Paramilitary: Why Mercenaries Survive and Thrive


January 1, 2008: 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 mainly because it's cheaper, or not enough of your citizens are willing, or able, to be effective soldiers. The Iraq war reminded Americans that the United States was also a major employer 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.

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 for security work. You could use soldiers for this, but the troops were needed for more dangerous, and complex work. Over thirty firms were used to hire people for security work. This included three types 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 commandos) were employed.

Most of the Iraq mercenaries had military or police experience and they came from all over the world. By 2005, some countries were passing law outlawing the recruitment of their citizens for this work. The main reason for this was that active duty soldiers and police were being recruited. In many countries, 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.

While there was some danger, the casualty rate was low (less than one sixth of what U.S. troops experienced in Vietnam.) The security companies usually paid life insurance benefits, as well as covering medical expenses. 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 in Iraq screened their people pretty well. There were only a few terrorist attacks inside the 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 commando operations. The U.S. Army Special Forces 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 unit 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.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close