Mercenaries in history, the recent past and today

The recent death of the 102 year old Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare reminds us of when the last of the mercenaries who fought in the world’s wars were replaced by mega-mercenary companies to which the United States and others have outsourced many military operations.

Over centuries rulers have outsourced wars and one of Hoare’s most famous English predecessors was the 14th century English condottiere John Hawkwood who plied his trade among the interminable wars of the time in Italy. But for those who have never heard of Hawkwood or Mad Mike you need to go to the history books (for instance Frances Stonor Saunders’ Hawkwood) to learn about the former and to the film The Wild Geese for the latter.

In The Wild Geese the Hoare character was played by Richard Burton and other stars were Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger and Richard Harris. It was loosely based on Hoare’s exploits in Africa and in between the action there is a betrayal and revenge story. It’s all a bit ridiculous and young people brought up on modern special effects will see as big a chasm between it and modern action films as between the original and current versions of Shaft.

Australia has had its own experience with mercenaries in the Sandline affair in New Guinea. Sandline International was a private military company founded and managed by a retired British Army Lt Col Tim Spicer and promoted itself as offering military training, operational support, limited direct military activity, intelligence gathering, and public relations services to governments and corporations.

The latter is a rather broad definition of its services and proved to be quite counter-productive when it got involved in a convoluted plot in Papua New Guinea.

The Sandline affair was related to the conflict in Bougainville and the islanders’ determination to achieve independence. The then PNG Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, having failed to resolve the Bougainville issue, decided in 1997 to fix it using military force – specifically troops from Sandline after several other options had been considered..

Why not use PNG troops you might ask? It was considered, but the PNG troops were trained by the Australian Army; included Australian Army officers and NCO’s on secondment; had imbibed sufficient cultural characteristics that they did not – and have never been – involved in a coup; and, were reluctant to get involved. While it was one of Australia’s better foreign aid projects it did prompt an ongoing racist ‘joke’ among Australian military families about the PNG army having white officers with black privates.

The Australian Government, while Tim Fischer a former National Service officer was acting PM, intervened forcefully diplomatically and prepared for military intervention to stop Sandline if necessary. Sandline stood down, Chan lost his job and Fischer got the opportunity to say to the assembled military brass in the crisis room in Canberra: “Generals, Air Marshall, Admirals – 2ndLt Fischer thanks you for your efforts.”

Roll forward from PNG 30 years and mercenaries in the form of elite privately owned mercenary companies are everywhere – loved in particular by former US Vice President, Dick Cheney. They play key roles in every major US war and military intervention and their profits would probably plunge if the US ever really gets out of Iraq and Afghanistan if not for the fact that similar blunders will undoubtedly occur in the future – no doubt supported by Australia as usual.

Perhaps the most famous (notorious?) of the private companies was Blackwater whose ‘fame’ was such that the company went through various re-brandings and was last known as Academi. It fields an impressive 20,000 strong army. It was involved in the wrongful deaths of Iraqi citizens although as the original intervention was probably illegal under international law this is a drop in the bucket compared to the total wrongful Iraqi deaths.

Others include Defion Internacional staffed by Latin American military personnel. It looked after the Baghdad Green Zone as a sub contractor which was paying staff less than the contractor, Triple Canopy, was charging the US Government. Triple Canopy employs former US Special Forces veterans and got sued for fraud regarding one of its Iraq security contracts although the total of their Iraq contracts (about $US 90 million) is pretty insignificant in the context of the hundreds of millions in cash washing around post-invasion Iraq.

Aegus Defense Services does work for the UN, the US and various oil companies although they too are known for shooting at Iraqi civilians.

G4S Secure Solutions is said to be the US’ second largest private employer of people, behind Walmart, employing some 650,000 people in 125 countries. In Afghanistan they were infamous for having ‘Animal House’ parties in Kabul and having Afghan drug lords on the payroll.

Indeed, when you think about how much debate in the US is devoted to what the country allegedly can’t afford – proper health care and so on – you can’t help but think of how much better off the country would have been if the money spent on destroying Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and de-stabilising the world had gone on domestic priorities.