The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Mercenaries… Back to the Future?

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  companies.   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.  Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.

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

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

What are the advantages and disadvantages of mercenaries….then and now?  Is there an over-reliance on mercenaries today, or are they indespensible for many security tasks that the military simply doesn’t have manpower to accomplish?

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

August 25, 2010 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , ,


  1. Is there an over-reliance on mercenaries today, or are they indispensible for many security tasks that the military simply doesn’t have manpower to accomplish? — I believe they have their place. As we see the transition from steady combat operations to sustainment operations, the need for mercenary type units increases significantly. The majority of negative perception comes from experiences of small skirmishes on the battle field or horrific media exposure. As the pullout of troops from Iraq continues, the increase presence of NGOs, State department representatives, and contracted advisors will require security detachments from mercenary groups. Additionally, as the US and NATO become more committed to the Counter-insurgent fight, the need for mercenary elements to assist in the securing of maritime operations and humanitarian missions will significantly increase.

    Comment by James Browning | August 26, 2010

  2. Mercenaries have always had their place in society. From the mideval days, to the days of the samurai and ninja, to modern day battefield mercenaries have been able to operate in areas and carry out missions/assainations that governments aren’t allowed to do. The advantages of mercenaries are that they do not represent any particular government therefore if captured or caught, they can easily be denounced or denied by a particular country. Mercenaries often have identical skill proficiencies as special operation soldiers and are fully capable of operating in various regions. The down side to mercinaries is that they are hired guns and may be convienced to switch sides. Look at Bin Laden, he was one of our mercinaries. Look what he’s doing now.

    I don’t think that there is an overreliance on mercinaries. There are jobs that only a mercinary can fill. They’re like fall guys. The money is good enough to make them wan to do the job and if they get caught, we can deny that we know them but say that they we just hikers who accidentally crossed over into a enemy country. (Come on,honestly, what American would be “hiking” in Iran?)

    Comment by Eric Morris | August 26, 2010

  3. To expand on Jim Browning’s blog above regarding mercenaries, I would like to comment on his maritime operation input and mention that “maritime mercenaries” do not always give you the results that you want. Armed guards (mercenaries) with no experience working with vessels and their crew members in security situations may not be the best choice for them. The problem is with the cargo (oil, chemicals) and discharging of weapons piercing cargo tanks is a dangerous mix. This leads to the next question that is of insurance. Certain maritime insurance company’s such as Lloyds of London pay a high premium on cargo and currently the cost of a vessel/cargo worth $100 million could cost as much as $150,000 to transport through a pirate zone. According to an Insurance Broker called Marsh, last year’s cost was somewhere around $20,000. Yes, piracy is a problem, but, so is having armed guards onboard who might not be familiar operating around hazardous/dangerous cargo. A shipping company wants to keep its premium as low as possible and will probably not want to take on any additional risk. Shipping companies will probably utilize non lethal means such as LRAD or fire hoses, lighting, maneuvering and/or re-routing their vessels out of pirate infested waters.

    Comment by Mike Matis | August 26, 2010

  4. The issue of over-reliance is less important in my view than the issue of accountability. Private security firms have no accountability to the U.S. military. Yet, the locals almost certainly view them as “The Americans.” This means that we are held responsible in the eyes of the local population for everything these private security people do. This has the potential to be extremely detrimental to our operations in a counter-insurgency fight.

    I do not believe it is feasible to prevent private security firms from operating in theater, however, we should consider some courses of action which would strengthen accountability and oversight in order to preserve our relationships with the local populace.

    Comment by Trent Lythgoe | August 29, 2010

  5. It’s difficult to discuss modern mercenaries without “Blackwater” coming up in the conversation. Among other activities, Blackwater “provides ‘defensive security functions’ for the State Department in Iraq. The private security company protects U.S. embassy employees as well as high-level visitors to the war zone, including members of Congress” (Goldstein 2007).

    During a Congressional hearing on October 2, 2007, Erik Prince, Blackwater’s former CEO, “testified that he objects to the term ‘mercenaries’ regarding his men and regards his employees as ‘loyal Americans’ doing a difficult job in a hostile environment” (Goldstein 2007). So which description best describes Blackwater employees – mercenaries or loyal Americans?

    I’ll leave this question for the class to debate.

    Goldstein, Bonnie. 2007. “Blackwater Unplugged.” Slate. (accessed August 29, 2010).

    Comment by Tim Brower | August 30, 2010

  6. I think the question about filling military manpower is less fitting than asking about the shortfalls of other interagency actors. One of the key hiring bodies for these present day mercenaries was the Department of State. Given the nature of Iraq and the violence, the Diplo Security didn’t have the manpower or resources to properly protect their personnel. Much like the Renaissance mercenaries, they provided a timely and capable solution that only required capital. The issue became what Trent raises in accountability. Since they aren’t really soldiers how solid is their loyalty or adherence to things like rules of engagement? Just as the near term appeal eventually lost out to homegrown soldiers fighting for ideals in history, so too modern mercenaries fell out of favor through their actions.

    Comment by Michael Stone | August 30, 2010

  7. In today’s operational environment, mercenaries are critical to bridge the man power gap created by the demands of the War on Terror. One would think that since the Federal Gov’t is the largest employer of mercenaries, one would think there might be a special branch of service with the mission to guard and secure our federal diplomats, ambassadors and congressman. The president has the secret service, why not other politicians. The simple fact of the matter is that mercenaries provide the federal government with another viable option to accomplish our strategic mission while providing the US with deniability if a covert mission goes badly. A mercenary is nothing more that a military contractor who pulls the trigger. The US Military contracts everything else ranging from logistics to security guards. We even contract our convoy security. During the civil war cooks were contracted hires and one can even suggest so were the militia forces. Are they indispensable, no, but it sure cuts down on the number of US Military members killed being reported in the news. you don’t hear anything about how many US contractors were killed this week… The real question here is who governs them? Are they restricted by the geneva convention? They must be regulated in order to protect US international interests among the local population and global community.

    Comment by James Lucowitz | August 30, 2010

  8. As we discussed in class there were many issues with the use of mercenaries in the past. These issues range from uniformity and language to discipline and loyalty. When the task at hand does not match the assets available, the use of contracted services is a convenient temporary fix. This was true then as it is today. However, I would not call our contracted force mercenaries, for many reasons. The word carries multiple connotations that do not do justice to the wide assortment of contracted services that our army benefits from today. As long as a contracted service goes through the scrutiny of all necessary legal reviews, checks and balances, their use and employment will continue to be relevant and sometimes necessary.

    Comment by Gilbert Rolon | September 1, 2010

  9. After our discussion in this week’s class regarding the use of mercenaries, I do believe they have their place within a military operation. As it stands, our all volunteer military only has so much of a resource at its disposal. The challenge is the appropriate management and oversight of these “outsourced” resources.

    Comment by Pia Romero | September 1, 2010

  10. Mercenaries did and continue to fill a need in armed conflict; they provide critical skills that are unattainable via the application of conventional resources. The rise of the mercenaries came into existence because Kings in the feudal system could not immediately meet the need of maintaining an effective army composed of it’s constituents. The explosion of the number of contractors in the US Army (both home and abroad) are a direct result of the stresses that the Global War on Terror has placed on the all-volunteer force. The Army’s paradigm shift from conventional war to COIN operations infused a pressing shortage of specific skill sets throughout the force. Contractors (mercenaries) proved to be the most effective short term solution. I don’t believe that the use of mercenaries in the long term is not sustainable. As evidenced with the decline of mercenaries heading into the Age of Modern Warfare, we will see the drastic reduction of contractors hired by the US Army over the next few years. And the driving force will not be money (although that is the tangible factor that detractors of contractors can quantify). The larger issue is that the US Army cannot fight and win wars when it’s force is motivated by terms of a contract vice sacrifice and ingenuity.

    Comment by Marc Leduc | September 1, 2010

  11. Mercenary companies were an evolution of the feudal system. Mercenaries that had military experience and means to “employ” other actors became the military national power of the King. Their contracts with the King ensured he had sufficient military capacity to stave off other monarchy armies with ambitions to take his territory. The advantages of having a mercenary force was the contract itself. The King could employ experienced Soldiers that often had organic sustainment for specific campaigns, but adversely, when the campaign was over, the contract still required payment.

    On the surface, there is a negative connotation associated with the mercenary of today versus the Rennaissance mercenary. The Renaissance mercenary is often romanticized as a Knight and his battle-hardened compatriots who for the right price would fight for the honor of the King. Yet, these same individuals’ allegiance was only as good as the contract agreement. While both may be motivated by financial gain, the mercenary of today is seen as a smaller scale actor on the battlefield. Not waging campaigns, but providing specialized security details or training traditional forces that could not otherwise leverage military combat power without assistance. Typically, in areas that don’t necessarily align with the current US national interests.

    Mercenaries are a force multiplier today regardless of personal opinion or perception. They provide a service that the military can also provide, but not to the level that an asymmetric battlefield requires. The sheer number of contractors, NGO’s, government employees, and foreign nationals that function in the current operating environment would place a security burden on military forces that are needed for more traditional combat roles elsewhere.

    The reliance on mercenary forces is a finanical boon for the personal security industry. It also frees the military from the responsibility of managing so many entities within the battlespace. Even though the military may not be responsible, it still impacts how the military functions and coexists with these entities. In the end, mercenaries are a “necessary evil” to some, but an absolute necessity to others.

    Comment by Timika Wilson | September 7, 2010

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