Taking up arms for a foreign country in exchange for hard cash has been called “the second-oldest profession in the world.” Then again, being a spy, politician, lawyer, teacher, hotel manager, pawnbroker or gambling tip-sheet publisher have also been called the second-oldest professions in the world. But as author Peter Tickler said in the introduction to “The Modern Mercenary,” mercenary work has been considered by some to be “a peculiarly male version of prostitution,” with a maybe more literal definition of selling one’s body.
During eras where many armies were made up of reluctant and ill-trained conscripts, professional soldiers-for-hire became an elite class of warrior and certain units and men ended up becoming part of history. Here are some of their stories.
XENOPHON AND THE TEN THOUSAND
A mixed force of elite soldiers from various Greek city-states, the Ten Thousand were called to arms by the Persian prince Cyrus, ostensibly to put down a minor rebellion. When the Greeks arrived in Persia, however, they found that Cyrus was himself the rebel, having declared war against his older brother Artaxerxes for the Persian throne; deciding their chances were still good, they threw in with Cyrus anyway.
Despite the Ten Thousand’s excellent performance on the battlefield, Cyrus died in combat and his rebel army promptly disappeared without so much as an IOU. Spartan general Clearchus attempted to negotiate safe passage with the Persian generals but he and the rest of the Greek commanders were double-crossed and murdered, a single soldier escaping with mortal wounds to inform his troops that they were very likely completely screwed.
That’s when Xenophon — a soldier, adventurer, and pupil of Socrates — stepped up to the plate and devised a strategy to get the battle-weary mercenaries back home more than a thousand miles away. Burning as much baggage as they could spare, the Greeks set out before dawn, battling their way across rivers, mountain peaks and blizzards, staying just barely ahead of the Persian army while fighting desperate battles against reserve troops and mountain chieftains standing in their way.
After two years and 4,000 casualties, the remainder of the Ten Thousand was finally able to board ships for home, where their experience in fighting Persians was soon to prove a valuable asset.
THE VARANGIAN GUARD
The late-period Roman Empire made a particular practice of contracting whole bands of barbarians, either as official legions or as autonomous “foederati” units, out of convenience or necessity for dealing with far-flung military conflicts.
The Byzantine empire inherited this tradition, but with an important distinction — the so-called Varangian Guard would be an elite among elites, responsible for the protection of the Emperor himself.
To this end, the Varangians were typically composed of Viking warriors seeking steadier pay than could be had chopping up Irish monks. Not only were they incredibly fierce and experienced warriors, but their code of honor made them more trustworthy than the locals — who tended to base their loyalties on more pragmatic considerations (e.g. money and power) than the Germanic and Nordic barbarians.
Varangian Guard troops served as a sort of “internal affairs” for the Byzantine military, serving largely in police actions against suspected rebel troops. The few times that it was necessary for them to serve in regular combat, however, the Varangians made a profound impression: their bizarre appearance (pale-skinned yellow-haired giants in strange armor screaming an incomprehensible language) and tendency towards berserker rages gave them an almost mythical status among allies and enemies alike.
The Guard was also extremely lucrative, and at one point, so many Scandinavians were serving in what they called Miklagård (“The Great City”) that a law was passed forbidding Swedish warriors from earning inheritances during Varangian service.
From the Italian for “contractor,” the condottieri were a logical product of the economic and political climate of 13th-century Italy: a confusing collection of city-states, principalities, Papal possessions and Holy Roman Empire vassals, none of whom possessed anything like a professional military.
What these micronations did possess was a lot of hard cash, and veteran soldiers returning from the Crusades found themselves in the mercenary’s ideal environment. It was sort of a seller’s market for soldiers, where wealthy merchants were willing to pay top dollar for experienced soldiers in a society that was just stable and ordered enough to ensure that a mercenary’s paycheck wouldn’t bounce but still crazy and weird enough to guarantee plenty of work.
Condottieri were extremely shrewd soldiers and businessmen — a good condottiero chief tended to avoid winter campaigns, prolonged sieges and other contracts that would likely cut too deeply into profits — and from their analyses of military cost-benefit ratios came the early foundations of military science.
While the original condottieri were honorable and ferocious soldiers, over the centuries their trade devolved from true combat to a complicated system of bribes and counter-bribes, usually ending in a staged battle between two mercenary companies where the highest bidder “won.” It also became distressingly common for condottieri to betray their client for a better deal, to the point where Niccolo Machiavelli considered depending on mercenary troops an essentially fatal flaw.
The condottieri finally lost their sweet gig after the French invasion of Italy under Charles VIII, where the few reliable condottieri companies were hired by the French and the remainder were incapable of dealing with a large professional army, but many of their traditions and practices survive today in modern mercenary units.
THE SWISS GUARD
Modern Switzerland is known primarily for delicious chocolate, fancy knives and high-quality cuckoo clocks, but the Switzerland of the late Middle Ages was known as Europe’s retail outlet for stone-cold killers.
The cantons of Switzerland were famous for their military prowess, having resisted Habsburger Austrian invasions for hundreds of years with a pike-and-halberd-based infantry that the Swiss had developed to the point of high art.
A well-ordered militia system of semi-professional soldiers made it remarkably easy to purchase entire regiments of well-trained warriors — a sort of turn-key army that was almost guaranteed to outperform any force of ill-trained reluctant conscripts regardless of the odds.
The best, bravest and most loyal of the Swiss mercenaries were often selected for royal guard service, a mixture of ceremonial duty and bodyguard work.
These soldiers and companies were typically referred to as Swiss Guard units. The most famous of the Swiss Guards — so much so that they persist to this day — was the Pontifical Swiss Guard of the Holy See, the bodyguard corps of the Pope and the de facto military of the Vatican.
While today this unit is mostly involved in parades and other ceremonies, they are and were elite soldiers: In May of 1527, the Swiss Guard of Pope Clement VII fought a fierce and fatal holding action against Habsburg troops and Landsknechte of the Holy Roman Empire, battling against a vastly superior force so that the Pope could escape the city unharmed.
First commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the Landsknechte (“servants of the land”) were initially a Swabian German copy of Swiss Guard tactics, weapons and training, and indeed early Landsknechte companies were instructed by semi-retired Swiss mercenaries.
These companies differed mostly in their ability to adapt to new technologies and strategies on the battlefield, and as the early firearms known as arquebuses began to appear in European armies Landsknechte companies began incorporating them into their formations as a way of supporting the pikemen.
In fact, while pikes were always the primary Landsknecht weapon, in popular culture they tended to be represented by one of two unique swords: the short Katzbalger, designed for close-in fighting, and the gigantic Zweihander, swords of up to six feet in length meant to deflect pike thrusts and chop heads in half.
While the Landsknechte as a wholenever really lived up to the same reputation as the Swiss pike formations they emulated — they were a far rowdier group, sacking Rome in 1527 after the Swiss Guard’s famous holding action — the better Landsknechte companies were highly sought after, and their memory persists today in the German slang term for soldier: Landser.
FREDERICK RUSSELL BURNHAM
Frederick Russell Burnham was a man of many jobs: He was a courier for Western Union, a deputy sheriff in Pinal County Arizona, a prospector, hunter and cowboy in the last days of the Wild West, but he’s still known today for his work as a mercenary scout for the British in the First and Second Matabele Wars.
When the American press started to circulate the idea that the Western frontier had finally been tamed, Burnham traveled to Africa seeking work on Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo railroad.
The railroad eventually fell through, but soon Burnham found more lucrative employment with the British Army, where he put his scouting and exploration skills to good use in the many battles between the Army in South Africa and the Zulu kingdoms that were in their way.
It was during this time he first met cavalry officer Robert Baden-Powell, himself a talented scout and outdoorsman, and shared with the Englishman many Native American woodcraft skills, much of which Baden-Powell used when he formed the lessons that would become the worldwide Scouting movement.
Burnham did so well in the Matabele wars (ending the second with the assassination of their spiritual leader Mlimo) that at the outset of the Second Boer War against Dutch South African settlers, British field marshal Lord Roberts personally invited him to come back to work for the British as Chief of Scouts; despite receiving the telegram in Alaska where he had come to prospect for gold, Burnham left for the Cape within the hour.
Combat in South Africa was nearly the end of his life, but ended up only being the end of his active career: His injuries were serious enough to keep him from active military service, forcing him to work in more relaxed fields such as East African exploration, oil drilling and counter-espionage work during WWI.
CLAIRE CHENNAULT AMERICAN VOLUNTEER GROUP (“THE FLYING TIGERS”)
Through a series of manufactured “incidents,” ostensible liberation campaigns and occasional naked land grabs, Imperial Japan had been carving up an embattled and confused Chinese Republic for years and years, and there was almost nothing that the United States could do about it under its strict neutrality laws.
Nevertheless, FDR both needed and wanted to help, and approved of one of America’s very first semi-secret mercenary armies: the First American Volunteer Group, led by the brilliant and irascible fighter commander Claire L. Chennault, himself a man with long experience in China and a personal friend of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
A force of three hundred “retired” American pilots, mechanics, armorers, and instructors soon arrived at Rangoon, where Chennault found to his displeasure that many pilots had lied about their experience in fighter planes and needed complete retraining.
This worked to his advantage, however, as Chennault’s revolutionary air fighting tactics (based on years of observing Japanese aircraft in combat and determining exactly how to shoot them down) were the secret to the AVG’s astonishing kill ratio: 14 pilots killed, captured, or lost compared to the official Japanese losses of 115 aircraft, from single-seat fighters to long-range bombers.
The AVG’s two trademarks (“The Flying Tigers” moniker and the distinctive “shark face” decoration) were actually taken from two completely different sources: the name was invented more or less out of nowhere by its DC front company “China Defense Supplies” and the toothy grin painted on the cowling was copied from photos of Germany’s elite ZG-76 heavy fighter wing.
After a year or so of mercenary service, the Flying Tigers were re-absorbed into various parts of the American aviation services, but almost immediately after the war ten AVG pilots started the Flying Tiger Line, a private air freight line that soon became part of the CIA’s covert cargo operations.
CARL GUSTAF VON ROSEN
Swedish-born Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen may have been the world’s greatest military aviator never to have been formally employed in a country’s military.
Cousin to and student of WWI fighter ace and Nazi air force commander Hermann Goerring, von Rosen was often described as the “black sheep” of his aristocratic and aggressively Fascist family.
He left Europe and a job as a stunt pilot to join the Red Cross’ fledgling air forces in flying relief missions to Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) which was suffering under an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign from the Italian Regia Aeronautica.
After being wounded in a mustard-gas attack, he returned to Europe to marry a Dutch woman and settle down as chief pilot of the national airline KLM.
Sadly, the peace was soon shattered, and von Rosen personally purchased three DC-2’s for the Finnish Air Force, continuing a sort of family tradition, as his father Eric had bought the new Finnish nation its very first aircraft and even then Finnish planes were decorated with the family’s personal “von Rosen cross,” which was (extremely confusingly) a large blue swastika adopted years before the Nazi’s co-option of same.
Carl Gustaf stayed on in Finland, flying one of the modified DC-2s as a bomber against oncoming Soviet troops, before attempting to join the RAF; judging that Goerring’s cousin represented a possible intelligence risk the Brits turned him down and he rejoined the Free Dutch KLM flying the dangerous air route from London to neutral Lisbon.
After the war and his discovery that his wife had died fighting for the Resistance, von Rosen took on a number of humanitarian jobs for the UN and the Red Cross in dangerous territories, culminating in his independent work in the breakaway republic of Biafra.
Here, despite years of exposure to starvation, misery and pain, the Swedish Count was so moved by the Nigerian’s brutal campaign against Biafran civilians that he organized Biafra’s first and last air force — a squadron of tiny propeller-driven Saab trainers that he rigged with machine guns and light rockets, flying out at the break of dawn under radio silence to destroy half of the Nigerian bomber force (itself composed of many mercenaries) on the ground.
Von Rosen finally died in the doomed breakaway province, ambushed by a guerrilla unit as his plane carrying medical supplies was caught on the ground.
“CONGO/MAD MIKE” MIKE HOARE
An Irishman born in India, a fully qualified tank commander and chartered accountant, and leader of one of the most dangerous rugby clubs ever assembled, Thomas Michael Hoare exemplified a sort of Golden Age of European mercenary commanders in Africa alongside “Black Jack” Schramme and Robert Denard: Too weird and lethal to settle down in post-war Europe, they made their fortunes in the dozens of brushfire wars and proxy Cold War conflicts of post-colonial Africa.
Hoare got his start in the bloody six-year Congo Crisis following that country’s independence from Belgium, first commanding of “4 Commando” trying to prevent the province of Katanga from declaring its own independence, and later at the head of “Operation Dragon Rouge,” a lightning air assault to rescue some 1600 white former colonists from besieged Simba rebels.
It was here where he earned the “Mad Mike” nickname from East German propaganda broadcasts that inadvertently popularized him as “the mad bloodhound, Mike Hoare.”
After Mobutu’s ascension and the end of the Congo Crisis, Hoare went into semi-retirement in South Africa as a safari organizer, but still maintained many contacts in the South African intelligence services, which for a long time were a sort of clearinghouse for anti-communist mercenary work on the African continent.
Through them the deposed president of Seychelles contacted Mad Mike and some fifty other European and South African mercenaries seeking to arrange a coup d’etat. Hoare found himself in de facto command of the operation and devised an ingenious plan: the fifty men would pose as members of “Ye Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers,” the descendants of an old English rugby/drinking club, that met regularly in Johannesburg and were planning a holiday to the Seychelles where “in the best traditions of the original AOFB we collected toys for underprivileged kids,” toys of sufficient bulk and light weight so that the disassembled AK-47’s hidden in their luggage’s false bottoms wouldn’t be detected by customs.
Unfortunately for Hoare, an unusually curious customs officer found one of the stripped guns, leading other ostensible ruggers to shoot up the customs office and hijack an Air India jet that had just landed in an incident somewhat more violent and illegal than the average rugby match.
While many of the hijackers were quietly released after a few months in prison, Hoare found himself serving a full ten-year stretch, during which time he began recruiting “Honorary Members of the Wild Geese,” a mysterious organization that could easily have served as a sort of mercenary database. Mike Hoare apparently released a book in 2010, but his whereabouts are unsettlingly uncertain.
Next: These Images Are NOT Photoshopped
While the great mercenary leaders of old are a thing of the past, the mercenary tradition is perhaps stronger than ever as militaries around the world move more and more towards a corporate model of leadership and cost-benefit decisions — and as anyone who’s spent any time in a modern corporation lately knows, the management always prefers to bring in a contractor for ten times the cost rather than use the full-time employees they already have on staff.
The modern private military company system (euphemistically referred to as “The Circuit” by its employees) ranges from traditional soldiers for hire to construction projects carried out in militarily dangerous situations, and their lack of panache and bravado compared to mercenaries of old is a definite bonus to countries that wish to conceal how much military involvement they have in a given crisis.
PMC casualties (and often casualties inflicted by PMCs) are also subjected to far less media attention except in cases when the contractor severely screws up in a very public manner, and even then the PMC employees are rarely subject to significant penalties as their military legal status is far from clear even in the best circumstances.
Expert analyses claim that the ratio of professional national soldiers to hired guns has dwindled from fifty to one in the 90s to ten to one today, and a 2008 study by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated that PMCs make up 29% of the American intelligence community while costing roughly 49% of their budget.