The Secret Life of Mercenaries
“You were a mercenary? Did you kill anyone?” I get this question a lot.
“I really can’t say,” I answer, and it’s the truth. A lot of what I did was secret, or, as we say in the industry, a “zero-footprint operation.” It means we were ghosts.
When you need something absolutely, positively done in war, you call the private sector. Missions that the CIA and special operations forces perform are now ‘buyable’ in the open market. I know because I did them. I dealt with warlords, built armies, rode with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, conducted strategic reconnaissance for oil companies in hostile territory, and helped prevent a genocide in Africa. My favorite mission is something called “shaping operations,” where you secretly manipulate events on the ground to favor your client’s interests. Who were my clients? Extractive industry, the global 0.01%, and the U.S. government.
Mercenaries are more widespread and dangerous than most people think. Mention the “M” word, and Americans envision cartoonish Hollywood villains or real world idiots like the ex-Green Beret who recently staged a botched coup d’etat in Venezuela, Bay of Pigs style. But expect more Boba Fetts, now that Trump has placed a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head.
America’s most infamous mercenary is Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater International. He tried to sell Washington on a plan to replace all American troops in Afghanistan with a few thousand mercenaries. Crazy as it sounds, the plan had supporters. “Why can’t we pay mercenaries to do the work for us?” demanded President Trump of the National Security Council. Prince currently works for China, which the Pentagon considers a strategic competitor. Like all soldiers of fortune, it’s difficult to know where Prince’s true loyalties lie, beyond paycheck.
Morons aside, mercenaries are big trouble. A Russian mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group went muzzle to muzzle with U.S. Delta Force in Syria, and the battle lasted four hours before Delta won. What happens when National Guard units face these mercenaries? Obliteration. Arab monarchies hire former SEALs and Green Berets for death squad duty in Yemen. Private warriors fight in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Venezuela, Central African Republic, Congo, Somalia, and Libya, and that’s just the places we know about. Soldiers of fortune can take over small countries, something I know a little about. Even terrorists hire mercenaries.
Mercenaries are back, but not as you know them. Almost every author, journalist, and expert gets it wrong because mercenaries resist investigation, literally. Ask too many questions, and they kill you. The only way to know what goes on inside their secretive world is to be an insider, as I was. Here’s what you need to know:
First, mercenaries are not the caricatures depicted in movies. They are complex people, like all of us. It’s true that some seek the lifestyle because they want to go rogue and leave the human race, but most do not. When I was in the field, I met guns for hire with all sorts of stories: some wanted adventure, others needed a paycheck, a lot were more comfortable with war than peace, a few wished to help others (amazing but true), and many just didn’t have a life plan.
Second, being a mercenary has its practical appeals, beyond paycheck. A lot of American troops were deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, their home life was imploding: wife living with another man and filing for divorce, kids not recognizing their dad, personal bankruptcy and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rates of suicide, divorce and domestic violence spiked among service members during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If a soldier refuses to go on deployment, he is court martialed. By contrast, a contractor can always say “no thanks” to a job. A lot of American contractors I met signed up because they wanted their life back.
Third, getting hired is all about who you know, or more accurately, who knows you. There are no mercenary boot camps, and everyone starts someplace else, usually a national army. Veterans of these militaries who “go pro” form informal networks that get tapped when there’s a big job to do. Trusted colleagues recruit and vouch for their hires, as I did. You can sort out the charlatans from the pros with a few qualifying questions: What unit were you in? What years? Who was your commander? What operations did you conduct? Did you know Sergeant Major Smith? What was he like?
Another way to get hired is showing up at a conflict market (aka war zone) and look for vacancies. Places like the Middle East, Sub-Sahara Africa and Afghanistan are typical. Some hope Latin America might open up, given the drug wars, or the UN might hire peacekeepers. Unfortunately, the UN suffers a bad reputation as a delinquent payer. Known mercenary hangouts include Irbil, Kampala, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. However, this can be a dodgy way to find work. Colleagues might mistake for an undercover cop or journalist, and thump you. It’s easy to “disappear” someone in a war zone.
Fourth, mercenaries operate in networks. The main ones are based on “command language,” or the language used to give orders, and there are three: English, Russian, and Spanish. To a lesser degree, there are French and Hebrew speakers too. There is also the Executive Outcomes or EO “alumnae” network in Africa. EO pioneered the modern mercenary corporation in the 1990s, and I worked with a lot of them in the 2000s. They are extremely skilled, and you can see their handiwork in Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique. Some assume China would have a large presence in the market for force, due to sheer volume, but this is not the case. There are few Chinese combat veterans, making them low-ranked in the mercenary world. Plus, no one understands their language.
Fifth, pay. Outside observers often assume mercenaries receive huge sums of money. This is inaccurate. They usually make about twice their old military salary, which is not much if you think about the risks. For example, wounded mercenaries get immediate first aid but are otherwise left in the street. Nor are there retirement or veteran benefits. However, an elite mercenary can earn four figures a week — usually in U.S. dollars, typically through the British Virgin Islands or other places with strong bank secrecy laws and weak extradition practices. There are rumors that ex-SEALs can make up to $10,000 a day working for Abu Dhabi on Yemen issues; if this is true, it’s exceptional. Contrary to fictional depictions, reputation is the primary currency in the mercenary world, with money second. Those who forget this get burned, as the Wongo Coup shows.
Sixth, finding clients is getting easier. We live in an information age, where weapons that give you plausible deniability are more potent than firepower. Mercenaries sell plausible deniability, making them attractive to anyone who wants to wage war in secret, like Russia. Some consumers, like oil companies, want mercenaries because they have no military forces of their own, and renting them may be preferable to relying on corrupt and incompetent host nation forces. Others, like Nigeria, have security forces but need a niche capability, such as Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters or Special Operations Forces teams. Still, others hire mercenaries to do things they don’t want their own people doing, like human rights abuse.
Lastly, the stereotype of “mercenaries are always evil” is wrong. People view soldiers like wives and mercenaries like prostitutes, as people who turn love into a transaction. But in my experience, every soldier has a little mercenary in him, and vice versa. When I was in the army, I saw lots of troops reenlist for big bonuses, a transactional practice common in most militaries. For example, the US Army pays up to $90,000 for soldiers to reenlist, enough money to make mercenaries salivate. I’ve also seen mercenaries refuse jobs on political grounds. Some American hired guns will never take money from Russia, China, Iran, or a terrorist group; America’s enemies are their enemies. The line between soldier and mercenary is hazier than most think.