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 Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.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 23, 2011 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , ,


  1. Mercenary armies existed because they were the easier solution to maintaining a standing army. Fighting normally took place during the summer months, so it made more sense to contract out or hire these services during conflict periods. In this way, the King would always have some type of force available to him when he determined he would need one as long as he could pay for it.

    The system itself (feudal) led to their existence as the hierarchical structure of feudalism created excess knights with no other form of employment.

    They brought several advantages to the battlefield such as their experience, specialty and training. They would form into “free companies” that allowed for them to train for longer periods than they would normally since there was no standing army. An old veteran knight (the captain) was in charge of a group of knights (his lieutenants – not strictly a subordinate but someone who held the captain’s place “in lieu of”) and specialized troops (longbow men, crossbow men, etc) all who had previous wartime experience. Some of the better known mercenaries of the Rennaisance period were: The White Company of the 14th Century,and the Swiss and German mercenaries (the LandsKnechts) of the 15th and 16th centuries who specialized in mass attacks in deep columns with the pike and halberd (Sumption 2001, & Thomson, 1996).

    One of the advantages of mercenaries is that they provided an immediate force (not necessarily resource intensive) that a King could readily use without requiring a standing force.

    The main disadvantage was loyalty and dedication. Money is not the motivation we would want behind a fighting force. Additionally, even when they were paid, their own self-interest would take over; therefore, payment was not a guarantee that they would fight “to the bitter end” (we all read what the Saxons did to Gustavus Adolphus).

    I do not believe there is an over-reliance on mercenaries today but they are also not indispensable. I have seen DynCorps personnel used to train Afghan security forces with success. However, our units in Iraq also suffered from BlackWater’s treatment of the Iraqi populace leading to their contract not being renewed. Their conduct placed a dark label and stigma on all US forces. That is another great disadvantage; the locals don’t tend to make the distinction between private security firms and US troops.

    One thing about mercenaries that time will not change is their reliance on war for money (Friedman, 2009).

    Sumption, Jonathan. “The Hundred Years War, Volume 2: Trial by Fire”. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

    Thomson, Janice. “Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns”. Princeton University Press, 1996

    Friedman, Thomas. “The Best Allies Money Can Buy”. The New York Times, A31, retrieved 23 August 2011 from

    Comment by MAJ Efrain Ramos | August 23, 2011

  2. The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 defines a mercenary as any person who:

    ( a ) Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;

    ( b ) Does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;

    ( c ) 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 ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

    ( d ) Is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

    ( e ) Is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

    ( f ) 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.

    Under this definition most of the military contractors used today would not be considered mercenaries since they “are nationals of a party to the conflict.”

    The advantages of mercenaries or private contractors are that they provide access to a capability that may not otherwise be immediately available to contracting government. The disadvantage is that this capability could also be offered to your adversaries and be employed against you. So the king or governing official must be prepared to face both the current capabilities that their potential adversaries possess and the capabilities that they might be able to obtain in the marketplace.

    Comment by MAJ Rick Mercer | August 24, 2011

  3. Mercenaries came into the picture for various reasons, one of which could likely be attributed to the increase of the total size of the Feudal system – too many knights, with no battle to fight and no other skill set to make a living. It could very likely have been a means to maintain their lively hood by selling their expertise to whoever was willing to pay for it. Some advantages they could provide were that they were a readily available force that could be retained and employed at short notice; they were employed in close proximity to their homeland, giving the an additional advantage of being very knowledgeable of the physical environment, and as noted they were already trained.

    The mercenary of the renaissance was different from the contract specialist on several levels. First, was the technological difference, which we will not spend much time on. Second, contractors of today have some accountability (which proved to be problematic in Iraq) to international laws and regulations. Third, the mercenary was often used in a direct action roll, where as the contractors jobs are typically security based. Last, the mercenary groups of the Renaissance were often already a force that had been fighting together, not uncommon to have previously been part of a regular “army”. More often than not contractors don’t spend a great deal of time training together as a unit prior to being employed. It comes down to years together for the mercenary versus weeks together for the contractors.

    Comment by MAJ George E. Chittenden | August 24, 2011

  4. The rise of mercenaries and mercenary companies in 15th and 16th century Europe can be attributed to the limitations of the Feudal System. Since it was based upon land, which is finite, it was only a matter of time before the continent’s number of warriors grew beyond its “carrying capacity”. It was at this time that men, trained to be warriors since birth, found themselves not needed by their families or local lords. Seeking their place in the world these men struck out on their own to make their own livelihood.

    These men originally sought jobs or “quests” that they could handle on their own. Then as tasks became larger, and more profitable, like-minded men began to form mercenary companies. These companies provided these landless warriors opportunities to continue their trade, earn money, and establish their place in European society as “professional warriors”.

    The initial mercenary companies gave rulers an additional option as to how they would either defend or expand their holdings. With mercenary companies rulers could wage battle while keeping their subjects producing goods, which meant continued influx of income. This also allowed rulers to protect their nations’ “human capital” safe from the consequences of warfare. Additionally, rulers could theoretically save money by only hiring mercenaries when they were needed for war versus paying for standing armies that would have to be paid, fed and otherwise cared for year around.

    Our usage of modern day contractors is very much like the way the rulers of 15th and 16th century Europe used mercenary forces. The first similarity is that the contractors have talents / skills that the U.S. and other nations are not willing to pay for on a permanent basis. The return on investment only passes the common sense test during a time of war when there are no other options. Second, many of the contractors have technical skills that require many years of specialized training, much like the Welsh bowmen discussed in class. In today’s operational tempo militaries need these special skilled personnel for today’s missions and not in a few years after personnel are trained.

    Some of the disadvantages of mercenary / contractor usage is their dedication to the campaign. There are numerous historical examples of mercenaries departing the battlefield due to a competing ruler offering them more money. While we have not seen a widespread outbreak of this with our modern day contractors we have seen contractors simply go on leave and not come back. Additionally, since mercenaries and contractors are not subject to the same discipline as the “hiring” military there is inevitably some degradation of discipline in the battle space.

    As to the question “are contractors indispensable”? I believe that with the current military obligations across the globe, contractors offer an additional means to our nation’s strategic ends. As with any means though there are alternatives and that leads me to believe that contractors are not indispensable to today’s modern military operations. Instead of contractors our leaders could use an intra-agency approach of pooling personnel, capabilities, and other resources to reach an end.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | August 24, 2011

  5. In response to MAJ Ramos comment, “That is another great disadvantage; the locals don’t tend to make the distinction between private security firms and US troops”; I agree the local population does not generally make a distinction however the employment of security contractors gives the sponsoring government a cut out to distance themselves from wartime errors. It is easy for a government to place blame on a contracting company while maintaining legitimacy in their kingdom or with their constituents.

    Also the modern use of security contractors has other non tangible benefits. Considering the US deployed troop end strength in OEF and OND, the contract security force numbers are not added to military deployed totals. This allows the US to effectively increase capacity throughout the battlespace while minimizing the political impact of increasing troop strength.

    Another benefit of contracted security is the short term contract where the sponsoring government is not responsible for expensive long term costs such as health care, retirement plans, or death gratuities. This is a massive savings per deployed contractor as opposed to a deployed soldier. Overall, I think the use of contracted security from a government’s perspective is a win-win arrangement.

    Comment by MAJ Sam Kline, 17A | August 25, 2011

  6. Mercenaries became predominant on the battlefield when an abundance of warriors looking for employment met with individuals who were willing to pay for experienced battlefield skills and who wanted to avoid the issues of recruiting and training a standing army. They offered combat experience, but also the advantage that once their services were no longer needed, they could be released and the expense of retaining an indigenous army could be avoided. However, these mercenaries also could be unreliable if their needs and pay were not met and were often unwilling to fight individuals from their own country or tribe.

    Although today’s defense contractors are better trained and paid than their Renaissance counterparts, the basic method of contracting is the same. Prime contractors retain a number of trained sub-contractors for positions and they are hired out to clients for a fee. I believe that modern defense contractors offer a number of advantages, chief among them being their willingness to provide security in places where the military is unable or unwilling to commit resources. Although concerns regarding the contractor’s cost, loyalty, and potential for violations of the law persist, they are as indispensable as they were six hundred years ago. A perfect example is the use of security contractors by the US Department of State. As the military continues the withdrawal from Iraq, contractors must fill the security void left by the military and continue to protect State Department personnel and facilities.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder, 17D | August 27, 2011

  7. A lot of good responses and I have a few observations. There are many advantages and disadvantages of using “mercenaries” but by law our warfighting cannot be contracted out so I think we use the term”mercenaries” in a generic way. I agree with Matt that as we drawn down our troop strenght that they are a vital asset for missions like the state department. I worked with contractors that provided our FOB security and without them we would of had to commit a lot of troops to security that we needed elsewhere. There are several issues that we need to be aware of when we do this though. MAJ Ramos said they used DynaCorp contractors to train the Afghans and they had a lot of success. But is the partnership/bond that was established with the US Army or was it with DynaCorp? Another issue that I had was the loyalty of that contractor is not with the US or State Department but with the profit of the company that they work for. I was reminded of that several times while in Iraq on my second tour.

    Comment by MAJ Ronald Eggelston | August 29, 2011

  8. In the period after the Thirty Years War central state organization of armies went hand in hand with the hiring of foreigners for military service (Guy Rowlands, 2010). They brought an attitude to the battlefield and win wars for their country (boss) in order to get paid. The French army had the largest army filled with all paid Mercenaries. Mercenaries called Black Water higher individuals to protect high level civilian individuals such as the ambassador to Afghanistan and State Department personnel. Bottom-line, does not matter who mercenaries work for it is a pretty locative endeavor.

    Comment by MAJ Wayne Kinney | August 30, 2011

  9. The mercenary of the past was mainly hired to work as a team member within an army. Their expertise would determine what they would get paid and their position in the army. As stated in the previous posts, there are many arguments for and against the use of mercenary’s, past and present. Although, I do believe the mercenary’s motivation is ultimately focused on the almighty dollar, you could say this about many occupations (doctors, lawyers, professional athletes). I do not believe there is an over-reliance on mercenaries today. With the current economic situation and the planned force reduction they are a viable option to train security forces of other nations, enabling them to take responsibility for the security of their country. Furthermore, as many of the posts alluded to – they provide security support throughout all phases of operations. Because they are highly trained individuals; many with military backgrounds, they allow the Soldier to focus on other important mission objectives.

    Comment by MAJ Kim DeJesus, 17A | September 4, 2011

  10. With my four tours to Iraq I never cared to much for “civilian security”. I look a the loyalty issue and believe that the “dollar” is their great motivation. Many argue that they are using their training and providing a service, others say they being used as a multiplier. There are Contractors all over the battlefield and many are necessary, however I feel when the money is gone they will leave. I would not like to find out how loyal they are when the battle is at hand or they leave for a higher bidder. I am sure in some organizations this is a must but I think security needs to handled by professional Soldiers.

    Comment by MAJ Carl Mason, 17A | September 6, 2011

  11. In response to MAJ Mason comments “I never cared too much for “civilian security” I believe that both the military and civilian have a lot to bring to the table in terms of security. I believe as you that an issue of loyalty does exist and that money is a great motivator. However, a significant large number of the civilians are former soldiers. They are the one who have the experience and support the soldiers by assisting with security needs.

    The mercenary of the past and present are individuals who are contracted in order to work for the military. Often times, these individuals are over paid, accomplishing the same missions as soldiers. Though the soldiers are being paid far less. There is a significant divide and this is why most service members are against the support of “civilian security”. If the paid divide did not exist, it would not be an issue. Both contractors and service members would be more willing to work together.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | September 19, 2011

  12. Rick does a good job of highlighting the Geneva Convention’s definition of a mercenary. He also does a good job of reminding us that these “mercenary” services are available to the highest bidder so our enemies can obviously benefit from said services.

    I also agree with LaShaunda that “other” players (civilians) can contribute and enhance our operational effectiveness, whether that be our logistics or security posture, for example.

    Comment by MAJ Efrain Ramos | September 21, 2011

  13. In response to MAJs Mason and Jackson’s comments, I agree but believe we have to look at it from the contractor’s point of view. From my experience the security contractors follow the “Performance Work Statement” that is within their contract, nothing more, nothing less. If we want them to hold their ground, we must word the contract, not just that they will do something, but for example make them responsible for the items they are protecting. Just as we take care of items we are signed for, they will do the same without such things strictly written out in the contract. As for the resentment from Soldiers, I would say that it isn’t just the pay, but the comfort items, but they are only seeing one side and if they were to experience the contractor’s life, they might not be as resentful.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Holmes | September 25, 2011

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