From Academic Kids


A mercenary is a soldier who fights, or engages in warfare primarily for money, usually with little regard for ideological, national or political considerations. However, when the term is used to refer to a soldier in a regular national army, it is usually considered an insult, epithet or pejorative.


Mercenaries and the laws of war

See also laws of war.

In the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (GC) of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 it is stated:

Art 47. Mercenaries

A mercenary is any person who:
(a)  is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
(b)  does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
(c)  is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
(d)  is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
(e)  is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
(f)  has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

It should be noted that many countries including the U.S. are not signatory to the Protocol Additional GC 1977 (APGC77). So APGC77 art 47 can best be seen as a guide to what a mercenary is. However without an agreed international definition it is the best around.

Under GC III if a soldier is captured by an enemy, he must be treated as a lawful combatant and therefore a Protected Person which for a soldier is as a Prisoner of War (POW) until the soldier has faced a competent tribunal (GC III Art 5). That tribunal may decide that the person is a mercenary using criteria in APGC77 or some domestic law equivalent. At that point the mercenary becomes an unlawful combatant but they must still be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial", because they are still covered by GC IV Art 5. The only exception to GC IV Art 5 is if they are a national of the authority which is holding them but in which case they would not be a mercenary under APGC77 Art 47.d.

If after a regular trial, a captured soldier is found to be a mercenary, then they can expect to be treated as common criminals and may face execution. As they are not POWs they can not expect repatriation at the end of the war. The best known, post-World War II, example of this was on June 28 1976 when an Angolan court sentenced four mercenaries to death and nine others to prison terms ranging from 16 to 30 years. The three Britons and an American were shot by a firing squad on July 10 1976.

The legal status of civilian contractors depends upon the nature of their work and their nationality in respect of the combatants. But if they have not in fact, taken a direct part in the hostilities (APGC77 Art 47.b) they are not mercenaries and are entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

The situation during the Occupation of Iraq 2003 – shows how difficult it is to define what a mercenary is. While the United States governed the country, any U.S. citizen who worked as a armed guard could not be called a mercenary because they were a national of a Party to the conflict (APGC77 Art 47.d). With the handover of power to the interim Iraqi government it could be argued that unless they declare that they are a resident in Iraq i.e. a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict (APGC77 Art 47.d), they are now mercenaries. If no trial of the people accused of being mercenaries takes place, then the allegations tend to evaporate in a spiral of accusations, denials and counter-accusations. It should be noted that Coalition soldiers in Iraq who are supporting the interim Iraqi government are not mercenaries, because either they are part of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict or they have been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces (APGC77 Art 47.f).

See also privateer, Letter of marque, private military contractor.

Gurkhas and French Foreign Legionnaires are not mercenaries

The two best known units in which nationals of a country serve in another nation's armed forces are the British Brigade of Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion. Soldiers who serve in these two elite units are not mercenaries.

British Gurkhas are fully integrated soldiers of the British Army. They operate in formed units of the Brigade of Gurkhas and abide by the rules and regulations under which all British soldiers serveTemplate:Ref, (Similar rules apply for Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army.) French Foreign Legionnaires are in formed units of the French Foreign Legion which is deployed and fights as an organized unit of the French Army. This means that as member of the armed forces of Britain or France then under APGC77 Art 47.e and APGC77 Art 47.f they cannot be mercenaries.

Mercenaries and domestic law

Some countries try to stop their citizens fighting in conflicts unless they are under the control of their own armed forces:

  • In 2003, France criminalized mercenary activities as defined by the protocol to the Geneva convention for French citizens, permanent residents and legal entities. (Penal Code, L436-1 (, L436-2 (, L436-3 (, L436-4 (, L436-5 (
  • In 1998 South Africa passed the "Foreign Military Assistance Act" which banned citizens, or residents, from any involvement in foreign conflicts except in humanitarian operations unless a government committee gave its approval for a deployment. In 2005 the legislation was being reviewed by the government because of South African citizens working as security guards in Iraq during the Iraq occupation and the fallout of the case against Mark Thatcher for the "possible funding and logistical assistance in relation to an alleged attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea" organised by Simon Mann.
  • Under United States law (the "Neutrality Act"), an American citizen who participates in an armed conflict to which the United States is neutral may be subject to criminal penalties.
  • Switzerland banned its nationals from serving as mercenaries in 1927 with the one exception being the Vatican Swiss Guards.

Mercenary operations

It is known that mercenaries have been hired to fight in the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Many of these were ex-Eastern Bloc soldiers who had no employment opportunities after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Private military company (PMC)

Private military companies are companies that provide logistics, manpower, and other expenditures for a military force. Their contractors are civilians authorized to accompany a force in the field.

It can be argued that paramilitary forces under private control are functionally mercenaries instead of security guards or advisors. However, national governments reserve the right to strictly regulate the number, nature and armaments of such private forces and argue that providing they are not employed in frontline pro-active military activities that they are not mercenaries.

If employees of PMCs are involved in pro-active military activities they are likely to be defined as mercenaries and their employers will be called mercenary companies. Three companies which the mass media called mercenary companies in the 1990s were:

In 2004 the industry was given a huge boost because PMCs were employed by the US and other coalition members to do security work in Iraq. An example of which is Blackwater USA.

Private military companies tend to be frowned upon by the United Nations (even so, the UN hired Executive Outcomes to do some logistic support in Africa). Nevertheless, PMCs may be useful in combatting genocides and slaughters in situations where the UN is unwilling or unable to intervene.

Mercenaries in Africa

20th century

In the 20th century, mercenaries have been mostly involved in conflicts on the continent of Africa. There have been a number of unsavory incidents in the brushfire wars of Africa, some involving recruitment of nave European and American men "looking for adventure" and thrusting them into combat situations where they would not survive to get paid.

Many of the adventurers in Africa who have been described as mercenaries were in fact ideologically motivated to support particular governments, and would not fight "for the highest bidder."

Particularly notorious mercenaries include:

  • Mike Hoare was involved in the Congo Crisis in the early 1960s and a Seychelles failed coup in 1978.
  • Bob Denard was involved in numerous African campaigns in many countries often with the covert support of France. However his particular speciality was intervening in the Comoros. The last time was in 1995, when he staged a coup which failed (the military of the French Government intervened to oust Denard).
  • Simon Mann was involved with Executive Outcomes ventures in Angola and Sierra Leone (see below). In 2004 he was found guilty in Zimbabwe of "attempting to buy weapons" (BBC 27 August) allegedly for a coup in Equatorial Guinean (see below).

Mercenaries fought for the Biafrans in the 4th Commando Brigade during the Nigerian Civil War, (1967–1970). Other mercenaries flew aircraft for the Biafrans. In October 1966, for example, a Royal Air Burundi DC-4M Argonaut, flown by a mercenary Heinrich Wartski also known as Henry Wharton, crashlanded in Cameroon with military supplies destined for Biafra.

In the mid-1970s John Banks, a Briton, recruited mercenaries to fight for the National Front for the Liberation of Angola FNLA against the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the civil war that broke out when Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975. When captured, John Derek Barker's role as a leader of mercenaries in Northern Angola led the judges to send him to face the firing squad. Nine others were imprisoned. Three more were executed: American Daniel Gearhart was sentenced to death for advertising himself as a mercenary in an American newspaper; Andrew McKenzie and Costas Georgiou (the self styled "Colonel Callan"), who had both served in the British army, were sentenced to death for murder.

American Bob MacKenzie was killed in the Malal Hills in February 1995 while commanding Gurkha Security Guards (GSG) in Sierra Leone. GSG pulled out soon afterwards and was replaced by Executive Outcomes. Both were employed by the Sierra Leone government as military advisers and to train the government soldiers. It has been alleged that the firms provided solders who to an active part in the fighting against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

A fictional portrait of mercenary operations in the 1970s is Frederick Forsyth's book, The Dogs of War, which was set on the island of Malabo - renamed "Zangaro" in the novel - and given a platinum deposit. Since the discovery of oil there in the mid-1990s, it does not need a fictional platinum deposit for it to be of interest to financiers and mercenaries. In August 2004 there was the a plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in Malabo. Currently eight South African apartheid-era soldiers (the leader of whom is Nick du Toit), six Armenian aircrew and five local men are in Black Beach prison on the island. They are accused of being an advanced guard for a coup to place Severo Moto in power. CNN reported on August 25, that:

Defendant Nick du Toit said he was introduced to Thatcher in South Africa last year by Simon Mann, the leader of 70 men arrested in Zimbabwe in March suspected of being a group of mercenaries heading to Equatorial Guinea.

It was planned, it is alleged, by Simon Mann (a founder of Executive Outcomes) a former SAS officer. On 27 August 2004 he was found guilty in Zimbabwe of purchasing arms, allegedly for use in the plot. (He admitted trying to procure dangerous weapons, but said that they were to guard a diamond mine in DR Congo.) It is alleged that there is a paper trail from him which implicates Sir Mark Thatcher, Lord Archer and Ely Calil (a Lebanese-born oil trader).

The BBC reported in an article entitled "Q&A: Equatorial Guinea coup plot":

The BBC's Newsnight television programme saw the financial records of Simon Mann's companies showing large payments to Nick du Toit and also some $2m coming in - though the source of this funding they say is largely untraceable.

The BBC reported on 10 September 2004 that in Zimbabwe:

[Simon Mann], the British leader of a group of 67 alleged mercenaries accused of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea has been sentenced to seven years in jail... The other passengers got 12 months in jail for breaking immigration laws while the two pilots got 16 months...The court also ordered the seizure of Mann's $3m Boeing 727 and $180,000 found on board.

With the current crises in Zimbabwe, a Boeing 727 will be a useful addition to the state's national airline and the $180,000 should be more than enough to cover the expense of keeping the men in prison.

Ancient Egypt

The first recored use of mercenaries dates back to Ancient Egypt, 1500 BC, when Pharaoh Razmez II used 10,000 mercenaries during his battles.

Mercenaries in European history

Mercenaries in the classic era

Many Greek mercenaries fought for the Persian empire during the early classic era. For example:

  • In Anabasis, Xenophon recounts how Cyrus the Younger hired a large army of Greek mercenaries (the "Ten Thousand") in 401 BC to seize the throne of Persia from his brother, Artaxerxes II. Though Cyrus' army was victorious at the Battle of Cunaxa, Cyrus himself was killed in battle and the expedition rendered moot. Stranded deep in enemy territory, the Spartan general Clearchus and most of the other Greek generals were subsequently killed by treachery. Xenophon played an instrumental role in encouraging "The Ten Thousand" Greek army to march north to the Black Sea in an epic fighting retreat.
  • Members of independent Thracian tribes such as the Bessi and Dii often joined the ranks of large organized armies as mercenaries.

In the late Roman Empire, it became increasingly difficult for Emperors and generals to raise military units from the citizenry for various reasons: lack of manpower, lack of time available for training, lack of materials, and, inevitably, political considerations. Therefore, beginning in the late 4th century, the empire often contracted whole bands of barbarians either within the legions or as autonomous foederati. The barbarians were Romanized and surviving veterans were established in areas requiring population. The Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Empire otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire is the best known formation made up of barbarian mercenaries. (see next section)

Mercenaries in medieval warfare

Byzantine Emperors followed the Roman practise and contracted foreigners especially for their personal corps guard called the Varangian Guard. They were chosen among war-prone peoples, of whom the Varangians (Vikings) and Anglo-Saxons were preferred. Their mission was to protect the Emperor and Empire and since they did not have links to the Greeks, they were expected to be ready to suppress rebellions. One of the most famous guards was the future king Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada ("Hardreign") who arrived in Constantinople in 1035, was employed as a Varangian Guard. He participated in eighteen battles and became Akolythos, the commander, of the Guard before returning home in 1043. He was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when his army was defeated by an English army commanded by King Harold Godwinson.

In Italy, the condottiero was a military chief offering his troops, the condottieri, to city-states.

During the ages of the Taifa kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, Christian knights like the Cid could fight for some Muslim ruler against his Christian or Muslim enemies.

The Almogavares fought for Catalonia and Aragon but in their expedition to Orient, they followed Roger de Flor in the service of the Byzantine Empire.

During the later middle ages, Free Companies (or Free Lances) were formed, consisting of companies of mercenary troops. Nation-states lacked the funds needed to maintain standing forces, so they tended to hire free companies to serve in their armies during wartime. Such companies typically formed at the ends of periods of conflict, when men-at-arms were no longer needed by their respective governments. The veteran soldiers thus looked for other forms of employment, often becoming mercenaries. Free Companies would often specialize in forms of combat that required longer periods of training that was not available in the from of a mobilized militia. The White CompanyTemplate:Ref commnded by Sir John Hawkwood is the best known English Free Company of the 14th Century.

See also: Bertrand Duguesclin, Scottish clan.

Mercenaries in the modern age

Swiss mercenaries were sought after during the latter half of the 15th century as being an effective fighting force, until their somewhat rigid battle formations became vulnerable to arquebuses and artillery being developed at about that period. See Swiss Guard.

It was then that the European landsknechts, colorful mercenaries with a redoubtable reputation, took over the Swiss forces' legacy and became the most formidable force of the late 15th and throughout the 16th century, being hired by all the powers in Europe and often fighting at opposite sides.

St Thomas More in his Utopia advocated the use of mercenaries in preference to citizens. The barbarian mercenaries employed by the Utopians are thought to be inspired by the Swiss mercenaries.

At approximately the same period, Niccol Machiavelli argued against the use of mercenary armies in his masterpiece The Prince. His rationale was that since the sole motivation of mercenaries is their pay, they will not be inclined to take the kind of risks that can turn the tide of a battle, but may cost them their lives. He believed, logically, that citizens with a real attachement to their home country will be more motivated to defend it and thus make much better soldiers.

Mercenaries in popular culture

Like piracy, the mercenary ethos resonates with idealized adventure, mystery and danger. Examples of this are:

  • The novel Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth and the movie (1981) with the same name, which go into some detail about an actual if fictionalized mercenary operation in Africa in the 1960s.
  • The novel The Wild Geese by Daniel Carney and the movie (1978) with the same name. The plot is that a global British financial syndicate seeks to rescue the deposed leader of a central African nation. It hires a band of mercenaries to do the job.

It is interesting to note that the both titles are derived from other sources. Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war; is from Julius Caesar (III.i), a play by Shakespeare. After the signing of the Treaty of Limerick (1691) the soldiers of the Irish Army who left Ireland for France took part in what is known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. Subsequently many made a living from working as mercenaries for continental armies. The most famous of whom was Patrick Sarsfield, who having falling mortally wounded on a foreign field said "If this was only for Ireland".

In science fiction, the well-known author Jerry Pournelle has written several books about science-fiction mercenaries known as Falkenberg's Legion. Also, author David Drake has written a number of books about the fictional hovercraft armored regiment Hammer's Slammers. Both series of books are brutal in their portrayal of complex low-intensity warfare despite technological advances. Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai!, part of his Childe Cycle, includes the planet Dorsai with a society structured like that of Switzerland. Like the old style swiss mercenaries who hired themseves out to the Italian states, Dorsai hire themselves out to other planets. The webcomic Schlock Mercenary follows the galactic adventures of a 31st-century mercenary company.

A magazine ostensibly written for mercenary soldiers is Soldier of Fortune.

The computer game series Jagged Alliance focuses on a team of mercenaries attempting to conquer small fictional third-world countries. In 2005, LucasArts released a game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox titled Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, where the player controls one of three mercenaries in North Korea, and is able to accept mercenary contracts from the Allies, South Korea, China, and the Russian Mafia.

The song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner by Warren Zevon involves the exploits of a Norwegian mercenary in the Congo.

In the film Casablanca, Rick Blaine is a former mercenary, although it is hinted that he chose sides on an ideological basis, rather than based on who would pay him the most.

See also The Magnificent Seven, ronin, yojimbo, Battletech.


  1. Template:Note Gurkha terms and conditions of service (
  2. Template:Note Project Gutenberg e-text of The White Company ( by Arthur Conan Doyle

External links

de:Sldner fr:Mercenaire he:שכיר חרב id:Tentara bayaran ja:傭兵 sl:Najemnik sv:Legosoldat


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