My latest novel Scorpius Rex is the tale of a squad of private military contractors locked in a battle for survival against giant prehistoric scorpions. One of my favorite characters is Hansie Beeker, an aging Afrikaner mercenary. He was inspired by an article about South African apartheid-era troops turned soldiers of fortune who, despite being well into their sixties, are still fighting around the globe. So, in his honor, I thought it would be fun to give a little background on history’s most testosterone-drenched occupation.
Mercenaries have existed since the dawn of organized warfare, and their exploits have been chronicled in Greek legends, medieval tapestries and Warren Zevon songs. Hell, Zevon’s mercenary was so bad assed he kept fighting without a head!
Let’s start in 401 BC, with one of history’s most legendary mercenary units—The Ten Thousand. After fighting the Battle of Cunaxa, ten thousand Greek mercenaries found themselves stranded inland, without food or an employer. Rather than surrender they chose to fight their way back to the Black Sea. Their heroic, bloody march was immortalized by a soldier named Xenophon in his Anabasis. Fun fact—their story was also the basis for the classic 1979 action film “The Warriors.”
The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is considered one of England’s greatest military victories, but historians tend to overlook the fact that most of King Henry’s legendary archers were technically mercenaries. Longbows were a new development, and those who could wield them commanded top dollar.
Though historically frowned on as a necessary evil, a few mercenaries still managed to find fame and fortune. John Hawkwood was such a successful mercenary leader during the late 14th century that he became wealthy, earned a knighthood and is even commemorated in Florence Cathedral. Not too shabby for a hired archer, but if you’re born with the name John Hawkwood, you’re probably not destined for a career in accounting.
Some other famous mercenaries include the Hessians who fought on the losing side during the American Revolution. About thirty-five hundred of these German mercenaries stayed in America after the war, most settling in Pennsylvania.
In 1941, the United States government unofficially organized the First American Volunteer Group, better known as The Flying Tigers, to battle Japan’s Imperial Air Force over China. Though incredibly effective, the Flying Tigers were disbanded following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and their members absorbed into the US military.
America’s next major attempt at creating a mercenary force was less successful. Anybody remember a little fiasco known as The Bay of Pigs?
Soldiers of fortune captured headlines in 1964, when the Republic of the Congo hired Mad Mike Hoare to recruit a mercenary army to put down the Simba Rebellion. Initially Hoare’s unit did fine work—until they discovered the joys of looting everything that wasn’t nailed down. Hoare’s career went downhill from there. In 1978, he attempted a coup in the Seychelles with only fifty-five men disguised as a rugby team. It ended badly, and he was forced to hijack an Air India flight to flee the country, only to be arrested upon landing.
During the Vietnam War, the USA hit upon a way to hire mercenaries without getting their hands dirty. They simply subcontracted part of the war to South Korea, to the tune of about a billion dollars in cash (about eight billion in today’s dollars) plus another 2.7 billion in loans. They really got their money’s worth—the Korean troops terrified the North Vietnamese with their fighting spirit and fanatical hatred of communism.
The USA has gone on to become the world’s largest employer of mercenaries—or, as they’re known today, private military contractors. What’s the difference? Well, historically mercenaries were hired by governments, while PMCs are employed by private companies, who in turn are employed by governments. So, the difference really amounts to adding middle management. Call them whatever you like, Uncle Sam currently employs over 700,000 private military contractors across the globe, with the bulk posted in Iraq.
Plenty of good fiction has been written about mercenaries, along with some really bad novels. Mercenaries even had their own magazine, called Soldier of Fortune, which was huge with armchair warriors back in the seventies and eighties.
Mercenaries may be a fascinating topic, but they’ve gotten surprisingly little big-screen time. The best mercenary film is Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai.” But my personal favorite is 1968’s shocking, but remarkably entertaining, “Dark of the Sun.” Not only is it a great film, but it has the single most macho movie poster of all time.
1978’s “The Wild Geese” was the tale of booze-sodden aging mercenaries on an African rescue mission. This surprise box office hit starred Richard Burton and Richard Harris, who, at that point, had almost one liver between them.
That tradition of combining big guns and hip replacements continues with Sylvester Stallone’s endless cycle of “Expendables” films. So much blood … so much Botox.
And that brings us full circle back to those real-life geriatric mercenaries.
After the astonishingly long South African Border War (1966–1990) many apartheid-era troops drifted into mercenary work. Due to the African continent’s unrest these seasoned soldiers found themselves in great demand. But those impoverished nations often paid poorly, putting these soldiers of fortune into an endless cycle of always needing a new war just to stay afloat. The real-life equivalents of my character Hansie have continued fighting well past retirement age. The most recent example of their tradecraft was in Nigeria when the government enlisted mercenaries to aid in battling Boko Haram. The militant group had made international headlines by kidnapping young girls. The use of mercenary troops was controversial, but apparently they did remarkable work bolstering the Nigerian troops, and at least some of the young women were returned safely.
After a lifetime of fighting I hope some of these aging warhorses manage to squeeze in a few years of peace before they move on to Elysian Fields.
Hope you enjoyed this collection of soldier of fortune factoids. And just a reminder that my novel SCORPIUS REX is available on Amazon—because repeatedly plugging your book is a totally mercenary thing to do.