Should we legalise commercial mercenaries?

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Vishal was the 2014 winner of the Adam Smith Institute’s Young Writer on Liberty competition. Commercial mercenary activities have been deemed illegal globally and have significantly dwindled in the 21st century. Legalisation may be useful in the short and long-term.

Currently, the extremist ISIS militants threaten to overthrow the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government requested assistance but limited support was offered. This is partly because we are reluctant to risk servicemens’ lives and spend money. For example, the American and British public may despise ISIS but lack the will to send their own servicemen on such an endeavour; Mercenaries could negotiate their assistance in the conflict for money, debt, natural resources etc. This prevents risking servicemens’ lives and costing taxpayers.

In The Anatomy of the State, Murray Rothbard wrote that wars fought with mercenaries were shorter and had fewer casualties. He quotes the jurist F.J.P Veale who claims that “civilized warfare” flourished briefly in 15th century Italy: “the rich burghers and merchants of medieval Italy were too busy making money and enjoying life to undertake the hardships and dangers of soldiering themselves. So they adopted the practice of hiring mercenaries to do their fighting for them, and, being thrifty, businesslike folk, they dismissed their mercenaries immediately after their services could be dispensed with. Wars were, therefore, fought by armies hired for each campaign… For the first time, soldiering became a reasonable and comparatively harmless profession. The generals of that period manoeuvred against each other… but when one had won the advantage, his opponent generally either retreated or surrendered. It was a recognized rule that a town could only be sacked if it offered resistance: immunity could always be purchased by paying a ransom… As one natural consequence, no town ever resisted, it being obvious that a government too weak to defend its citizens had forfeited their allegiance. Civilians had little to fear from dangers of war which were the concern only of professional soldiers.”

Finally, many NATO member-states are cutting defence spending and enemies have noticed. In future, NATO may find its defensive capabilities severely impaired when a war occurs and it may be difficult to compensate for this lost capacity at such short notice, especially when hostiles have been building their own forces in the meantime. Rushed conscription of civilians hardly compares to contracting seasoned warriors. In those circumstances, Governments struggling to fight public enemies can turn to mercenaries (even foreign ones if foreign governments don’t lend direct support) to pick up the slack.