The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Mercenaries and the Rise of the Professional Army

The inability of the feudal system to provide reliable armies gave rise to cadres of mercenaries that at first supplemented the aristocratic warriors of the feudal army, and then replaced them. By the Renaissance period, armies were largely made up of hired mercenary companies.  Aristocrats, once the knights of the feudal army, became the owners and officers of the feudal companies.   By the end of the 15th Century, Kings began the slow process of replacing mercenary formations with their own regiments.  Mercenary companies were a key element of warfare throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries.  Many consider that they reached their greatest influence during the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648.  During the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.

The professional armies that came into existence in the 17th Century evolved from the mercenary companies of the Renaissance period as a more efficient system for the state to meet its military requirements.  They had the major advantages of always being there when the King needed them, they followed orders, they were cheaper in the long term, and could be relied upon in battle even when the odds were great.  They also ensured the sovereignty of the king, the rule of law, and the territorial integrality of the crown’s land.

Why did mercenary companies exist in the first place?  What advantage did they initially bring to the battlefield?

What other reasons were there for switching from an army of mercenary companies to a professional army equipped, recruited, trained and paid for by the King?

How were mercenary specialists of the Renaissance different from the contract specialists that we used today?

For a Free .pdf book on Renaissance Armies click here.


August 24, 2009 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. As we read in Cambridge’s “History of Warfare” we talk about the hiring of mercenaries in the Middle Ages. At the time, that seemed to be the “smart” thing to do. The King was able to maintain a trained ready force at any given time in any situation. But there was several problems as we pointed out with this. One of them, being that of dedication. Once the mercenaries were paid they had really no inherient right to fight if they chose not too. Even if they did fight, that did not mean they would fight till victory.

    Unlike the King(s) all the mercenaries were interested in was the money….NOT the victory. Sure it was cheaper and easier to outfit and maintain such ready force, but at times the King(s) would have to pay the mercenaries a “retainer” to ensure he had adequate force when he felt that situations or the anticipation of danger was near. What I don’t understand though, is that the cycle of mercenaries were somewhat short lived and the “Kings” realized that they could start or manage their own “mercenary” force or local Armies for cheaper and with more dedication then to hire them out… then why in todays society does the US feel they can hire or what are the advantages of hireing the equivilant of mercenaries in Blackwater, Triple Canopy etc. to fight the Iraq/Afghanistan wars?

    Comment by Darin Huss 17C | August 26, 2009

  2. Darin, there are advantages of hiring the equivalent of mercenaries. Utilizing mercenaries (e.g. contractors) in order to accomplish certain actions or missions in today’s operating environment poses risk. However, the benefit of mercenary (contractor) utilization may outweigh the risk. For example, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib carry a stigma for the U.S. Army. Operating the prison, using military assets, taxes military resources (personnel and logistical assets) and distracts from the Army’s main effort(s). Hiring a private company that specializes in prison and detention management may free up assets which could be employed elsewhere and more efficiently. It may also help break the stigma by distancing the U.S. Army from Abu Ghraib. Another advantage is to supplement security for civilian U.S. Government Officials and designated VIPs. If the U.S. can’t provide adequate security for these officials (due to shortfalls in funding, personnel, logistics, etc), someone else has to. Hiring contractors (new age mercenaries) for this task makes sense and closes the security gap.

    Ironically, the mercenaries of today are very similar to those used during the Middle Ages. They both take advantage of war for financial gain. However, one thing that sets them apart is that the mercenaries of old could go home without much accountability or penalty if they did not complete their mission. Whereas, today’s mercenary (contractor) is accountable and incurs penalty for not completing their mission (e.g. violating their contract). The act of holding today’s mercenaries accountable can be seen by reading an article by Karen DeYoung, writer for the Washington Post, titled “U.S. Moves to Replace Contractors in Iraq” located at the following website:

    Comment by John Palazzolo SG 17A | August 26, 2009

  3. John, I liked the article in the Washington Post. I agree with you that mercenaries of today can be held accountable for their shortcomings, or desertion, unlike the Middle Ages. Like you said, mercenaries today are being hired to take on specific tasks that the military either does not want to do, is not as well trained or equipped to do, or does not have the available resources (soldiers) to do. Mercenaries today are also not being hired as complete Armies as they sometimes where in the past. Therefore, they don’t have the ability to deny, overpower, or simply abandon their benefactor because they don’t want to fight or die. Today’s mercenaries are run like a business, and if they deny service or abandon their duties, then they don’t get paid or as you mentioned may even get sued and end up having to pay a penalty. Since they are also primarily used as an augmenting force, they can be replaced fairly quickly and easily if they don’t deliver, not factoring in the detriment to the military unit that must replace them. I can say that I don’t fully know how the mercenary contracting system works, but I would assume that the military is not solely responsible for their logistical, medical, and sustainment needs and is definitely not responsible to organize, train, and equip them. Therefore, in the long run it is cheaper to use them instead of military soldiers that cost extensive amounts of money and time to train.

    Comment by Maj Scott "Spyder" Walker | August 26, 2009

  4. The problems associated with mercenaries during the Renaissance period are well documented. Whether it was their lack of loyalty or cost to utilize, mercenaries provided a valuable commodity during a transition period in man’s history. Even though the use of mercenaries did not last, their role in transitioning man out of the dark ages was crucial to society’s evolution. The use of mercenaries can be credited with ushering in the redevelopment of monetary systems, nationalism, and most importantly the end of feudalism. Although not the intended outcome, the use of mercenaries ushered in society’s evolution and emergence from the dark ages.

    Comment by MAJ Jim Baird | August 27, 2009

  5. It is ironic that our nation, which fields arguably the most professional military force on the planet, must resort to security contractors to accomplish much of its work in non-permissive environments. As described in this week’s reading from the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, mercenary use declined as nation-states found that they could raise semi-permanent professional militaries that were more reliable, especially in a protracted conflict (150). The irony of today is that in the midst of a self-described “long war,” our nation’s professional military forces could not adequately address all of our nation’s security needs.

    Looking to the future, the rise of independent, armed security contractors is troubling. Already, we face the problems presented by violent, non-state actors. Security contractors are another form of the violent, non-state actor. Today, the vast majority of these security contractors serve in our interest. Will that always be the case? What happens when other another nation, China, for example, creates a state-sponsored private security firm? What if China contracts this state-sponsored firm to safeguard its international development and aid operations throughout the underdeveloped world? What if this firm is used as a proxy-force in an armed conflict? What if a large multinational corporation creates its own security force and employs it throughout the world to protect its holdings? What if this corporate military force is used to protect or even to seize natural resources? The precedent for a corporate army is not new. The British East India Company had its own military force that usually acted in accordance with the British Government’s consent (211-213).

    I can foresee several complications to our foreign policy and national defense strategy in the near future that may be related to the actions taken or the threat of action presented by security contractors working for other nations or working independently, especially in the regions of the world in which we wish to increase our influence.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Fahrenbach | August 28, 2009

  6. So far, this book is extremely slanted to western civilization, so it should probably be titled appropriately.

    There were also mercenaries, of sort, throughout Japan during this same time. They were called “ronin,” and commonly referred to as “masterless samurai (although that is not a literal translation).

    Some of the same loyalty problems arose with the ronin, however I am not sure if it was on the same scale as the Europeans. My personal feeling is that they were just happy to have a job and serve a master.

    Paying them also became a problem after they thwarted the attempted invasions by the Mongols. The effort involved such a large force that there were not enough stipends to pay them for their service.

    I am certain that there are a lot more similarities that can be drawn between the East and the West, however I do not have the breadth nor depth of knowledge to go much further into detail.

    Comment by LCDR Dave McNutt | August 28, 2009

  7. I fully understand the logic behind some of the views articulated above as to why we use mercenaries (lets not give them give them a higher status by calling the ‘contractors’) but it goes against my principles to agree with them. In my humble opinion soldiering is one of the few remaining honorable professions left: the banking, law and medical professions to name a few were all once considered to be honorable but now have been sold out so that pockets can be filled with ‘gold’. By employing mercenaries our governments devalue our armed forces.
    For all the supposed benefits of employing mercenaries there are some not insignificant drawbacks. They are hugely expensive – why not channel the funds into the armed force to grow them to do the job? Is there not a medeval precedent for this? They are dangerous and unregulated and don’t have sufficient resources to extract themselves from serious ‘contacts’ so the professional military end up having to extract them and expose themselves to greater risk for those who have sold their own souls. Finally, and my biggest issue with mercenaries, they attract our young soldiers, often some of our best, to leave our honorable service in order to take a bigger pay-check. This in itself further weakens our military.

    Comment by Major Sam Cates | August 30, 2009

  8. I had thought of the same issue from a similar point of view. With our military under the strict control of congress a senior commander, or even cabinet member, does not have the ability to add more soldiers than authorized. If we needed a mere 300 more bodies for personal defense, I can only think of the “temporary” contractors currently employed as acceptable by our current law to grant that short time increase. Otherwise they would be taken from a subordinate unit and not replaced. It seems that in the past the King would make the decision from a financial and operational perspective and train as many people as he could afford. However, our government also has to take legalities into account in a rather different means regarding end strength.

    And this doesn’t even take into account that the State Department has no command and control authority over soldiers. It seems for them, the only way to get security people under their control is the contractor route. I would have to imagined that a King would not have sent an ambassador into a foreign country without adequate force protection but when our military does not give service members to protect diplomats… I guess we are sending in the diplomats under prepared.

    Comment by MAJ J. Finocchiaro | August 31, 2009

  9. Mercenaries are necessary evil. There are times when we, as the Army, have difficult time fulfilling each and every task assigned to us. Especially now where we are stretched thinnly across the military.
    I have no problem sharing certain responsiblities with the mercenaries. Let them guard the gates and buildings, so our Soldiers can rest before rolling out into a city or conducting missions outside the FOB. Let them train and advise Soldiers where the military resource and expertise are limited. These mercenaries of the present are different than what we know about the past mercenaries.
    Yes, they do get paid well (more than an average Soldier make), but they are there to fulfill a mission/purpose. Also unlike in the past, they cannot simple walk away from their contract. (At least, not without some serious consequences)
    We are not asking them to fight a war like the Kings did, but assist us by fulfilling specific task. With specific guidance and set of rules, mercenaries can be a great asset to the Army.

    Comment by J Lee, 17B | August 31, 2009

  10. I think the simple answer to switching from a mercenary force to a professional army lies in loyalty and discipline. If a king is going to pay one way or the other, he may as well pay the force that isn’t going to quit for any number of reasons (lack of food, clothing, loyalties to fellow countrymen, etc.). As mentioned in an earlier post, mercenaries did help to get out of the Dark Ages. They were the appropriate solution for the time. However, we (the world) evolved and realized that a professional army was much more effective. A professional Army instills discipline which is key to winning battles. Imagine what Iraq or Afghanistan would be like if there was still a heavy use of mercenaries today – imagine being in a fire fight and a group that is supposed to support you simply walked away because you were fighting their countrymen. Imagine that one day they just decided they weren’t being paid enough. It would never work. I do realize that mercenaries are still used to some degree, but even with them we have seen what negative outcomes can occur.

    Comment by MAJ Taylor 17B | August 31, 2009

  11. I agree that mercenaries/contractors will be a permanent part of our military’s future. The military in general cannot sustain itself for very long without the support of contractors. But, in the case of the Blackwater contract, we got what we paid for. I have to wonder if there is any certification done by the government that would have prevented some of the embarrassment the Armed Forces had to overcome due to the negative IO that their actions created. The loyalty is also a huge factor between the contractors. If we do a good job, maybe we will not need to come back. With contractors, it doesn’t matter, they get paid if they come back. Even conscription armies lack the loyalty needed to be considered an Army that carries any influence. There time in service is normlly so short that they have no desire to improve their foxhole, or they don’t gt paid enough to care. In closing, I beleive that when we transition to the mercenary army, we will have the same outcome as Rome. However, globalization will likely speed up the fall of influence much faster than Rome experienced.

    Comment by MAJ Roe 17B | September 1, 2009

  12. I think one interesting point no one has touched on is the 2nd/3rd order effect use of mercernaries will have on DOD finances and personnel management. The more we contract out various military roles, the more we are going to have to give competing incentives to our own folks to keep them on board. It’s funny cycle- DOD or USG hires Blackwater, etc to peform security missions. Blackwater charges a lot, and then is able to hire current and former US military and pay them a heck of lot. Now to keep all our trained people on board, we basically end up in a bidding war for trained personnel with Blackwater/Etc (and by extension, whatever other arm of the USG contracted with them). The bonuses we are paying our SF operators right now to retain them are pretty impressive. I’m not saying said bonuses aren’t well deserved (I think they whole darn DOD deserves a pretty big bonus for the last 8 years), but it is a lot of money to make sure that a guy we just spent 5-10 years training doesn’t leave the organization to make more dough on the outside.

    From a systematic standpoint, is it really cost effective to contract certain roles out, if it means we are going to have to spend that much more in time and money to either retain the talent we have or recruit and train new talent? I don’t know, but I bet that is not taken into account.

    Comment by MAJ Neil Craig 17C | September 2, 2009

  13. I think we have come almost full circle. The mercenary companies began as a supplemental force, grew to become THE force during the Renaissance, and faded into the background. Now in the form of contractors they are back to a supplemental role again. A role I believe they will play for the foreseeable future.

    Tying in with MAJ Craig’s post. There are definite differences between then and now. Specifically, the recruiting base available to the companies. Their pool is literally hundreds of thousands of personnel experienced in any kind of function the company provides. It doesn’t stop with worker bees. Contractors pay hefty sums for experienced leadership as well. Another difference is the means by which they can recruit. Technology has shrunk the planet and provided a mechanism for pinpoint distribution of their recruiting pitches.

    Comment by MAJ Rich Massengale | September 2, 2009

  14. This does seem to be the wave of the future. Security companies are paying former military almost unbelievable salaries. Where I believe we will begin to see more of these types of mercenary forces are in coastal areas protecting shipping trade routes. It is already happening in the Malaysian Strait. Maritime law prohibits shipping vessels from caring arms onboard to protect themselves. A mercenary guard force seems to fit the mission when Navy protection vessels are not available in the area. I wonder if the loss of a merchant vessel would outweigh the cost of a “civilian” protection force deterring pirates. I’m sure shipping companies would gladly pay the price for the security of it’s vessel crew and cargo.

    Comment by MAJ W. Bryan Green | September 3, 2009

  15. I agree with Major Green that the next place in the world mercs will flourish is in response to the pirate problem the world is dealing with now. Mercenary forces utilized by private companies at sea will probably be quite effective. Since the only times we heard about the priracy issues around Somalia was when those pirates were successful in taking a ship or crew like the Maresk Alabama. Imagine the non-news stories of ships getting through! Also short of an investigative report, their tactics wouldn’t be questioned because the Companies that hired them would be happy with the results as would the crew of the ships for arriving safely and the pirates don’t have an arbitration process. For a more recent example of mercenary army success than the reading supplied, look at the success (almosy under the radar at the time) back in the early to mid-nineties that “Executive Outcomes” (EO) had in Africa as corporation army. Here were former members of the South African Defense Force hired as a mercenary army by legitimate governments in Africa that couldn’t field national armies strong enough to halt civil wars. They had successes in uprisings in Sierra Leone and Angola. But just like the problems Blackwater runs into now there role and legitimacy came into question. But as a hired firm of soldier experts they were cheaper to field with fewer numbers than a national army and when their mission was accomplished they went back to their corporate head quarters. So the cycle continues for the mercenary soldier.

    Comment by MAJ Chistopher "Kit" Johnson 17-D | September 6, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: