Encouraged by their impunity from any judicial distinction, mercenary groups have set themselves up as the real warlords

Mercenaries: the bloodthirsty side of the war

PHOTO/REUTERS - Miembros del Grupo Wagner en 2014
photo_camera PHOTO/REUTERS - Members of the Wagner Group in 2014

Psychological victory is always one of the objectives of those who lead wars, and sending mercenary groups to the battlefield is one of the methods currently being used. 

Making families see that the crudest tasks of the war are carried out by these paramilitary groups is a triumph that, despite not having a significant weight in the conflict, provides stability and peace of mind for the people. The coffins brought from Vietnam to the United States bear witness to this.

AFP/SERGEY BOBOK - Militares del Batallón Azov de Ucrania asisten a un ejercicio táctico en la segunda ciudad más grande de Ucrania, Jarkov, el 11 de marzo de 2022, tras la invasión rusa de Ucrania
AFP/SERGEY BOBOK - Ukrainian Azov Battalion servicemen attend a tactical exercise in Ukraine's second largest city of Kharkiv March 11, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine

At the same time, states claim that doing so allows them to operate outside of international law so they can avoid prosecution because there is no legislation, or outsourcing is in itself because war crimes are always carried out by such corporations. Although the use of mercenary groups is often attributed to "failed" states, the reality is different. An example of this is the United States, which, with the largest army in the world and the highest military spending, relies on the support of mercenary groups for its internal security and for specific missions around the world.

In particular, mercenaries have been used for several decades under the terms of the Private Military Company (PMC) contract, although their birth dates back to pre-Roman times. To the discussion of how the state is becoming a less desirable target for conflict, there has been a propensity to contrast the use of modern mercenaries. It is in this sense that understanding the scope of social conflict in all its forms, including class conflict, is central to the internal clashes that nations experience when they go to war.

Having said that, the use of companies in the private military and security sector can have its drawbacks. Because of the potential risks associated with this proliferation, the international community, as well as the various nations in which these companies are registered or from which contractors are employed, have created a number of legislative documents governing their use. In addition to the contracting entity and even the state where the PMC has its operational headquarters, the contractor is now jointly and severally liable for these violations. 

AFP/BAKR ALKASEM - Combatientes sirios apoyados por Turquía en la ciudad de Saraqib, en la parte oriental de la provincia de Idlib, en el noroeste de Siria, el 27 de febrero de 2020
AFP/BAKR ALKASEM - Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in the town of Saraqib, in the eastern part of Idlib province, northwestern Syria, 27 February 2020

Origin of mercenary groups

Historically, any "professional soldier employed to fight in a foreign army" has been called a "mercenary". Until the early 19th century, when national armies composed mainly of people drawn from the population of each state took control of the battlefield, their dominance was decisive. The debate over the legitimacy of the word "mercenary", which has a troubling connotation, continues as it is embellished with new trade names in exchange for allegedly military or security services.

PHOTO/AP - Fotografía de archivo, el empresario Yevgeny Prigozhin, a la izquierda, muestra al presidente de Rusia, Vladimir Putin, su instalación que produce comidas escolares en las afueras de San Petersburgo, Rusia
PHOTO/AP - File photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin his facility producing school meals on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia

History is always difficult to depict and interpret, but if there is one civilisation that has always been the fulcrum, it was the Egyptians. In a study revealed by Jordi Vidal, in his essay "Mercenaries in the Paleobabylonian Armies", the first mercenary groups were identified more than 3,200 years ago, in the battle of Qadesh, under Ramses II, who will remain in the history books as the first leader to use a mercenary group.

If there is one mercenary that history has made famous, it is Xenophon. Born in Athens in the second part of the 5th century BC, he was a military member, historian and philosopher, in whose work he left us the first great work on what war is like and what it means to those who are not afraid of it. His chronicle of the retreat of the Ten Thousand was of such calibre at the time that Charlemagne himself gave an account of it.

PHOTO/ARCHIVO - Miembros armados iraníes del grupo mercenario División Fatemiyoun
PHOTO/ARCHIVO - Iranian armed members of the mercenary group Fatemiyoun Division

To collect you must receive

Both ancients and moderns have sold their services to whoever needed them at the time. It is true that their occupation was mainly motivated by economic factors, no doubt a strong incentive, but no one risks his life in distant wars just for cash and booty. Nonetheless Xenophon explained that the trade "was vocational from leader to subordinate, that the motive that drove them was their warmongering".

Although they first emerged after World War II, military and security companies have a long history and are connected to mercenary gangs who are paid to carry out military operations such as assassinations, banditry, protection of convoys and important figures, and, last but not least, participation in wars. 

PHOTO/WIKIPEDIA/Fuerza Aérea de EE. UU. por el Sargento Primero, Michael E. Best, vía Wikimedia Commons - Un helicóptero MD-530F de Blackwater Security Company ayuda a proteger el sitio de la explosión de un coche bomba en Bagdad, Irak el 4 de diciembre de 2004, durante la Operación LIBERTAD IRAQUÍ
PHOTO/WIKIPEDIA/Fuerza Aérea de EE. UU. por el Sargento Primero, Michael E. Best, vía Wikimedia Commons - A Blackwater Security Company MD-530F helicopter helps protect the site of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, Iraq on December 4, 2004, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM

Shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, security companies gained notoriety for their work protecting military and civilian targets and buildings in exchange for billions of dollars worth of contracts from the US government. Disregarding possible subcontractors, by the end of 2006 there were more than 100,000 military contractors of various nationalities working for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. The Eagles massacre in Baghdad in 2007, which was called a "gang killing" and resulted in the deaths of 17 civilians, and other atrocities that Blackwater (Mercenary Group) carried out against unarmed civilians did not damage the company's reputation.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, often hides his hand and throws the stone with the help of mercenaries. They were the group that occupied the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow would later annex, and dressed as "men in green" without insignia. As a result, it has used them to destabilise eastern Ukraine. After the Russian company Wagner defeated a regular army to seize the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, security companies once again took centre stage in world events. If we are heading in the right direction, this raises the question of what role these companies play in society, the privatisation of war, the reduction of the role of the military in international conflicts and the ramifications for human rights and legal accountability.

AFP/MAHMUD TURKIA - Combatientes leales al Gobierno libio internacionalmente reconocido del Acuerdo Nacional (GNA)
AFP/MAHMUD TURKIA - Fighters loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA)

International Protection

Because they do not comply with the strictures of international law and can be undermined if they are involved in unintentional war crimes or crimes against humanity, military and security companies are one of the main reasons why some nations and regular armies and armed forces turn to them. Off-duty professional officers often run military and security companies. These officers are very effective at completing their tasks, free from the bureaucratic restrictions that characterise regular armies, and can conduct business abroad.

PHOTO/WIKIPEDIA/ Staff Sgt. William Greeson, via Wikimedia Commons - Un oficial de la Policía Nacional Afgana se reúne con un agente especial de seguridad británico durante un encuentro de líderes clave entre infantes de marina estadounidenses del 1er Batallón del 5º Regimiento de Infantería de Marina y funcionarios del distrito de Nawa en el bazar del distrito de Nawa, provincia de Helmand, Afganistán, 22 de julio de 2009
PHOTO/WIKIPEDIA/ Staff Sgt. William Greeson, via Wikimedia Commons - An Afghan National Police officer meets with a British special security agent during a key leaders meeting between US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and Nawa district officials in Nawa district bazaar, Helmand province, Afghanistan, 22 July 2009

Security companies collaborate with governments and regular armies, as well as with armed groups and militias in the service of their countries' interests, which differentiates their work from that of traditional mercenaries. Because these actions go against the definitions of mercenarism contained in documents such as Protocol I of the Geneva Conference and the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, a standard-setting process was established at the end of the 20th century and remains in place today.

In order to censure any private organisation that violates the Declaration of Human Rights through its actions, special consideration was given during the development of these guidelines. However, one criticism levelled at security companies is that their employees work for the owner of the company rather than the government, are not subject to military law and are not classified. As a result, it can be challenging to maintain control over them and, in the absence of a clear legal prohibition, they appear to be more ferocious and violent in achieving their goals.

Members of these companies occasionally enjoy immunity in the nations they employ, giving them more license to violate human rights and use violence indiscriminately against civilians, as was the case in the town of Mora in Mali, where Wagner mercenaries, according to eyewitness accounts, killed between 200 and 600 men and boys. Without blaming the Russian military, such crimes could be prosecuted.

Even when the US Army bombed Wagner agents in Syria after attacking one of their positions there, killing dozens of them, Russia repulsed them; otherwise, it would have been forced to respond, which could have resulted in a direct military conflict with the US that could turn into a nuclear war.

REUTERS/CHINGIS KONDAROV - El jefe de la República de Chechenia, Ramzan Kadyrov, se dirige a los miembros del servicio mientras hace una declaración, dedicada a un conflicto militar en Ucrania, en Grozny, Rusia, el 25 de febrero de 2022
REUTERS/CHINGIS KONDAROV - Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov addresses service members as he makes a statement, dedicated to a military conflict in Ukraine, in Grozny, Russia, 25 February 2022

The rise of wars

Conflicts have resulted in a rise of asymmetric warfare, where the need for unconventional tactical approaches has encouraged the use of mercenaries and specialist expertise. Due to a crisis in its national-patriotic ethos, the modern military has been reduced to a technical faction. Its allegiance shifts to different nation states, non-governmental organisations, private companies, property with religious or sectarian connotations and tribal ideologies. Due to the erosion of this state's sovereignty by the phenomenon of globalisation, a network of support from other actors is necessary.

The increasing number of conflicts running simultaneously around the globe is a reality. At the same time, the assumption that nobody wants to be defeated is also a reality. This context is a sine qua non condition for the emergence of mercenary groups or PMCs. The mercenary is the result of the weakness of the state, of the need for defence that the state is unable to provide. According to Max Weber and Machiavelli, the state must take care of the defence of the common good, but when. The state employs mercenaries because it cannot complete the task for a variety of reasons in order to perform that function. The state can be the source of its own weakness.

AFP/PHOTO - El fundador del grupo mercenario Blackwater, Erik Prince
AFP/PHOTO - The founder of the Blackwater mercenary group, Erik Prince

With the help of former officers and military and technical experts, security companies are on the verge of becoming small armies that, compared to traditional armies, are more adaptable, quicker and more successful in winning battles. However, if the interests of a particular individual or lobby group conflict with those of the state, this could lead to security companies invading the state under pretext.

Private companies have not yet advanced to the point of having an integrated air and naval force, but these issues are changing as Wagner in Libya has drones and Pantsir air defence systems, and a helicopter gunship with Wagner elements on board was shot down in the middle of the Libyan desert in 2020. Because of this, despite their recent growth to over 300,000 companies worldwide of various sizes and functions, security companies are still viewed with much suspicion.

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