Mercenaries: What Is the Problem?

By Smith, Ron | New Zealand International Review, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Mercenaries: What Is the Problem?


Smith, Ron, New Zealand International Review


Ron Smith suggests that disparagement of the use of mercenaries may be misplaced.

A traditional understanding of `mercenary' and its cognates is assumed. It will be taken that a mercenary is a person who, primarily for reasons of financial gain, enlists or undertakes to fight in the forces of a state (or for a cause) which is not his own. He may do this individually or as part of a collective. In the common contemporary understanding of the concept, such activity is markedly disreputable. Not only do politicians and opinion leaders rail against it whenever apparent instances arise but there is also, awaiting ratification, a United Nations sponsored convention which would make illegal the recruitment or use of mercenaries for any purpose at any time.(1)

Why should mercenarism be so universally condemned? Has the mercenary no part to play in the modern world? It will be suggested that the general condemnation is significantly ill-founded and rooted in conceptual ambiguity. Depending upon precisely what is meant by the term, it will be claimed that some kinds of mercenary force could provide a valuable and cost-effective service for states and for international organisations, and that it would thus be desirable to allow the development of appropriate organisations and an appropriate safeguard regime.

Mercenarism has a long history. The British colonial authorities used mercenary forces in attempting to hold on to their North American territories. In this case they were Hessians. For a long period the British Army has included Gurkha units in its order of battle. There are also Gurkha units in the Indian Army. Similarly, the Saudi Arabian military has substantial Pakistani contingents. In all these cases, both criteria of the above definition are met. The individual and collective motivation is patently financial and the men enlist in a foreign force. The Sandline mercenaries who were briefly in Papua New Guinea also had these two characteristics, although they differ from the earlier examples in that they do not have the tacit or explicit approval of the governments of the states from which they come. They are a private army. This will be seen to be a significant distinction from the point of view of international law, but it may be questioned whether it is ultimately of any moral significance.

Different situation

The situation of persons who engage in, say, the French Foreign Legion or those who volunteered to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is rather different. In the former case, there is certainly an enlistment to fight for causes not their own (in fact the commitment is open-ended), but it is not clear that the motivation is always or even usually financial. Frequently persons who join the French Foreign Legion are looking for adventure or escaping from uncongenial circumstances in their home country. Similarly, those who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War typically did not do so for the money, and, since they usually identified with the cause as well, they do not meet either of the criteria suggested above. This was also the situation of New Zealand forces in France in the First World War, though that did not stop the German Kaiser from describing them as mercenaries. More recently, New Zealand and Australian troops in Vietnam were also described as mercenaries by their Viet Cong adversaries.

The observations immediately above point to another problem with the concept `mercenary' as it is presently employed. As noted earlier, the term is almost always used pejoratively. It is simply an invitation thoughtlessly to condemn. Just as my terrorist may be your freedom fighter, so one party's `ally against aggression' is the other's `mercenary'. If any rational discussion of the concept of mercenarism and its place in the modern world is to take place, it is essential that the term be used precisely and non-judgmentally. If the question of the moral status of private, as opposed to state, mercenarism is not begged from the outset, we may also seek to make a judgment about this. …

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