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Thursday, February 3, 2011

PMCs, SOFs and Mercs, Oh My!

The word for the day is "mercenary." If you can't get past the negative connotations of that word, please substitute "soldier of fortune" (SOF) or  "Private Military Contractor" (PMC).

Over on Post-Modern Pulps, Jack Badelaire has a thoughtful, intelligent post about the Expendables and another flick I haven't seen (Machete). The Expendables is a throwback action flick in which macho mercenaries happen to be the heroes of the story.

At Reflexive Fire, the other Jack reviewed Eeben Barlow's book about Executive Outcomes, the mercenary organization he founded. A good read by itself that made me want to read the book, it also has blog comments from Barlow himself, as well as Wayne Bissett, who wrote Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief, about his time as a merc in the early days of EO, in Angola. While I don't agree with his anti-Christian sentiments, Part 1 of Chronicles is an informative and entertaining read.

While doing the research for my novel, Hell & Gone, I studied up on 20th Century mercenaries. I unearthed paramilitary magazines from the '80s, books from the library, documentaries for the History Channel, and, of course, web pages and sites devoted to the topic. This is when I learned about Executive Outcomes--an amazingly successful paramilitary force which became a victim of politics because of their success. Their track record was even more impressive than Five Commando and the Rhodesian merc units (which themselves were far more effective than any other mercenary operations in Africa up until EO).

I explored the subject because, as I envisioned the story, the CIA's SOG teams would be busy operating in preparation for Gulf War II, and mercs would need to be used as a means of providing some "plausible deniability" of US State Department involvement in the mission. Initially I had most of Rocco's Retreads recruited through Military Personnel Resources, Incorporated, but later replaced them with a fictional PMC organization to avoid offending anyone in MPRI. Like 95% of real-life mercs, most of my characters are veterans of national armed forces who found out they are good at war, and/or like it on some disturbing primordial level.

As it turns out, I hardly used even a quarter of the research I did. Yet the topic still interests me. One day I'd like to write a novel set during the conflict in the Congo during and after the Belgian pull-out. And, of course, there's the possibility of a Hell & Gone sequel that keeps coming up, even though I never imagined one when writing the book.

Mercs have a bad name in the public perception--with good reason in some cases. With some of them it's really as simple as killing for money. But there have been some idealistic mercs, "good guy" mercs, and others who just happen to be good soldiers with no army to serve in (or allowed to serve in anymore, as happened to some SADF veterans, for instance).

During part of my training WAAAAAAAAAY back in the day, me and a whole company full of other snot-nosed kids just out of high school sat through a phony briefing by a fake Soviet officer, meant to motivate us I suppose. Anyway, this guy asked how many of us had received an enlistment bonus. To everyone who raised their hand he said, "You are nothing more than mercenaries."

The truth hurts, even when uttered by a fake Russian soldier. The majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines sign on the dotted line because they want job training or college money. (As someone who joined out of patriotism primarily, I was a supreme oddball.) When it comes down to it, most of them will do whatever they're told to keep out of trouble and get that money and job training, even when it violates the Constitution they swear to defend or when they just know, deep down, that it's wrong. How is that any better than what a soldier of fortune does?


  1. Some good thoughts to mull over, especially in this day and age, where PMCs are being asked to take more and more of a hand in conflicts around the world. Out-sourcing isn't just for tech support and computer programming anymore!

    I think it comes down to money, but not "just money". If I go into the Army at the age of 18 and stay for 4 years, I might be getting out at 22 as a Corporal or a high-ranking Tech Specialist with some good training, perhaps airborne, maybe Ranger training or some other specialized training like Comms, demo, etc..

    After leaving the army, I could then going to work for a PMC firm doing the same thing for the US military but being paid many times more, without a lot of the spit-and-polish I used to hate, and if for some reason I felt I needed to leave, no one is going to court-martial me for breaking my contract.

    I know not all PMC outfits are the same (Read "Big Boy Rules" for a somewhat scary look at PMCs in Iraq), but I can see the appeal, and at the same time, many of these companies aren't the "Dogs of War" style merc outfits sent into Africa to "restore order" or any such horrors.

    Either way, its an interesting time to be a private contractor.

  2. Good point. I absolutely loathed all the spit-and-polish cheese-eating garbage. Take away that and the prison mentality, give me better pay, weapons, gear, and a cause I still believe in and I'd be tempted to follow a merc career.

    Trouble is, from what I know (despite all the jingoistic rationale), the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan don't look like causes I believe in.

  3. PMC's are here to stay but from talking to folks on the inside, I have little personal interest in them. The money is good but you are basically a glorified mall cop with tattoos and bravado. I would rather stay in the Army where the odds of seeing some real action are much better.

  4. Yes, there is that. I interviewed a real-life merc who said basically you're a rent-a-cop,guarding microwave towers in Dingdongistan or Gooberia. Because of Executive Outcomes, however, it's tempting to imagine it's all an Expendables-type adventure.

  5. EO is really the archetype for a real deal effective PMC that engages in combat operations against bad guys. They smashed the status quo by acting in contradiction of the misguided aims of the CIA and SA Intelligence, particularly in fighting UNITA in Angola. The Agency wanted EO out and MRPI in. As near as I can tell all US based PMC's are pretty much fronts for the CIA, or work for it in some form or another. None of them strike me as being "Private" Military Companies.

  6. Since you've been researching the subject, I'd be interested in your theories in why EO was so exceptional. My own hypothesis is that operational autonomy, combined with a command-level EO access to the friendly high command, played a big part. And despite the grabasstic gaggle in Angola described in Horse Thief, I'm guessing they resembled a professional specops force by the time of the mission in Sierra Leone. But that's me speculating.

    Obviously, they did something different than other mercs in Africa, and it would be interesting to isolate what it was.

  7. Interesting question for sure. You might want to ask Eeben Barlow himself but I will throw my opinion out there.

    1. Eeben Barlow's professional background in intelligence gathering. He already had established a network of intelligence assets all over the world from his days with CCB, these proved to be of critical importance years later during the EO years from what I gather from Barlow's book.

    2. EO recruited from a pool of strong candidates. The bush wars created some tough soldiers, many of them, frankly out of work and needing the money. EO was probably the go to place for professional soldiers looking for work.

    3. Lack of meddling from the top down. Operators had the mission flexibility to get the job done. The free market system ensured that EO operated efficiently in most respects. Lack of politics allowed soldiers to soldier. Barlow send his men after the alluvial diamond mines right off the bat to deny the enemy access to further funds which would have drawn the conflict out even longer.

    This is my snapshot thumbnail sketch of why EO was successful. I will try to think up some other reasons, but disciple had to be present on some level as well or the whole thing would have broken down.

  8. That makes a lot of sense. I really need to read his book.

    Even in national military forces, intel makes or breaks a mission. The documented mission failures by both SF and the Rangers all had faulty intel, it seems. So Barlow's savvy in that department, plus making intel gathering organic to EO, certainly must have given him/them an edge.

    Your point #3 above couldn't be more right, IMO. A perfect example of this is WWII's Eastern Front. More than the Russian winter or the tremendous numerical advantage of the Soviets, Hitler's micro-managing is what defeated the Wermacht. The smashing victories in Poland and France had, by then, convinced him he was an invincible genius and he wouldn't afford his commanders the initiative they needed.

    Securing the diamond mines was sound strategic thinking on Barlow's part. It seems so simple, yet so many commanders fail to see the big picture like that, or are hindered from executing.

  9. Barlow also seems to have had an impressive business sense for someone who jumped into the private sector from covert operations. He tells the story about how his non-existent unit met at the side of dusty road to be told that none of them would be paid their pensions. This is course was what led to him starting the company.

    Also, just to note, my above opinions are just that. Nothing empirical about them.

  10. Mercenaries in Angola


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