Commentary

From Mercenary to Security Contractor and Back Again

By legal definition, security contractors are not mercenaries, but the dividing line is porous: There is nothing to say today’s contractor was not a mercenary in the past. And even if he was not, he could be in the future.

After all, both use somewhat similar skill sets, at least in terms of military expertise. The main difference nowadays is that security contractors protect their clients while mercenaries fight in combat.

That said, being a mercenary is not necessarily a bad thing, as a newly published book seeks to explain.

The book is “Save the Last Bullet for Yourself: A Soldier of Fortune in the Balkans and Somalia.” The author is Rob Krott, a former U.S. Army officer who worked as a mercenary in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in 1992 and 1993, and as a contractor in Somalia. Since then he has served in the field with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and has worked on contract in Latin America, Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Yemen and parts of the former Soviet Union. Most recently, he served about three years as a “security specialist” in Iraq. Krott was on active duty in the U.S. Army for most of the 1980s and did some time in the National Guard and Reserves, but soon discovered he was not cut out for a career in civilian life.

He is honest enough about why he does the work. He gets a kick out of it. He writes, “I do what I do because I like it, it interests me, it beats the hell out of riding a desk all day long, and maybe because I’ve got a serious adrenaline jones.” He makes no preens about having deep insights; it is just his story.

And, for the most part, it is a pretty interesting story, marred only by the periodic use of cliches like “lock and load” or “rock and roll.” And, at times, he has a tendency to get a little immersed in military tradecraft. Nobody really needs to know about the Panama Triangle patrol base technique or the details of sniping with a 7.92mm Yugoslav Mauser. But those are minor problems.

The book opens with Krott defending himself against a drunk mercenary who fails in killing him only because the selector switch on his AK-47 was on safe. He and Krott are part of a unit of the King Tomislav Brigade, part of the Croat Defense Force. Krott worked as a trainer-adviser teaching basic soldiering and infantry tactics — in short, a leader of mercenary troops.

This was back in 1992, when the action in the Balkans still was on the back pages in most of the U.S. media. One thing that Krott makes clear quickly is that the glamorous Hollywood portrayal of high-paid international mercenaries is sheer fiction. What is more likely is that your unit will consist of ex-convicts, drug addicts, alcoholics and outright psychotics, many of whom couldn’t fight their way out of a paper sack. That helps explain why at a certain point the Croatians refused to take on any more “international volunteers.”

Krott spends a few months in the country before local politics force him to leave, right before war starts in Bosnia.

In his next job he is working for what we now call a private military contractor. He gets a gig with BDM Inc., one of the myriad of government contractors around Washington, as the assistant team chief of the Somali Linguist Team, a 100-person unit of native Somalis recruited off the streets of D.C. to translate for U.S. personnel in the field.

This job is instructional for what we might think of various private military contractors today. The State Department had no idea of how to vet the Somalis and didn’t even know enough to ask for the interpreters’ clan affiliation, a mistake that would cost them later.

The way BDM operated in Somalia then, according to Krott, could just as well be said about many companies in Iraq now. Krott writes, “BDM had painted a glowing picture of how the contract was run. They didn’t mention any of the problems we had encountered in Somalia, or in recruiting and administering the Somalis, hence there were no lessons learned.”

The lessons one draws from reading of Krott’s experience in Somalia will dismay those who think private military contractors are an essential part of future humanitarian operations in Africa or elsewhere, as many of those advocating greater involvement in Sudan’s Darfur region seem to believe. Some good things may result, but it is far from clear that it will be worth the cost or effort, despite all the claims made for private-sector cost-effectiveness. His bottom line: “It was all for nothing.”

The last portion of the book takes Krott back to the Balkans. In 1993 he is part of a Soldier of Fortune magazine training team in Bosnia, once again assisting the King Tomislav Brigade to train Croatians fighting the Serbs. This time he has better comrades in his unit than he did in Croatia. We learn the background and motivations of mercenaries from France, Germany and Britain, among many other countries.

Another important point is that many mercenaries are in it for the sheer thrill and adventure of it, not for the pay. Krott notes that most mercenary soldiers weren’t getting paid more than a few hundred dollars a month. That’s less than you can get serving fries and burgers at McDonald’s. It helps explain why so many mercenaries were barely functional. Certainly, no well-trained mercenary with solid soldiering skills would want to work for such paltry wages, if money were their primary motivation.

Krott ends with an epilogue that recounts the sad and often dismal end of many of the mercenaries he served with. One can only hope, for the sake of the private military industry, that it manages to weed out many of the misfits that Krott encountered.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq