London. It’s now clear, Sean McFate says in his new book, “The Modern Mercenary,” that when nation states spent nearly 400 years officially discouraging soldiers of fortune, it was the exception rather than the rule.
There were mercenaries on the battlefields of Europe long before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when it was agreed that military force was the preserve of governments.
And now, says McFate, a former soldier who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, the mercenaries are back, in strength, and are not going away.
Private military contractors, or PMCs, are flourishing again because they cost less than standing armies and their presence in a war zone is less politically sensitive than large numbers of regular soldiers.
McFate says we are seeing a return to the type of warfare seen in the Middle Ages, when mercenary bands roamed northern Italy and elsewhere. As the global political landscape fragments, we are reverting to a free market for military force.
“The implications of this are enormous,” McFate says, “since it suggests that international relations in the 21st century will have more in common with the 12th century than with the 20th.”
McFate answered questions from Reuters about why he wrote about mercenaries and what they are like.
Q: Why did you choose this topic?
A: I am a former US Army paratrooper who became a private military contractor in Africa. Much has been written about this secretive industry, much of it wrong. As an industry insider, I wanted to write a book that would inform rather than provoke, and look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Today a global market for force is emerging, but what does it mean when you have an industry vested in conflict going to the most conflict-prone areas in the world? This question haunts me.
Is the growing use of mercenaries a cause for alarm?
Private militaries have the power to reshape international relations. If anyone with wealth can wage war for any reason they like, then rich people and corporations can become new superpowers. Worse, linking profit motive to killing incentivises mercenaries to start and elongate wars for money, and prey on the weak when unemployed. A world with mercenaries will mean more war, as we saw in the Middle Ages, when they were common and everyone, kings, cities, rich families, popes, hired private armies. This will change how and why we fight, and will foster what I call “Durable Disorder”: a world order that contains rather than solves problems.
How have mercenaries changed since the Middle Ages?
Private military companies like Blackwater are not mercenaries but “military enterprisers”: companies that augment national armies in a public-private partnership with a government client. Historical examples include Wallenstein from the Thirty Years War. By contrast, mercenary firms like Executive Outcomes independently wage wars. PMCs can easily become mercenaries and vice versa, depending on the client. Until recently, PMCs have been dominant but now mercenaries are appearing in Nigeria, Ukraine, Somalia and elsewhere.
Is there any mercenary figure you find particularly interesting?
Sir John Hawkwood was an English mercenary, or condottiere [contractor in old Italian], in the 14th century, and led the White Company. Contrary to the later invectives of Machiavelli against mercenaries, Hawkwood served Florence loyally, and they even honored him with a monument in the cathedral. He also served as England’s ambassador to the Roman court, and joined Chaucer and Petrarch at a wedding feast for King Edward III’s son.