British (most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq) once again showed themselves to be militarily reliable as well as discreet.



With the breakup of the Soviet Union, thousands of experienced soldiers from the former Red Army went abroad looking for work. Many found it. Just as there were plenty of German and Japanese mercenaries available immediately after World War II, there were plenty of Russian (and other former-Soviet nationality) mercs on the market throughout the 1990s. Russian mercenaries have shown up in Bosnia, the Persian Gulf (Yemen, Iraq, Iran), Africa, Asia, and South America. The most sought after former Red Army troops served with Spetsnaz and airborne units. Pilots are also in demand and are often rented when high-performance Russian combat aircraft are sold abroad. These troops are tough, well-trained, and, relatively speaking, cheap.


Former members of South Africa’s anti-terror forces showed up on the payroll of troubled African governments. A South African firm called Executive Outcomes went to work for the beleaguered governments of Angola and Sierra Leone in 1995. Another British-based outfit, offering Gurkha mercenaries, also found work in Africa.



Not to be left out, a number of retired, but very senior, American officers formed an organization called Military Professional Resources, Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, right down the road from the Pentagon. MPRI employees have included former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Carl Vuono (still listed as a senior manager) and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Harry Soyster. In the mid-1990s the firm got a multiyear contract with Croatia (one officially sanctioned by the U.S. State Department).


MPRI insisted that its work was strictly in the classroom; instruction was given in the established Croat military schools and did not cover purely military matters but rather issues of logistics and organization. This treaded a fine line, but it was something America did in China before it entered World War II, where several groups of “official” mercenaries aided the Chinese against the Japanese.


A QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO WAR, 4th Edition by James F. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, 640 pages, Paladin Press, $49.95