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 16th and 17th 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  Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.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?  Are logistics contractors on the battlefield mercenaries?

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

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August 27, 2014 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. Comparing the mercenaries of the past to those of the present day, I believe the root cause of their necessity is the same, but how they are utilized different. Both past and present day mercenaries are used to augment the size and capability of the standing army. Historically, mercenaries were employed as combat troops fighting on the front lines, in many cases deciding the outcome of the battle. In the present day, we have a standing and reserve force that allows us to maintain a sufficient and flexible level of combat troops, but find a shortage in other areas such as base support, base and personnel security, and sensitive site security. These missions are both numerous and temporary within each theater and, in many cases, cheaper to contract out to the modern day mercenary rather than to increase the size of the committed force. Therefore, the driving force behind hiring mercenaries is still the flexibility to expand and contract the size of the force, but the primary use has evolved from combat to support capabilities.

    Comment by Ryan Edwards-17B | September 4, 2014

  2. The use and reason for mercenaries in past and present day is essentially the same, money! The main advantage of a mercenary Army is that they are cheaper, making them more efficient to employ. The reason they are cheaper is because their employment can be short term and their contract ended when they are no longer needed. The main disadvantage then and now has always been effectiveness. Because mercenaries only reason for employment is tied to financial measures, it means that they will be less risk adverse than a professional and even conscript Army. Mercenary Armies can be just as skilled as even a professional Army and in today’s world, even cheaper. However, because their motives are tied to financial security their capabilities are more limited.

    I believe that the use of mercenaries will continue to increase to provide indispensable tasks. Because mercenaries can be short-term in nature and contract based, they are much cheaper to utilize in support roles than a professional Army. Imposed troop limits will also increase the use of mercenaries. There are too many manpower shortages in theater to restrict the use of mercenaries to do essential task such as security tasks and logistics support.

    Comment by Eric Peterson, Major, SG 17B | September 27, 2014

  3. The origin of the mercenary company traces back to military shortfalls encountered during the transition from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and Age of Discovery. While mercenary forces enabled a fairly economic military solution for burgeoning governments, these companies possessed no definitive loyalties with a sense of duty stretching only as far as the highest bidder. Machiavelli cautioned the Italian princes from using mercenaries due to this proven unreliability.

    In today’s military paradigm, mercenaries still exist and play an important part in Western warfare. For instance, the Blackwater company does not have prohibitive regulations in landing at fully uncontrolled airfields. As such, the mercenaries can be contracted to establish an airfield, inspect the runway, and enable conventional forces to follow. In this vein, mercenaries are a type of force extension if the needed assets or special forces are unavailable. Modern mercenary groups bring the same issues seen in the 15th century, however, when applying legal and ethical protections and expectations to the individual. Each country views mercenaries with different combatant privileges and cannot fully rely on the mercenaries to conduct just war when duty becomes challenging.

    Mercenaries are a tool for use by states and commanders. While they can provide tactical advantage, militaries must not grow reliant upon mercenary capabilities. Instead, commanders must treat these organizations with the same amount of caution as Machiavelli suggested back during the Renaissance.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, 19A | September 3, 2015

  4. I can definitely see the advantages of using mercenaries for specific tasks that perhaps manpower limits a force from conducting themselves. I also found it to be an interesting concept that mercenaries would be used so that military-aged males could stay back and defend the homeland. I do however, see potential for catastrophic effects when using a military force that is being paid for compliance and not commitment. The danger in this is, you can lose their compliance at any moment to someone who is willing to pay them higher wages. How could a commander ever be certain that his forces would do as he commanded and not be diverted by the enticement of higher pay?

    Comment by Laura Pangallo, 19A | September 8, 2015

  5. I agree with many of the points made above, but want to focus on the idea of logistics contractors being a form of mercenaries. I do not believe that these contractors are mercenaries. There are many shared characteristics: perform a service vital to winning a war; SMEs in their skill set; provide for the administrative welfare and training of employees; and can potentially be swayed to support the other side by enough money. The one thing that many of these contractors lack is the ability to provide security in a warzone. I have looked up several definitions of the noun mercenary (dictionary.com, Merrian-Webster.com, Oxford-English Dictionary), and each uses the word “fighter.” Any contractor that does not actively fight cannot be considered a mercenary.

    Comment by Laura A Proffit 19C | September 8, 2015

  6. Mercenary companies existed because they offered a highly trained fighting force for a commander. Unlike countrymen, mercenaries are experts at their fighting craft whether it be as a bowman, archer or as the leading Knights. The main purpose of the mercenary companies was financial gain, as such this made them a questionable resource. Paying the mercenary companies came from taxes placed on the countries’ lords and in return the lords’ people did not go to war.
    I do not believe logistic contractors are battlefield mercenaries. The services they provide are combat support related and as such the large majority of them rarely see the battlefield. In today’s context, they will conduct their business on a secure FOB. It can also be assumed that, in today’s fight, these services will not be contracted by the “enemy,” making them relatively reliable to the government.

    Comment by MAJ Robert Schaffling 19A | September 8, 2015

  7. Mercenary companies started as a way for struggling knights and other skilled men make money. By joining together they became marketable to Lords and Kings who could hire them for the short term. This saved the king money because the mercenaries didn’t come with all the overhead of their traditional knights. How does this compare to today? More and more government employees are taking the place of traditional military positions. Most have noticed this at the gate when they enter Post. Gone are the days of getting a snappy salute. The civilian guards are ultimately cheaper in the long run because the DOD can modify the contract and not pay the overhead of a traditional soldier (BAH, Health, Dental, BAS, etc). The holds true for a majority of the other contracted civilian employees. It is just easier for Uncle Sam to buy some ready made bodies to fill the gaps than go through the trouble of recruiting and training new soldiers. Because the civilian contractors are not really vested, one must ask if they really care as much as the rest of us? If I had a nickel for every time I heard a contractor say, “I can’t do that, its not in my contract” I would have at east $20. Now this is not the case for every contractor but it is a factor affecting productivity and ultimately the mission. These contractors are not mercenaries in the traditional sense because they are not paid to fight, but they are paid to enable the rest of us to fight.

    Comment by Greg Moulton 19C | September 8, 2015

  8. Mercenaries in the past and present are only out for one thing, themselves. In the past, mercenaries were necessary because standing armies did not necessarily exist, or operated in such diminished capacity mercenaries were necessary. For example, the hundred year war eventually taxed the French and English to the point that mercenaries had to be utilized. According to Wikipedia, they often employed a method of warfare know as chevauchée or “horse charge”, “a raiding method of medieval warfare for weakening the enemy, primarily by burning and pillaging enemy territory in order to reduce the productivity of a region, as opposed to siege warfare or wars of conquest.”(Wikipedia) One big advantage of mercenaries is the cost. Mercenaries are paid to do a job and when the job is over, so is the cost. On the other hand, Soldiers must be cared for 24/7 for their entire enlistment and beyond if they choose to retire. One disadvantage is their willingness to assume dangerous duties. Mercenaries understand if they are not around to get paid, what was the point?

    Comment by Major John McAlister | September 10, 2015

  9. Greg’s comment about DOD guards got me thinking about the use of contractors in order to free up Soldiers to fight. As am MP, Department of the Army Civilian Police (DACP) in any capacity frustrates me. However, it has been a necessary evil for the last 14 years. Too many Soldiers are needed to fight wars or operate in a deployed environment. For MPs, this means that many NCOs and Officers entering into BN and high staffs never got the chance to work law enforcement in a garrison environment. I believe the same holds true for many support MOSs like logistics and maintenance. DACPs and other civilian contractors have become the SMEs on non-combat tasks and they sometimes do not incur a long-term cost like retirement, but they do cost the military in gained SMEs. We are now reliant on civilians to teach our upcoming Soldiers as there are not enough leaders with experience. A reason that mercenary companies were appealing is that they were self-sufficient. Today’s US military is not. Perhaps that is a strike against us.

    Comment by Laura Proffit 19C | September 14, 2015


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