For Sidonius Apollinaris and his beloved native city of Clermont, the year 471AD could hardly have brought more misery. Thousands of Goths surrounded the once proud Roman city. Morale was low. Defeat seemed inevitable.
Then, quite literally, the cavalry arrived. A small group of men, just nineteen, charged across the plain to scatter the besiegers. The sheer audacity of the surprise attack must have stunned the Goths, who scattered, suffering heavy losses. The city was delivered.
The townspeople, who had been watching from behind the broken city walls, thronged to greet their plucky rescuers – a group of dudes from multiple nationalities, some Gauls, some Germanic and the rest Thracians and Greeks. The man who had organized this surprise counter attack was a certain Ecdicius, who had grown up in Clermont and then gone on to build his own fiefdom and private army. Grateful townsfolk now kissed the dust off Ecdicius’ armor and fought for the honor of embracing their victorious native son.
They had reason to be thrilled. Back in those days, being invaded and conquered meant being enslaved and/or raped and if you were lucky, killed.
Bt the 5th century AD, the Roman Empire was in shambles, barely able to defend itself from aggression. The consumption and lethargy of it’s citizens had grown to the extent that they had slaves to do everything for them, even fight their battles. It is the story of a people who had lost confidence in themselves, a government that had lost control of its army and an army that had lost control of its soldiers. In the case of the thwarted attempt to invade Clermont detailed above, historians suspect that the Gothic invaders were in fact a faction of a renegade Roman army.
In its heyday, the Roman army had consisted of legionaries, who were recruited from the ranks of citizens and auxilliaries, mercenaries who were citizens of conquered states, often uncouth, barbaric warriers whom the Romans found difficult to tame. Long before this barbarization of the Roman army however, Roman military leaders would admire the tenacity and ruthlessness of these barbarians who battled their legions.
Julius Caesar once proclaimed that civilization made men soft. The fiercest fighters were those that were the least civilized, he said. The legendary general was repeatedly saved in his battles, from sure death, by mounted German mercenaries whom he had hired for his wars. Afterwards, the first first Roman Emperor, Augustus, established an imperial bodyguard, the custodes, composed entirely of Germans.
By the time of the reign of Caligula, (37-41 AD), over 35% of Rome’s legionnaires were recruited from the least civilized parts of the empire, the recruiters seeming to believe that the best soldiers, the real fighting men, could only be found outside, in the far-flung countryside.
The ancient city of Thrace, in present-day Bulgaria, had grown a reputation of providing fierce fighting men, similar in ferocity to the Gauls and the Germanics. Thus, the Roman Army raised several auxiliary legions (one legion had approximately 6000 troops) of Thracians, one of whom rose to occupy a place in history that was so exalted that there are few in today’s world who haven’t heard his name – Spartacus.
Before he had killed two colleagues in a drunken brawl and got arrested and enslaved (just prior to his rebellion against the Romans in 73BC), Spartacus had served with the Roman legions as a mercenary, recruited through a private contractor, a Thracian recruiter/agent who got paid by the number of fighters he supplied the Roman Army, pretty much the same way that Private Military & Security Contractors (PMSCs) are hired by the US Army to recruit personnel who use physical force where necessary and provide protection for US assets.
Spartacus was not the trail blazer however. The first recorded use of mercenaries was by Xerxes-I of Persia in 484 BC, when he invaded Greece. He formed a brigade of Greek mercenaries, to fight their own people, for hard silver.
Then in medieval times, Byzantine Emperors followed the Roman practice and contracted the Vikings, not to fight wars but to quell dissent within, as their own custodes. The Vikings were folk who knew of only one way to live – by the sword. Known as the Varangian Guards, their mandate was to keep the emperor in power, no matter what. For this they had carte blanche to kill, maim, torture, suppress and destroy. They were very effective since they had no blood ties with the local population and therefore no empathy. Again, there was a PMSC, a Nordic merchant, the middleman who supplied the Byzantines with the murderous Vikings.
During the 16th century, the British monarchy employed private armies and navies to safeguard the interests of it’s expanding empire. They were called privateers, the most famous of them being a swashbuckling buccaneer who took care not to plunder British merchant shipping and held all others, especially Spanish galleons, as fair game. Instead of bringing him to justice for his lawless ways, the wily Queen Elizabeth-I saw an opportunity in him. Giving him the exalted status of a close ally, she even knighted him in 1581. Just as Blackwater founder, Eric Prince, is seen as a hero by American rednecks and Republicans, Sir Francis Drake was a hero to the British. (Of course, the Spaniards, whose armada he helped the Queen to defeat, thought of him as a no-good pirate).
The British monarch was not the only absolute ruler who used privateers to their ends. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is known to have a stable full of private armies, arms traffickers, logistics providers and ‘sanctions busters’, whom he uses to carry out tasks that he cannot officially claim responsibility for. One such specimen, Viktor Anatolyevich Bout, comes readily to mind. Now incarcerated in a US penitentiary, Bout was the world’s most notorious arms trafficker since the end of the Cold War. Once widely known as the ‘merchant of death’, Bout habitually supplied both sides in a conflict but remained untouched and above retribution because he was damned efficient and never failed to deliver on his promises. The Nicolas Cage flick Lord of War is based on Bout’s life.
The business model that saw folk like Spartacus, the Vikings, the Francis Drakes and the Victor Bouts making a living out of mayhem, has survived and proliferated into a $50 billion a year industry of which the US market, as expected the largest consumer segment, is worth $15 billion.
Together, these contractors employ individuals from a specific demographic – the God, Country and Family types – muscular, minimally educated and predominantly white, Chris Kyle/American Sniper cloned ex-Navy Seals who haven’t been able to adjust to civilian life after demobilization. In their mindset, they resemble the Taliban just after the Soviets left Afghanistan, suddenly finding that they were good at only one thing – making IEDs.
Likewise, these out-of-work American hunks have no work experience other than being able to kill dispassionately, while mouthing irritating, time-worn clichés about being there to save American lives, robotic killing machines who try hard to be Jason Bourne. Instead of getting therapy to help them integrate into normal civilian life, they join the PMSCs for more gore, more of the pseudo God-Country-Family crap.
Though the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries does not specifically address the status of PMSCs that are employed by sovereign nations like the US, let us for argument’s sake, check exactly how many of the attributes of a mercenary, as defined by Article-1 of the convention, are applicable to the US and UK’s use of PMSCs. (The word ‘CHECK’ appears against all those clauses that are in fact quite clearly applicable):-
Definition: A mercenary is one who –
(a) Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict — CHECK
(b) Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces of that party — CHECK
(c) Is neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict – CHECK (PMSCs recruit from diverse nationalities)
(d) Is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict — CHECK
(e) Has not been sent by a State which is not a party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces — CHECK
(f) Is specially recruited locally or abroad for the purpose of participating in a concerted act of violence aimed at overthrowing a Government or otherwise undermining the constitutional order of a State and undermining the territorial integrity of a State – CHECK
(g) Is motivated to take part therein essentially by the desire for significant private gain and is prompted by the promise or payment of material compensation — CHECK
(h) Is neither a national nor a resident of the State against which such an act is directed — CHECK
(i) Has not been sent by a State on official duty — CHECK
(j) Is not a member of the armed forces of the State on whose territory the act is undertaken — CHECK
Article-2 :- Any person who recruits, uses, finances or trains mercenaries, as defined in article 1 of the present Convention, commits an offence for the purposes of the Convention.
I don’t see any difference between PMSCs and mercenaries. To me they match almost to the ‘T’.
Some will argue that, since Article-2 makes the definition of a mercenary applicable to only ‘persons’, the rules don’t apply to sovereign states, like the US, who employ PMSCs. They would be technically correct in their argument. Besides, PMSC personnel, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan, are operating legally under signed contracts in which these countries where they operate, are signatories. The contracts with the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq specifically provide all PMSCs immunity from prosecution even when they kill innocent people, which is an appallingly frequent occurrence.
Interestingly, neither the US, nor the UK, Australia or France, are signatories to this UN-sponsored international convention.
At a press conference in Baghdad on the night of March 31, 2004, the day when the four Blackwater employees were massacred by insurgents in Fallujah, coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt seemed emotional.
“Somewhere in the US there are going to be four families who are getting knocks on the door from people, telling them what happened to their loved ones. It is not pleasant to be on either side of that door, I can tell you.”
Sure, General, try and tell that to the Iraqi father of the boy who got knocked off his bike and squashed like an ant by a Humvee and died just the other day, the convoy not bothering to stop and provide medical aid. Or the kids of that Iraqi mother whose only crime was that she was just trying to cross the road to go buy flatbread nan for dinner from the corner store, when a Blackwater convoy appeared screeching round a corner out of nowhere, ran her over and continued on without missing a beat.