The history of mercenary fighters–soldiers for hire who might be disciplined fighters abiding by the rules of engagement or might be plundering freebooters–from ancient Rome to today in Ukraine–is often an ugly, brutal, killers-for-hire story.
For the U.S. armed forces and some of its allies in recent years, most of these contractors fulfilled non-combat roles like providing food services, but the most disturbing trend was companies providing armed contractors in war zones.
What were once called mercenaries were legitimized as ‘private military security contractors’ or, even more vaguely, PMSCs, and almost no one batted an eye, even after such contractors were found to be operating at protest sites like Standing Rock in the United States.
In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, these companies operated in extremely gray areas of the law, rarely seeming accountable to authorities, whether civilian or military.
Those worried about the possible consequences of bringing for-profit companies into active zones of conflict need only look at the case of the four contractors who were convicted of murdering 14 innocent people in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. It seemed that a legal line had been drawn and some justice served until the previous U.S. president pardoned these former Blackwater employees on his way out the door.
Like mushrooms springing up on a rotting log, PMSCs have gone global, appearing in places like the Sahel region, Sudan and Libya in Africa. In these areas it’s very difficult to monitor their actions or even know who is paying for their services.
As they’ve become more common, we have seen private military forces involved in numerous coup attempts in the Global South. One of the most recent was an almost surreal attempt by clearly deluded Americans from a small firm called Silvercorp to topple the government of Venezuela in May 2020. Reported on by the Associated Press before it even happened, ‘Operation Gideon’ was brought to an end in part by quick-thinking fishermen who spotted an unusual boat approaching the country’s shore.
It was inevitable that at some point a rival or enemy nation would adopt the use of mercenaries that had already begun to spread widely among U.S. allies, drawing in highly trained recruits from around the world. In Yemen, the UAE’s ground forces were widely reported as being foreigners, especially from Colombia (another country with a large number of PMSCs).
When Russia entered the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad government in 2015, it brought with it its own PMSC in the form of the Wagner Group. This PMSC not only provides contractors to the Russian government but is said to run influence operations targeting Russia’s rivals and has also reportedly taken control of a gold mine in the Central African Republic, possibly as payment for security services it’s providing that country’s government.
To be sure, the Wagner Group and its leader, Yevgeny Prigrozhin, appear willing to go further than Western PMSCs, even recruiting Russian convicts through pardons for the war in Ukraine. Although Putin’s government has officially stopped the practice, we are seeing the results in the slaughter taking place in the small city of Bakhmut, where the Wagner Group seems to be trying to overwhelm Ukrainians by willingly sacrificing large numbers of their mercs. In the process they are creating a terrifying precedent that others might follow in the future.
The mercenaries of old would often collect at least a part of their pay in pillage, extending the suffering of ordinary people as a result. While they have never fully gone away, their modern revival is troubling to say the least.