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The Rise of Private Military Companies: A Lucrative Business for War

In light of the war in Ukraine, the conflict continues to show a rise of mercenaries in global conflict. The Wagner group, a Russian-state sponsored private military company (PMC), has been heavily involved in fighting since the separatist rebellion in 2014. Furthermore, the group operates in the Middle East and Africa to secure Russia’s interests along with protection for state companies. Similar practices are also common in Western nations, with the US widely utilising mercenaries over its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article will explain the history of mercenaries, their current practice and its implication, giving insight into the future of war. 


The history of mercenaries


Being a sellsword has been one of the oldest occupations in history. A Mercenary is defined as a soldier serving under no banner, fighting in wars on behalf of its highest bidder. Since wars were frequent, kingdoms could not sustain the casualties and economic loss. Therefore, such duty was outsourced to mercenaries. 


The historic practice only came to an end after the Thirty-years War, the sheer destruction and casualties shocked European nations and prompted corporations under the Westphalian Peace. This period marked agreements between states over sovereignty, territorial integrity, and setting out rules for international politics. As a result, war became state-vs-state only, commonly referred to as conventional warfare. Conscription became the main source of manpower for militaries, instead of paying for men. Moreover, the Napoleonic era further entrenched the idea of a nation’s army. The aftermath of the French revolution sparked a wave of nationalism across Europe. People became more willing to fight, connecting military services to patriotism. Through warfare across continental Europe, states adopted the concept of a state-run army instead of a sponsored one. It continued to the First and Second World Wars.


However, mercenaries returned during the Cold War. With the idea of self-determination, colonial nations seek independence. Under the ideological tension between communism and capitalism, superpowers tried to interfere with local disputes in order to protect their global status. As a result, proxy wars sponsored by foreign states dominated warfares from the mid to late twentieth century. Western advisors and veterans closely supported local civil wars, some even took part in conflicts, such as the war in Rhodesia, in modern-day Zimbabwe.  


Mercenaries in the twenty-first century


The revival of mercenaries well suited the market of war in recent decades. Following the 911 terrorist attack, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Mercenaries now gather collectively under PMCs, and companies act as liaisons to the government. They participated in the latter occupation, receiving funding from the US department of defence to act as local security forces. In later years, the number of contractors was more than double of the officials in the US army. America’s interference in the Middle East also saw strong anti-western sentiments among locals. In response, PMCs took part to provide security for westerners, also businesses in the region. Today, US dominance in the region still heavily relies on the presence of PMCs.


As for other countries, PMCs are also increasingly established as their global security forces. Russia developed the Wagner group, a de facto private army, used to reinforce its allies' regimes, ranging from Africa to Central Asia. China also employed contractors to protect its foreign investments under the Belt and Road Initiative. The market of PMCs is slowly opening to other nations.


Reasons for hiring mercenaries


For states, raising an army is expensive and losses are controversial. Raising a soldier includes years of investment in training, income, potential casualty reparation, social pension, retirement benefits and more. For countries with a large army, it would be extremely costly for a state to operate. By using a private company, states circumvent additional costs. Also, military casualties would generate bad press for its government, though deaths in PMCs are often overlooked and not reported by the media. It became the cheapest way for the state to project foreign interest, whilst discreetly. 


As for mercenaries, joining a private military company provides a better life and prospect. Mostly, employees of a PMC are veterans, with first-hand experience on the battlefield. Though, state support and funds for veterans often fail to support the lives of soldiers after duty. But for PMCs, the demand for manpower is always high as conflicts break out across the globe. To quickly support its operation, companies offer high salaries and benefits compared to government services. For veterans, it would mean doing a similar job but with better pay. Therefore, from lower rank infantry to special forces, the war market has enough opportunities to benefit veterans.


Operating in the grey zone


Despite the mentioned benefits of hiring PMCs, the most appealing benefit is the legal boundary for mercenaries. The Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties, define the boundary for soldiers to operate. In effect, scrutinise an army's behaviour throughout a war. However, since PMCs are not state-owned companies but privately owned, it falls out of the legal boundary for warfare. Their actions could violate the established laws, yet face no legal consequences. Albeit the close tie between the state and such companies, it does not face restrictions over international laws. The blackwater scandal reflected the above flaw, their crimes include the random killing of civilians and torturing, yet, only a few faced trials.


Moreover, countries often deny their involvement with PMCs. Sometimes situations in warfare may require extreme methods and heavy tolls on civilians, which states could face heavy punishment and condemnation if committed. Therefore, to bypass the consequences, PMCs were hired for such operations. If a disastrous, illegal action was publicised, states could easily deny their involvement. Hence, operates effectively as a state’s external instrument in grey areas of international laws.


Future of mercenaries


The popularisation of mercenaries has become a prevailing trend in international politics. Indeed, waging war and the prospect of risking domestic troops has become more difficult in democratic countries. Though, the number of conflicts has continued to increase amidst global instability. PMCs will become the replacement for foreign interventions for states. Furthermore, businesses have begun to hire mercenaries for protection, mostly their foreign assets and employees. Under the trend of globalisation, PMCs as security details would only increase. 


Nonetheless, with the growing use of mercenaries, the international community should pay more attention to the legal boundary for PMCs. Operating with no scrutiny could threaten the human rights of civilians and locals. The trend might be inevitable, but for humanitarian reasons, keeping PMCs in check should be the crucial objective.

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