A History of Modern Mercenary Warfare

Image of A History of Modern Mercenary Warfare
Release Date: 
November 30, 2023
Pen and Sword Military
Reviewed by: 

“an engaging and sometimes surprising analysis of the changing nature of mercenary warfare and how these soldiers of fortune continue to play a significant role in many of the world’s ongoing conflicts.”

Mercenary soldiers have been around since ancient time, offering their service to the highest bidder and providing military power to kings and emperors. The ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans used large numbers of hired troops and Europe saw the use of mercenary forces throughout the Renaissance period, particularly with the advent of gunpowder weapons.

Even the American Revolution had its share of paid soldiers, most notably the Hessian troops hired by Britain who performed notable service in the early period of the war, evoking a strong response from the rebelling colonies both for their fighting ability and often brutal tactics. Since the late 20th century, paid soldiers have made a surprising comeback for a variety of political and military purposes, supporting and sometimes supplanting state military powers in conflicts that are often forgotten by the general population.

This book, with a heavy emphasis on British contract and mercenary soldiers drawing from the author’s service and background as a contract soldier, examines the use of mercenaries in the last few decades, with a focus on the numerous conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East since the end of World War II that have drawn the efforts of these soldiers of fortune.

Africa probably saw the largest use of mercenary troops in the Cold War era, as newly decolonized nations rapidly became ideological battlegrounds between the West and Soviet Union. The independence of the Belgian Congo in the early 1960s saw dozens of mercenary troops on all sides of the convoluted situation with competing factions and breakaway provinces, some supported by the Soviet Union, others by the U.S., and all of them seeking control of what would become the country of Zaire and its mineral riches.

The conflicts in the Middle East, particularly the struggles in Oman and Yemen, saw the rise of private military contractors (PMCs), as mercenaries now preferred to be called, as the unofficial instruments of national governments, performing both training and combat roles in areas where the official intervention of European troops would have been diplomatically awkward. Troops from Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) were the most numerous of these soldiers, often serving as contract troops while still technically in service, but on loan or leave to provide some plausible deniability to the British government. These troops were particularly popular in Middle Eastern countries not only as trainers for local forces, but as private bodyguards to ultra-rich oil sheiks.

One particular activity that mercenaries seemed to be highly sought for during the 1980s and 1990s was to instigate coups across several countries in Africa and the Middle East. Like something out of a Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum novel, groups of mercenaries would either act independently or at the behest of another group to install a particular strongman or faction to control the country on behalf of some proxy. Unfortunately for the mercenaries involved, none of these attempts came to fruition and many of the mercenaries were caught and executed by their opponents.

Since 9/11 the use of private military contractors has soared, particularly their use by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using these forces to provide base security, diplomatic protection, and even convoy protection for supplies moving in country allowed the U.S., according to the author, to disguise the number of armed personnel actually in-country.

These contractors suffered significant casualties and the gruesome murder of four Blackwater contractors in April 2004 instigated the First Battle of Fallujah, a campaign that by the end of the year would become the biggest American urban battle since World War II. These PMCs had a spotty record in Iraq, gaining a reputation of being trigger happy and willing to open fire on civilians that seemed to threaten them and most of them eventually had their contracts cancelled due to numerous incidents involving civilian casualties.

The book ends with an examination of the most famous of recent mercenary groups, the Wagner Group of Russia. This shadowy organization has become a virtual arm of the Russian military and intelligence community, conducting operations in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine, and acquiring a dark reputation, particularly in Ukraine, for committing atrocities.

They have essentially taken over for the Russian military in Africa, providing training and often engaging in combat on behalf of several unsavory regimes, all to further Russian diplomatic and economic interests. Their troops assumed a major combat role in Ukraine, often conducting major conventional operations and incurring heavy casualties. These casualties and the perceived disrespect they received from the Russian military have severely strained Wagner’s relationship with the Putin regime, but their plausible deniability and willingness to ruthlessly carryout their assignments make their continued use by the Russians highly likely.

One interesting note most readers may not know is that in 2018 Wagner mercenaries and their Syrian allies came into direct combat with U.S. Special Operators and their Syrian allies in the northeastern part of the country. For several hours these forces battled over control of key oil infrastructure as waves of U.S. aircraft eventually forced the Wagner troops to withdraw after suffering significant casualties.

The author provides an engaging and sometimes surprising analysis of the changing nature of mercenary warfare and how these soldiers of fortune continue to play a significant role in many of the world’s ongoing conflicts.