The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H102: The 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 Toward the end of the war they began to decline in importance and by the end of the 17th Century they had largely been replaced by national professional armies.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?

September 5, 2017 - Posted by | H100, Uncategorized | , , , , ,


  1. Mercenary companies came into play as a cost reduction for the kings. As land became limited and the kings realized that taxing the landowners was a better option than requesting military support when required, the knights of the time became the leaders of a mercenary company. While the initial advantage is that the king’s now had access to a “professional” fighting force, one that trained for battle and had some sort of consistent leadership, in the end it turns into a force that is not beneficial to the king. In the Machiavelli book The Prince, “he believes they are useless to a ruler because they are undisciplined, cowardly, and without any loyalty, being motivated only by money” (The Prince, Wikipedia). “Since the sole motivation of mercenaries is their pay, they will not be inclined to take the kind of risks that can turn the tide of a battle, but may cost them their lives. He also noted that a mercenary who failed was obviously no good, but one who succeeded may be even more dangerous. He astutely pointed out that a successful mercenary army no longer needs its employer if it is more militarily powerful than its supposed superior” (Mercenary, Wikipedia).

    In my opinion, these same beliefs that Machiavelli presented in his book, are still a threat today. The mercenary specialist of today, is again solely motivated by money at the end of the day. Loyalty to a country and those country’s beliefs take a back seat to money. When “an experienced, capable security contractor is in a six figure employment category, pulling in $150,000 to $250,000 per year” (Security Contractor Job,, which is twice the annual base pay of a 14 year Captain in the US. Army, you have to ask where does a contractor’s loyalty lie. The answer could fall back to the Machiavelli arguement. If it were the case that these contractors’ loyalty lied more with the country and the beliefs of that country, the truly dangerous missions would not remain with the national military.

    In addition to the money, another issue with a mercenary army is that lack of institutional control. In the US Army, we obey the Laws of War and the Rules of Engagement. I am not claiming that every mercenary out there is not following these and that every Soldier is remaining within the guidelines, but there are multiple cases where mercenaries’ actions violate both of these. The US Army has UCMJ that can punish the Soldier for violations, but any mercenary violation needs to be investigated by an outside agency (State Department, FBI, etc.).

    In regards to the use of mercenary or Private Military Contractors today, they have become a necessity. Contracting logistics could fall into the mercenary category and further support the necessity of these personnel. Although they are not necessarily out to fight the nations battles, they are in support of them, a hired force of personnel to the highest bidder and finally solely motivated by money. Due to the downsizing of the military and the extended missions (embassy support, CIA support, Iraqi, Afghanistan, etc.) that the US currently has trying to support all of this with a volunteer force alone would be impossible.

    Michael Pariso
    Staff Group 19B

    Comment by Michael Pariso | September 5, 2017

  2. Mercenary companies initially provided an effective method of increasing the size and strength of an army. Mercenaries provided a viable option for a state to obtain trained and potentially experienced soldiers capable of fighting the states wars. Although, the hiring of professional soldiers can be viewed as preferable to conscripting the general population we must keep in mind the relevant motivations. Mercenaries are most interested in fighting for the side willing to pay the most for their services. Thus there is no ingrained sense of loyalty or duty as you may find with the creation of a national army. This is not to profess that all conscripts will be entirely loyal, but they will but more worth on a battle and their effort in it if is tied to the survival of their own nation. An army made up of conscripts however, may not be as capable or effective at winning wars as a mercenary army. We then have somewhat of a pendulum that swings between, expensive, well trained mercenaries, and ineffective and ill trained conscript armies.

    Between these two extremes we find the professional national army which mixes together the sense of loyalty and expertise. It is these armies that when properly trained and equipped became a consistent and reliable instrument of the state. With the state supporting the professionalization of the army and its leaders who are endowed with public trust we begin to see an increased sense of duty and loyalty to the state and a desire to constantly improve and generate the capabilities to win a nation’s wars. This too, has an effect on the rulers of a state when considering the employment of the army. No longer was it the consideration of a mere dollar figure when employing an army in battle. It was now the sunk costs into training and equipping the current army and the potential cost of replacement. An effective professional army is more of an investment that a pure cost. This results in the employment of the army for limited objectives and a more maneourvist approach not solely focused on attrition and used in concert with other forms of national power.

    This also does not negate the need for mercenaries if a rapid surge in forces are needed, but when you link the military power to national goals and the implications of state trust a standing professional army will always be preferable.

    Comment by Jonathan Cox | September 9, 2017

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