By Chris Hoeft
What is a Soldier?
Being a soldier is a job. Soldiers go to work and get paid. They spend time away from their friends and families to put food on the table. They attend school to apply for better positions. They celebrate achievements with their coworkers. Soldiers are no different from baristas and accountants from a human and capitalistic viewpoint. If you can quit your job to start a business or join the gig economy, why can’t a U.S. soldier pick up arms to fight for another country just as easily? That is the reality of private military companies or PMCs today.
Annual salaries for U.S. service members start as low as $20,000 and can go up as high as six figures. Understanding wages is integral to learning about the soldier’s profession and its bastard cousin, mercenary work. The word salary originates from the Latin word sal, meaning salt. Roman soldiers got paid a salarium—an allowance of salt, which they could barter for goods at markets. The basis for how modern society awards services, whether for blue-collar work or corporate jobs, is rooted in military service. The Medieval Latin word for soldier, soldarius, literally means “one having pay.” Interestingly, the root word for mercenary, merces, is a synonym for pay. The syncretism of nationalist values and standing armies solidified during the Napoleonic Wars and the Age of Revolution—only three hundred years ago. Before then, the armies of Alexander the Great and William the Conqueror regularly intermixed mercenaries with standard infantry, fulfilling the same purpose—getting paid to fight.
In her book Mercenaries: The History of a Norm in International Relations, Sarah Percy defines mercenaries as “military entrepreneurs” who can freely choose to go (or not to go) to war.” That definition separates mercenaries from typical soldiers in that they are not required to perform regular tours of duty—generally a six- to twelve-month commitment in the US. Instead, modern mercenaries operate more like gig workers, selecting the most appealing jobs with the
least stringent obligations. Atlantic Council Senior Fellow, Army veteran, and former mercenary Sean McFate says, “The U.S. Army sometimes offers up to $90,000 for Soldiers to reenlist, enough to make modern mercenaries salivate.” Still, the alternative of joining a PMC awards freedoms and autonomy absent in a traditional military, making it a lucrative prospect for seasoned combat veterans who have grown resentful of rigid military structures. Rules of engagement and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) effectively go unenforced in the realm of mercenaries, and the pay is generally double what they would earn in the military. Though, exact estimates are hard to come by due to their unsanctioned, often illegal work.
The Wild West Come Again:
The reality of gun-toting cowboys pillaging and extorting people in remote corners of the world is an existential threat to international law and, by extension, human rights. Percy argues that disdain for mercenaries has always existed, but only in the sixteenth century did state leaders begin rejecting their services due to the sheer havoc they inflicted. During peacetime in Renaissance Europe, mercenary companies regularly became marauders—threatening to sack cities for profit. Since Kings could not finance their entire armies, they habitually pillaged the countryside. The world has witnessed a mercenary resurgence in recent decades due to the US’s reliance on contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While most outsourced labor fulfilled supply-chain logistics, about fifteen percent, amounted to hired guns. At the same time, the number of failed states multiplied exponentially—creating an intense job market of conflict zones for veterans looking to make a buck but unwilling to reenter the military.
Historically, wartime atrocities faced retribution only via retaliatory actions by other belligerents or through special judicial processes. Today, various international courts are set up to create rules of war and punish violators. Except they typically do not work. Firstly, the highest of these courts, the International Criminal Court (ICC), prioritizes extreme cases like Omar al-Bashir, the former dictator of Sudan. The ICC charged him with genocide and crimes against humanity in 2009. A single squad of mercenaries who slaughters a village in Libya is likely to go unnoticed by the ICC. Secondly, ICC defendants are rarely punished. Despite his trial in 2009, al-Bashir did not face imprisonment until 2019, when his regime fell. Still, he remains in the custody of the new Sudanese government, not the ICC. Only fourteen of the thousands of ICC cases have ended in a full trial.
Who then is left to administer justice? Modern mercenaries are international actors. They cross borders - often illegally - and commit acts of violence. It is not clear who holds them accountable. Often, governments hire PMCs to do tasks they would not want their soldiers to do. A trial could implicate an employer government in a crime, as demonstrated by the 2007 Nisour Square shooting in which the Blackwater PMC - under contract by the U.S. - killed seventeen Iraqi civilians at a traffic stop. Four defendants were convicted but later pardoned by President Trump; Blackwater shut down and rebranded as ACADEMI. Failed states are not likely to try them either because they often do not possess an independent judiciary. The dealer of justice in this new world is illusory.
McFate claims, “Those who think the private military industry can be safely ignored, regulated, or categorically banned are too late.” Perhaps he is right—illegal markets almost always persist. President Nixon’s war on drugs is still ongoing. A few PMCs can shut down, but new ones will take their place unless traditional military employment becomes more appealing. Historically, the norm against mercenaries became so overbearing that conventional soldiering rose in popularity. The top global militaries and international peacekeeping forces need to reemphasize this norm. If states depend more on the U.S. and the U.N. to intervene, less powerful nations will feel less inclined to employ mercenaries when conflicts arise. Simultaneously, veterans should receive transparent and effective health care - including mental health - post-enlistment and dependable retirement packages to lure them away from mercenary work. While not concrete, said measures undermine the demand for and supply of mercenaries, respectively. Only by valuing the labor service members provide - through adequate compensation and benefits - can we hope to impact the jobs they take on.
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