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The Mercenary Debate

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May - June 2009
American Interest


Mercenaries get a bad rap. The very word has become so anathematized that it is no longer used by those it describes, practitioners of one of the world's oldest professions. Nowadays they prefer to be called "security contractors" and their employers prefer to be known as private military or security companies. This is an understandable if not entirely logical consequence of the state monopolization of warfare, which began in the late 18th century when governments became strong enough to conscript their own citizens to fight rather than rely on hired "free lances." The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars seemed to confirm that citizen armies were superior to the traditional mix of aristocrats and mercenaries employed by the ancien régimes, and before long almost everyone was emulating the French example. Along the way there arose the widespread belief that the use of citizen-soldiers was superior not only practically but also morally; there was something distasteful, even unethical, about hiring a professional soldier, often a foreigner, to fight on one's behalf. Much better, leaders assumed, to force their own civilians to fight upon pain of punishment. This mindset has now become so deeply entrenched that it is easy to ignore the long and distinguished history of mercenaries, and their legitimate uses down to the present day.

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