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Mercenaries — men (and women) who kill for cash. Those who impose force motivated neither by freedom, nor democracy, but by lust for mammon. It sounds terrible doesn’t it? Those evil bastards.
But are we looking at mercenaries the right way? Do mercenary armies have hidden strengths that could be used to permanently reduce the amount of armed conflict in the world? Maybe.
First we need to tackle the issue of why we don’t like mercenaries. We don’t like mercenaries because we don’t like the thought of people making war for profit. We don’t like the idea of people risking their lives and killing for profit.
However, is this any different from the traditional national standing army? Yes, fighting to defend freedom and democracy and your family is a motivation for most in the armed forces, but it’s not the only motive — after all, if that was all you were after, you could join the TA.
People join the army because it’s a good job. If you join after completing a degree program in the UK, they’ll pay off your student loan and pack you off to officer training school. You get to see the world, get discounts on everything, and get a free house. Plus there’s excellent promotion prospects.
Just like miners, oil-rig workers, trawlermen, loggers and everyone else in dangerous professions; members of the armed forces weigh a small chance of death or being asked to do something unpleasant against the benefits (of which fighting for democracy is a slightly less tangible one).
So mercenaries are not much different from members of national armed forces, just a little more honest in their motivations. To understand their importance for national defence, we need to understand why we have a standing army.
In Switzerland, there isn’t much of a standing army. However, all adult citizens are conscripted into some form of national service. Members of the national militia must keep a rifle in their home, and prove that they can use it once a year. Neat idea, but suppose that you had a really good job, and with the money you don’t earn, taking time off every year for national service, you could easily cover the cost of a single soldier to perform your national service for you. Chances are he’s going to be a much better soldier than you are, too.
Even if he’s not better and you are both a better banker and a better soldier than he, Comparative Advantage tells us that it is most efficient for you to do what you do best (banking) and pay him to do the other thing (soldiering).
Right, so, we’ve got our standing army of nationalistic fervent youths, clutching their SA80s in their sweaty hands and bellowing the national anthem. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s inefficient.
The economic equivalent of Moore’s Law states that if something is done using public money it will cost between two and three times as much, and take two to three times as long, as if it is done by a private company. Usually this is applied to healthcare, transport and other oft-nationalised industries.
Why not apply it to the armed forces as well? A for-profit company would — at least — provide the same level of service for the same price as the army, and would likely provide more for less.
“But!” I hear you cry, “If they’re for-profit, then couldn’t they just be bought by an attacking army?”
Well, firstly I envisage not one single monolithic company, but many small contractors. Probably just groups of five well trained and armed men, but certainly no bigger than a battalion. Other companies would specialise in the tactical deployment of contractors. Other companies would specialise in contracting tactical companies to achieve strategic goals. To bribe or buy all of these without any of the others catching wind of it is a logistical nightmare.
Secondly, in the international marketplace, and especially in this case where the contracts are literally life or death matters, reputation is paramount. The payout would have to be enormous as once bribed, neither the company nor their employees would ever work in the industry again.
Thirdly, it is likely that the payouts would be so huge, it would be more costly than going to war in the “conventional” fashion.
So mercenary armies will be no worse than national ones. But would they be better? Yes. I’ll outline some of the advantages:
Size. Wars are won by quickly applying an overwhelming and massive force, destroying the enemy’s means and will to fight. Mercenaries not bound by national borders would be able to sell their services to many different countries, allowing each of those countries access to an army potentially far larger than they would be able to muster on their own.
Peace. Wars is hell. Most importantly, War is unprofitable. It is costly, bad for business, and has a very low rate of return. Whilst a national army can be ramped up into a nationalistic fervour by a belligerent leader, the cool-headed capitalists would never war over principles. If two mercenary armies came into conflict over a breach of international law by one country, it is more profitable for both of them to decide the victor through arbitration than through bloody conflict.
So, replacing standing National armies with Mercenary bands has great potential not only to save money, but to reduce armed conflict around the world. In the next episode I’ll talk about how any army (and a mercenary one in particular) can most efficiently prosecute war, and answer any questions posed in the comments.
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