Mercenaries have been around for as long as organised warfare. How can they be defined?
In some sense, all professional soldiers – that is, soldiers who choose the army as a career and are paid for their service – are mercenaries. They would not do the job if they were not paid.
But there is a clear difference between soldiers who fight for their own national army – or, it may be, their own tribe or religion or ideology – and those prepared to fight for anyone willing to pay.
The difference is a moral one: between men and women who are in service to a political cause – usually, but not always, that of their country – and those who serve only themselves. We tend to reserve the term ‘mercenary’ for the latter.
There are many standout historical examples. In the wars of the Renaissance period, for example, notable mercenaries included Burgundian hand-gunners, Italian condottiere, Swiss pikemen, and German Landsknechte. A class of captains existed who operated as military entrepreneurs, raising their own bands and touting their services around the courts of Europe.
The moral problem is obvious. It is the rich and powerful who have the money to pay mercenaries, never the poor. And people who fight simply because they are paid are not subject to any kind of political scrutiny or accountability. The violence of the mercenary is for hire, not for any agreed common purpose.
Even when mercenaries are employed by a formal state authority, there is a moral problem. The deployment of national forces usually involves a degree of community consent. It is difficult for any regime, however authoritarian, to wage war using national recruits without some measure of popular support for its action. But what of a tyranny that chooses to employ mercenaries?
These are some of the disturbing questions one must confront reading investigative journalist Phil Miller’s book Keenie Meenie.
WAR CRIMES IN THE SHADOWS
Keenie Meenie Services is the most powerful mercenary company you have never heard of. British-based and employing mainly British ex-service personnel, it has been involved in war crimes around the world since the 1970s, from Oman to Sri Lanka, from Nicaragua to Northern Ireland.
Author Phil Miller’s critical reporting on British special forces has triggered two government probes. He has worked for Corporate Watch and Reprieve, and has been published in Private Eye, Vice, New Internationalist, The Guardian, and The Times. He is currently a staff reporter for Declassified UK.
This book, based on recently declassified documents, transports
us to a twilight world of assassinations, secret ops, remote training camps, and the torture chambers of some of the nastiest regimes in the world. A twilight world in another sense too: where the agencies of the deep state interface with the spivs and thugs of a burgeoning private security industry.
What emerges is that both Tory and Labour governments have not only allowed private mercenary agencies to operate and flourish, but have repeatedly had recourse to their services in order to distance the authorities from unsavoury activity for which they may wish to deny responsibility.
Privatised ‘security’ – for which read ‘repression’ – turns out to be a semi-official, often government-funded adjunct to the operations of the special forces and intelligence agencies of the deep state. It arises in the grey zone where denial and lying are the default options.
Research is difficult. Many files have been destroyed, others remain secret, some that have entered the public domain are heavily redacted. Miller recounts the bizarre experience for a researcher of reading a censored document in which a handwritten diplomatic exchange at the bottom had somehow escaped excision.
‘The question is being handled by KMS without any official involvement by us,’ wrote the secret government hand. ‘There is no action we need to take at present.’ The matter in question was the provision of bodyguards to a new Uganda president supported by the British.
Take the example of the Tamil Tiger insurgency in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Tamil minority was the victim of systematic discrimination and exclusion by the Sinhalese-dominated state. Police brutality and torture were common, and Tamil communities were occasionally targeted in murderous pogroms by Sinhalese nationalist mobs.
It was this that triggered a Tamil national liberation movement – for separation and independence – in the 1970s. The British backed the government counter-insurgency operation. This involved MI5, the SAS, Special Branch, KMS, and other private operators like John Percival Morton, whom Miller describes as ‘an unrivalled expert in oppression’ who had ‘imbibed the racism of empire from a young age’.
KMS’s main role was the provision of helicopter pilots to ferry Sinhalese government death-squads to Tamil villages like Piramanthanaru, where, on 2 October 1985, 75 homes were burnt, 16 people killed, and 30 wounded.
Mothers saw their sons lying dead in pools of blood. Wives watched their husbands being beaten by the army – one woman said the bludgeoning was so severe that blood poured out of his ears. Some men were tied upside down to a tree branch and interrogated while water was poured down their noses. The village shopkeeper was blindfolded, taken away, and executed.
Some of the survivors recalled the KMS pilot involved – ‘a tall white man who was watching everything very carefully’. Here was a mercenary working for a private company with full British government sanction. The Wilson/Callaghan government commissioned an enquiry into this shadow-world of private security companies in the late 1970s. The findings of the senior judge involved, Lord Diplock, an establishment trustee, threw interesting light on the nature of mercenary service.
The soldier of conscience may be found fighting side by side with the soldier of fortune. The motives which induce a particular individual to serve as a mercenary will be mixed. A spirit of adventure, an ex-soldier’s difficulty in adjusting to civilian life, unemployment, domestic troubles, ideals, fanaticism, greed, all may play some part.
Diplock concluded that motivation was irrelevant to the case. Mercenaries had to be defined by what they did, not why they did it. They were ‘any person who serves voluntarily and for pay in some armed force other than that of Her Majesty’.
FROM ANTI-COMMUNISM TO ANTI-JIHADISM
No action was taken in response to the enquiry. In fact, both KMS and private-security agencies more generally have grown and flourished in the period since, especially in the context of the War on Terror following 9/11.
This, of course, is a new context. From the early 1960s through to the late 1980s, foreign mercenaries were deployed mainly against leftist popular movements of one sort or another – like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Of late, they are as likely to be deployed against essentially right-wing Islamist insurgents.
It all depends, though – on whose Islamists they are. The Omani revolutionaries in the 1960s were defeated in part because British counter-insurgency personnel helped to create a local Islamist counter-force to fight on behalf of the Sultan of Oman.
The case of Afghanistan is wellknown. The Americans built up the mujahideen, an Islamist guerrilla insurgency, to defeat the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. They then discovered they had created a Frankenstein’s Monster, as the mujahideen morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
This is an excellent book. It is very well structured and written, moving from conflict to conflict in rough chronological order, creating a series of often horrific vignettes, interspersed with analysis of the political context. Miller’s conclusions, moreover, raise worrying questions for us all.
It would seem that as long as British governments wish to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries, mercenaries will remain an important tool in their arsenal, to be used in the most sensitive circumstances where Parliament, the press, and the public would not stomach official British involvement.
As such, any legislation that reins in private military companies would also have the effect of constraining British foreign policy-makers from dabbling in secret wars. And perhaps that is why mercenaries are unlikely to be outlawed any time soon.
Review by Neil Faulkner
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This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.