What is it to be a Mercenary?

A Piece – 26th December 2011

(Requested by a socialist political weekly, but not printed by them)

What is it to be a Mercenary?

By his steel-harsh, two verse poem, ‘Epitaph to an Army of Mercenaries’ 1917 AE Housman (1859 – 1936) honoured the British Expeditionary Force of 1914. These soldiers were the Old Contemptibles, so-named by the crazed Kaiser himself. The men of this British Expeditionary Force were nearly all killed, or wounded.

No finer ever fought.

But what has Housman’s use of the word mercenary to do with that of others?

Very little, when put next to the 1977 ‘Convention of the Organisation of African Unity for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa.’ This was a convention that set out to make being a mercenary a hanging matter – fall out from the civil wars of Biafra (1967-70) and the Congo (1997-9) where there was large-scale use of mercenaries, and where atrocities were carried out by them.
Within this mercenary spectrum come many shades, with great scope for moral argument – like the word whore.

The word soldier itself comes from the Old French ‘soudier’ (1250-1300) … a sou per day.

Better paid at least was Kipling’s old soldier of 1892, the tramp of Tramp’s night club:

“… A shillin’ a day … ETC … / but think where ‘e’s been, think what ‘e’s seen.”

So, what is the difference: between being a professional soldier for one’s own country (like those of the US and British Armies of today) or being a professional soldier for someone else’s country? The British Army Ghurkas, for example, or the French Foreign Legion? According to that 1977 African convention there is no difference: you are not a mercenary, by their rules, if you fight in the duly enrolled service of the armed forces of a combatant sovereign state.

However nasty a sovereign state that may be.

Perhaps the idea of soldiering at all is what is so unpleasant; is what turns people against such a well used and ancient trade.

Shakespeare thought that the soldier fought for fame: ” Seeking the bubble reputation, Even in the cannon’s mouth” (Jaques in As You Like It). Except that Othello, a highly praised mercenary general fighting in the pay of Venice, is painted black by the Bard, not for being a mercenary, but for his weakness in love, for his vile revenge.

Samuel Johnson thought better: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” (Although he went on: “… but being in the navy is like being in prison, with the added likelihood of a death by drowning.”)

Winston Churchill was clear in his orders to the 6th battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers which he commanded in 1915, in the trenches of the Western Front: “War is a business that must be carried out with a smile on the face.” For his part he took his soldiering seriously, even taking time off RMA Sandhurst to take part in the skirmish of USA vs Spain, in Cuba 1895.

The Duke of Wellington had an unsentimental view about his own soldiers. When riding out to the field of Waterloo, while passing the British infantry marching there, he commented to a Staff officer: “I don’t know what these people do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.”
And yet, earlier in English literature, questions about soldiering for pay do arise, even if one skirts around the ‘rewards-for-fighting’ mechanism, held dear by Beowulf’s henchmen, or the tale that it was unpaid Saxon mercenaries who set off the Saxon invasion of Britain, by taking parts of Kent, in lieu of back-pay.

There is no question that the many knights from all over Europe who joined William’s invasion of England did so mainly for the loot. Geoffrey Chaucer was a soldier, and a prisoner of war, well before he became a spy for the King of England. Even if his soldiering was all for the crown then that of his ‘perfect gentle knight’ was not.
A reader of that day would have known that this Knight had fought for monarchs and masters far from those of his birth. (And surely they would have queried the Knight’s rust stained tabard – the shirt worn under the armour? How was it possible not to have enough time to change one’s shirt? Or, more likely, was it being worn as a cheap bragging prop?)
There is a story that Chaucer’s inspiration for his Knight was a famous English mercenary of the 14th Century – John Hawkwood – who led a mostly English mercenary outfit, charmingly named The White Company. These, it seems, were a force to be reckoned with – in the course of the precise campaigns carried out by the then Princedoms of Italy.

With the White Company on his payroll this Prince was going to win.

This happened well before two most famous men, both soldier’s of fortune in their way, came onto the scene: Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519 always trying to dream up some new war winning method or device for his master, the Duke of Milan) and Niccolo Macchavelli (1469-1527, and likewise).

It was also around that time (in 1506) that the use of Swiss Guards for defending the Pope became the custom. The Swiss were then a well thought of source of mercenaries, or condottieri. Their country was dirt poor, but they were hardy mountain folk.

A revealing parallel to the business of soldiers for hire is to be found in the practices of Naval warfare. Before Henry VIII there were no naval ships of the Crown. All ships had to be ready to defend themselves. Most would become pirate ships the moment they thought they could win the fight in view. Later, while even in war being a pirate was a hanging matter, governments would encourage privateers.

These were privately owned vessels set up to harass the trade of the enemy: legal piracy. If such a ship were captured then the difference, between being run up the yardarm with a rope around your neck, or being treated with the courtesy due to a prisoner-of-war, lay in whether or not a Letter of Marque could be shown. This was the document, signed and stamped by the Crown, that made you a Privateer. No Pirate.

The British led the way in these matters. The entire Indian sub-continent fell to the British at the hands of a privateer outfit: the East India Company. Admiral Lord Cochrane (the model for much of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey) did such great private work in the South America of the early 19th Century that, as a result of Spanish fury, the British parliament passed an as yet unused law, against the plotting of wars in England to overthrow governments overseas.

Many of these Imperial privateer actions ended badly, however, and not just for the locals. It was said, for example, that the Queen Empress, Victoria herself (always short of money) had backed the disastrous Jameson Raid, an incident shortly preceding the Boer War in 1895/6. The Raid was not a bad business prospect. At stake was the Witwatersrand Reef, from which 60% of the world’s gold has since been mined.

A more up-to-date specimen of all this daring-do is the Oman war of the 1960s and 70s. Having carried out what is jokingly called the Foreign Office’s last coup in 1970 it was necessary to ensure that their newcomer to the Omani throne, the present HRH King Qaboos, should not lose the war then being hard fought to overthrow his anachronistic kingdom.

But this war was being lost: the Adoo, the Moscow and Beijing backed Yemeni communist insurgents, were winning. At stake were the Oman, and the Straits of Hormuz.

A secret UK help plan was hatched. As a result, a British Army officer of that time could take part in the fighting in Oman in any one of several different ways. You could be seconded from the British Army into that of the Sultan. You could be commissioned into the Sultan’s Armed Forces. You could be in Oman as a Troop Commander of 22 SAS Regiment, taking part in what was called Operation Storm. You could take the work as a contract officer, through a company called Airwork Services Ltd (who would interview you in an anonymous London Hotel room).

The jebel firefight that you would then find yourself in, as a result of any of this temerity, would be just the exact same. So … the moral nuances are hard to fathom. If the firefight was worth fighting as a UK commissioned but seconded officer then what was wrong with fighting it as a contractor?

Today there are many recruits into the British Army from Commonwealth countries. This is a good deal for both parties. Their pay is the same and, after sufficient service, they can become a UK citizen. To some, however, these men are mercenaries. They are fighting or are ready to fight for a country that is not their own, and which may have very different policies. In some cases, such as those from South Africa, these recruits may be breaking the law of their homeland.

After I left the British Army for the 2nd time, in 1985, I became bodyguard to the Finance Minister of Samuel Doe, the Liberian president. This was an exciting adventure that could have cost me my life, but was Private Security Company work – not Private Military Company work.

Not so long after that, May 1992, I left the British Army for the 3rd and last time. I had re-joined again because of the first Gulf War (in 1990) to serve on the staff of General Sir Peter de la Billiere. When I left I joined Heritage Oil and Gas, or HOG.

HOG in those days was Tony Buckingham, me and our secretary. The company had one project: Block 4/24 off-shore Angola, for which the operating base was a small port called Soyo, perched on the southern lip of the mouth of the great Congo river itself. When, in November 1992, UNITA, the old guerrilla force in Angola’s long civil war, lost the elections, they went back to fighting.

This was in direct breach of their promises and signed treaties, and despite the UN and other bodies having judged the elections to have been free and fair. UNITA’s attack on Soyo was an attack on HOG – an attack on our company, our men and equipment, and our livelihood. It was also an act of thuggery, a crime.

Tony Buckingham and I persuaded the Angolan government – the MPLA – to allow us to re-take Soyo, which we did. In the process a South African company, Executive Outcomes, came into being.

Executive Outcomes, or EO, was the first modern Private Military Company (or PMC) in that it was openly willing to fight. The old Private Security Companies (or PSC’s) had on occasion fought, but that was not something in their sales brochures. These were companies like Defence Systems Limited, KMS, and Control Risks.

Having won the battle of Soyo for the MPLA, the government of Angola then and now, asked if EO could help them not lose the war as a whole – a defeat that would have brought about the execution of any MPLA politician unable to escape. EO took on the challenge, expanded, made a lot of money and – many adventures later – won.

Along the way EO also entered into the terrible Sierra Leone civil war, in which they had to take on the ghastly Foday Sankoh and his RUF: world leaders in nasty atrocities.

That war EO also won. The Sierra Leone EO fighting was paid for by Buckingham and myself. We could afford the USD $400,000 per month that it cost to wage this private war only because of what we were doing in Angola.

During all this I was a part of EO, and one of the four people that set EO down the path they took. Sitting around our campfires, or – more often – sitting in one of our Boeing 727 aircraft, we would talk of the future.

Would EO become a role model for other companies?

Could EO become the UN’s African fire-force?

Would multi-national fight multi-national – in proxy wars, fought out between two EO’s?

My view was always, No. The circumstances that set off EO were unique. They would never come again … and anyway: these things were better left to the forces of sovereign states, or the UN.

The others asked: how could I – of all people – say that? When I had been a founder of EO and had done so much to make the EO story happen?

I would use the analogy of a house on fire. If I am asked to put out a house fire, or if it is my house, then I am not going to stand around waiting for the fire brigade – in other words the UN, or an international task force. In Angola and Sierra Leone the UN had been an expensive, but useless, presence. They had stopped nothing.

But then, if I am to help someone put out their fire, using men and equipment that I have to hire and buy, then I need to be paid for doing so. (As in Angola). Or, if there is an advantage to me in putting out another’s house fire, then I may do it at my expense. (As in Sierra Leone).

But neither of those examples mean that – as a general rule – City owned and run Fire Brigades should be abolished, done away with. Publicly funded Fire Brigades remain a good idea.

The Iraq invasion of 2003 proved me wrong about PMCs. Following the downfall of Saddam, the Americans wanted PMCs aplenty. PMCs were a way of upping troop levels without it being clear to the public. They were off-balance sheet reinforcements.

PMC contractors don’t get Royal Wootton Bassett turned out to welcome home their coffins. Contractors will be lucky if they get coffins: that would be another cost coming off shareholder dividends.

Another reason is that fighting some parts of a war with PMC troops instead of regular ones is cheaper, too. (That is the traditional wisdom at least, although it is now being challenged by some US academics.)

Today the PSC / PMC world is booming, despite the pullout from Iraq. American and British companies rule, with the US government responsible for 80% of the total PSC / PMC spend. Despite that UK companies do disproportionately well. This is especially true of Aegis and New Century, owned and run by Tim Spicer and Michael Grunberg respectively. Both of these men were big players in the EO story.

PMC’s today are deployed in many theatres and in an increasing range of roles, but call them mercenaries if you like. The management of human intelligence gathering in Afghanistan is mostly by PMC. Such companies are already deployed in the growing narco COIN operations along the US / Mexican border.

For years Bahrain has used Pakistani and Baluch contractors, and that is now a growing trend. Abu Dhabi recently shipped in eight hundred Colombians to act as a Special Forces battalion: a UAE Foreign Legion, so to speak. This was done with the help and management of a South African ex- EO team. The same team is preparing to deploy against Somali pirates. It is Abu Dhabi who plan to foot that bill too.

In the Libyan revolution further lines of demarcation – between government forces and PMC forces – became more blurred. From Tripoli it has been reported that UK ex-Special Forces were used, in some places, instead of regular troops. This came about because of the uncontrolled and the ‘everywhere’ presence of war correspondents, accredited and otherwise. Their prying eyes made the covert deployment of SAS and SBS troops difficult.

Even so, the need for trained laser designator operators to bring in air dropped laser bombs, with as much precision as possible, had to be met. Therefore designator kits were supplied to ex- UK SF contractors. These were men whose salaries were being paid for by the oil companies, for oil field site security. They were already in country, already on contract.

Whether or not the controllers or crews of NATO in-bound fast jets (French, let us say) knew that their weapon release was being designated by mercenaries isn’t known.

Then there is the business of the South African contractors working for Gaddafi XXXX. It seems that there were three phases in the Gaddafi escape plan: wives and children out to Mali then points South, Saif Al Islam next, then Gaddafi himself. The first two phases went well, the third less well, for those involved at least.

It seems that some of the third phase contractors were men who had been in prison with me. (Chikurubi Maximum Security, Harare, Zim). They were with Gaddafi when he was hit. Some escaped, some were killed, some captured, wounded or unscathed. This story becomes stranger because of more than one report that the escaper contractor mercenaries had NATO approval.

Why would they have had that?

Because – according to this line of thought – even NATO would rather have a Gaddafi on trial, than a Gaddafi hanging from a lamp-post.

After all this, where do I stand now, and for the future?

My feeling hasn’t changed. When a truly democratic country sends its duly enrolled troops into action there is a clear moral and legal chain that mandates the soldier to squeeze his trigger if appropriate. This is true whether the policy that sends the man into action is right or wrong, or whether the trigger-squeeze itself is right or wrong. Running military operations without that moral and legal chain is hard enough. Juggling life and death operational priorities with one eye on a profit & loss account is impossible.

The Blackwater incident in Iraq showed how hard it is for a contractor to defend itself when things have gone wrong. Nobody wanted to hear the Blackwater side of that story so, whatever the rights and wrongs, they were guilty before any proof of that guilt was established.

Mai Lai massacres are bad enough when carried out by regular troops. When carried out by a contractor they would be worse by an order of magnitude. (The fact that EO, in the course of all its war fighting, was never once accused of wrong-doing is neither here nor there, even if it does matter to those who took part.)

Whenever I was with the British Army in Northern Ireland I could see how any army of occupation is loathed. Even by those it is there to help.

How much more loathsome then is ‘The Contractor’?

BUT … despite this feeling – that some things are always better done by duly enrolled government forces – realpolitik, will apply.

Amanda, my wife, asked me on the morning of 9/11, “What does this mean? What will happen?”

I replied: “I don’t know … but the last people that carried out a major surprise attack on the American homeland had two nuclear weapons dropped on them … before it was over …”

The world changed at 9/11: The War on Terror began. In the course of that war a PMC industry has come into being. So now I have been asked to act as technical consultant on a reality TV show about a PMC, and their rivals. This comes at the same time as I am being asked to do more PSC / PMC security work and consultancy.

Elsewhere something odd is happening: while I was touring around Hollywood – pitching for the development funding to take my book into being a movie – three sensible seeming people told me, in all seriousness, how loved ones of theirs had set their sights on becoming a ‘Mercenary’! They asked me how this could be best achieved. Would I help?

(The book is called Cry Havoc, published by John Blake – the movie is to star Gerard Butler, and be directed by Sir Ridley Scott. Bob Edwards is to write the screenplay.)

So where does this lead?

In the last century, when it mattered, the UK proved itself to be the master of grand strategy. Twice the London commanders, political and military, managed the key issue, that of bringing the USA into the war as quickly as possible, with great skill. It is that same grand strategy that to this day steers much of the UK’s otherwise hard to fathom defence policy.

Thus, while the USA carries on with its growing use of PSCs and PMCs, in the execution of its many worldwide theatres of ‘Low Intensity Operations’, the UK will follow. The on-going deployment of British troops in Afghanistan stands out as an example of how this works. The only good justification as to why the UK is still fighting in Afghanistan is that the USA, our best ally, want us to be still fighting in Afghanistan.

The UK FCO stated policy on the future regulation of UK PSCs / PMCs on contracts overseas is to follow the United Sates Standard (ANSI) on private security companies. This is due to be published sometime in the first half of 2012. This document is to have a ‘UK implementation annex’.

This standard is to become the ‘primary regulatory standard for UK companies’. This trend, towards the government use of PSCs / PMCs is unlikely to be halted, but it will mature, becoming more finely shaded, specialized, and forced into stricter and stricter sets of required compliance rules. For example: the UK will also follow the US in making it possible for contractors’ troops to be prosecuted in the UK under UK law for offences they have committed in foreign jurisdictions whilst on contract.

This goes to the heart of the matter. How a soldier or unit is labeled – Regular, Reservist, Military Contractor, Security Contractor – is not important. What counts is whether the deed is done, and done well … and done in an appropriate manner. The UK is already moving this way in one major sense, if promises are upheld, because a major build up of reservist (TA) troops is planned. In an out-sourced world why not out-source an army?

However all this evolves and works one thing is sure. For the PMC’s an enforced set of rules is needed, from the level of higher command down to the foot soldier contractor on the ground.

His Rules for Opening Fire in his head. His copy of the Rules in his left top pocket.

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