Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975.
For many Americans, the 1975 photograph of a helicopter rescuing people from an apartment rooftop in Saigon symbolizes the failure of the Vietnam War. What most do not know is that the rescue also demonstrates the prominent yet shadowy role played by private military contractors (PMCs) in American history. The helicopter was operated by Air America, then owned by the Central Intelligence Agency but first established as a private company, Civil Air Transport (CAT). Air America and CAT had a long and secretive role in the service of the U. S. military in Southeast Asia.
Terms such as mercenary and soldier of fortune have been replaced by PMC as the description preferred by those in the military services industry. Mercenary and soldier of fortune, in the narrowest terms, describe an individual who sells his or her military skills to a foreign nation and does not serve as a member of a designated government force. But both words, especially mercenary, are often used loosely and can apply to those who fight for other nations in support of a cause, sometimes as part of a government force, as well as those who seek adventure or status or even citizenship in the host nation. Profit is not always the primary motive for mercenary service. As the Air America example demonstrates, PMCs who serve their own nation can be categorized as mercenaries. The narrow definition of mercenary typically refers to combat duty and does not include the vast array of support and training services, the activities performed by many present-day PMCs. Closely related to mercenaries are filibusters, American military adventurers (most common in the 19th century) with no connection to any government entity who serve in private expeditions against nations not at war with the United States and, therefore, violate U. S. law.
PMC service to the United States is as old as the nation itself-in fact, a bit older. The Declaration of Independence may have accused King George III of “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete works of death, desolation, and cruelty” in the colonies, which he did by employing Hessians and other Germans, but the Continental Army also used mercenaries, although to a far lesser extent. The Marquis de Lafayette, whose early involvement with the Continental Army qualifies as mercenary duty, is certainly the best known of the Europeans who served the cause of independence. But others made notable contributions, for example, Swiss officer Friedrich von Steuben played a prominent role in training American units; two Poles, Kazimierz Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, chief engineer of West Point; the German Johann Kalb and the Irish-born Thomas Conway. In addition to the nation’s use of PMCs, some of its early war heroes served under other flags, including John Paul Jones who served in Russia and David Porter who served in Mexico.
The naval version of the mercenary, the privateer, contributed to the Revolutionary War effort at sea against the formidable British Navy. After independence, the fledgling nation also used PMCs to help compensate for America’s inadequate naval forces. The 1787 Constitution authorized Congress to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” thus officially sanctioning privateering. The United States used privateers to great effect against the British during the War of 1812.
The young nation also employed land-force mercenaries during its early years. In 1804, a former American consul to Tunis, William Eaton, concocted a scheme to overthrow the pasha of Tripoli, then at war with the United States. Eaton’s plan was approved by the president and secretary of state. With the help of a few hundred mercenaries, mostly Muslims, Eaton nearly achieved his goal in early 1805 before learning that the United States had come to terms with Tripoli.
Despite the U. S. Neutrality Act of 1818 and other laws and treaties that prohibited citizens from participating in military expeditions formed in the United States and directed against nations with which the United States was at peace, thousands of Americans served in private units that invaded or intended to invade Canada, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Filibuster William Walker, perhaps the most notorious of all, actually controlled Nicaragua for a short time in the 1850s. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American soldiers of fortune in Central America, known as “Banana Men,” worked directly for private concerns and indirectly for the U. S. government. (As recently as the 1980s, American mercenaries working for the Central Intelligence Agency were active in Nicaragua.)
Frederick Townsend Ward of Massachusetts, arguably the most successful American soldier of fortune of the 19th century, began his mercenary duties as a filibuster in Nicaragua, then served with the French during the Crimean War, but achieved lasting fame as the leader and organizer of a Chinese mercenary force, later known as the Ever- Victorious Army, sanctioned by the Ch’ing dynasty and charged with defeating a massive and violent revolt known as the Taiping Rebellion.
For some Americans, the Civil War provided the requisite training for future mercenary work abroad. During the 1870s and 1880s, 50 Americans, mostly veterans of the Civil War, and including a few West Point graduates, accepted commissions in the Egyptian Army with the sole caveat being that they would not take up arms against the United States. The Civil War also provided mercenary opportunities for other nationalities in the wake of the various wars of revolution in Europe. Foreigners served as mercenaries with both the Union and Confederate armies, though the former attracted greater numbers. Many served as staff officers and a few reached the rank of general. Their motives varied. Some fought for the cause of liberty (at least those who joined the Union Army) and others to sharpen or maintain their skills, sometimes with the intent of gaining promotion in their native lands.
The mercenary tradition continued during the 20th century as American PMCs served around the globe, both as individuals and in units. American citizens fought on both sides of the Cuban Revolution, against insurgencies in the 1960s and 1970s, and in defense of Israel. Americans, largely motivated by cause and adventure, not profit, also served under foreign supervision in units consisting largely of American citizens on at least four occasions during the 20th century: the World War I flyers of France’s Lafayette Escadrille named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette; the Kosciuszko Squadron in 1920 (Poland) named after the Polish soldier of fortune who fought with the Continental Army; the Washington and Lincoln brigades of the Spanish Civil War (Spain); and Chennault’s Flying Tigers during World War II (China).
During the early years of the Cold War, the United States trained German and Eastern European volunteers, many hailing from postwar labor service units and including former Waffen SS members, for counterinsurgency in the event of an attack by the U. S. S. R. on Western Europe. In addition, approximately 5,000 volunteers originally from the Soviet Union and occupied territories trained as a rapid deployment force for incursions into Soviet territory after a nuclear engagement. In 1950, Congress passed the Lodge Act, thus permitting “alien nationals residing outside the United States” to enlist in the Army. Dubbed the “Volunteer Freedom Corps,” a combination of a jobs program for refugees and a Cold War foreign legion, the effort gained impetus under President Eisenhower’s New Look strategy of the 1950s, which emphasized “burden sharing”; however, it failed to garner the requisite support in Western Europe and was eventually canceled in 1960. Some Lodge Act recruits, or “Iron Curtain nationals,” trained in guerrilla warfare and formed the nucleus of the original Special Forces, or Green Berets, in the early 1950s. After World War II, the U. S. government also used contract soldiers, Americans and other nationalities, to perform hazardous duty in locales considered too politically risky or controversial for government forces (Congo, Cuba, Angola, Laos, Colombia) or in cases where American military forces required special local knowledge (Vietnam).
Generally, mercenary operations throughout history have benefited from the surfeit of warrior labor that remains after extended periods of conflict: the European wars of revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. After Vietnam, many expected large numbers of American veterans to participate in mercenary campaigns in Africa and elsewhere. One former Green Beret, so confident of this result, founded Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1975 to advertise mercenary employment. A few opportunists even started mercenary training schools in the United States. The expectations were never realized, for two primary reasons. First, beginning in the 1960s, the U. S. government let it be known that any American citizen who joined a foreign mercenary unit would forfeit his or her citizenship. Second, when compared with the military personnel of traditional colonial powers (Great Britain, France, Belgium), Americans generally have had little experience with extended pacification and occupation duties abroad.
Although American soldiers of fortune played but minimal roles in the Third World mercenary campaigns of the 1970s, the decade did see the emergence of another phenomenon that would change the face of the military services industry- what one scholar is now calling “the new business face of warfare.” Beginning in the 1970s and aided by the post-Cold War reduction of government forces, a new corporate model of PMC has emerged. These firms provide a host of services: logistics support and intelligence, training and planning, and actual combat operations. Many of these firms are or have been based in Great Britain and South Africa; however, several U. S. corporations also compete in the private military services sector. Some U. S. firms, including Dyncorp, Vinnell Corporation, and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), started as more traditional defense contractors (providing hardware and technical support) during the Cold War but have expanded their operations to include PMC duties. Others, such as Military Professional Resources, Inc., founded in 1989, sought to take advantage of the trend in military “outsourcing” at the end of the Cold War. Firms such as Brown and Root Services expanded logistical support operations from the civilian realm to the military. Blackwater, Inc., founded in 1998 by former U. S. Navy Seals, claims to have prepared thousands of “security personnel” for various duties around the world in addition to training police and military units. To date, no U. S. firm is known to have been directly involved in combat operations.
The U. S. government has shown little interest in encouraging the growth of combat-ready PMCs but has supported the expansion of other sectors of the military services industry. American use of PMCs, by some estimates, has increased tenfold since the Gulf War in 1991. Largely driven by the urge to “outsource,” the U. S. Department of Defense signed more than 3,000 contracts between 1994 and 2002 with a value surpassing $300 billion, far exceeding the previous decade. PMCs are now involved in activities considered essential for the U. S. military: maintaining bases, conducting Army aviation training, and providing services for the F-117 stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber, as well as the U-2 reconnaissance plane, and many naval vessels.
The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq has generated even greater interest in and controversy about the role of PMCs. Serious questions remain about the legal ramifications of PMC use by the U. S. government, the quality of training and the compatibility of such training with that of regular forces, the potential “brain-drain” from traditional government forces, accountability, and cost effectiveness.
Bibliography Adams, Thomas K. “The New Mercenaries and the Privatization of Conflict.” Parameters (Summer 1999): 103-116. Carafano, James Jay. “Mobilizing Europe’s Stateless: America’s Plan for a Cold War Army.” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 61-85. Carr, Caleb. The Devil Soldier: The Story of Frederick Townsend Ward. New York: Random House, 1992. Crabites, Pierre. Americans in the Egyptian Army. London: Routledge, 1938. Langley, Lester D., and Thomas Schoonover. The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880-1930. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Leary, William M. “Supporting the `Secret War’: CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974.” <http://www. cia. gov/csi/studies/winter99-00 (July 3, 2005). Lonn, Ella. Foreigners in the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940. —. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951. Mallin, Jay, and Robert K. Brown. Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune. New York: Macmillan, 1979. May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Further Reading Davis, James R. Fortune’s Warriors: Private Armies and the New World Order. Toronto: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2000. Mockler, Anthony. The New Mercenaries. New York: Paragon House, 1985. Singer, P. W. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.