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The ‘New’ American Mercenary: A Pocket History

Above photo: Private mercenaries. From Nation of Change.

Though the bizarre story has been subsumed by other events, last month’s aborted invasion of Venezuela should’ve hardly shocked anyone. The United States has long used mercenaries to do its bidding. They have provided Washington distance and deniability for unsavory operations. During the Cold War, the U.S. hoped this would limit domestic and international protest. Policymakers also discerned mercenary alternatives to bloody, expensive quagmires like the Vietnam or Iraq Wars. Traditionally, most of these hired guns were foreigners – ex-soldiers of declining European empires.

Much of this parallels the latest Venezuelan affair. However, American mercenaries and the system that produced them, are relatively new. The stillborn coup exposed the blurred line between what’s private and public in modern US warfare. Past and present evidence suggest the phenomenon is here to stay and set to increase.

There is now little doubt that the Trump administration had foreknowledge of the incursion. It may even have played some part. If America’s regional history is any indicator, it probably did. Washington has long sought President Nicolas Maduro’s overthrow, and recently put a literal bounty on his head. Furthermore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all but admitted some role when he announced that the US had “no direct involvement.”

Nevertheless, most mainstream reporting focused on the details of the harebrained scheme. Others profiled the mercenary mastermind, ex-green beret Jordan Goudreau, and his Silvercorp private security outfit (Per the company website, he prefers “entrepreneur“). Still, the Economist’s clever moniker for the operation – “Bay of Piglets” – has stuck, and there’s been understandable fascination with the air-soft rifle apparently totted by one invader.

However, if the Venezuela debacle seemed stranger than fiction, that’s because such adventures often are. More disturbingly, the failed coup reflects past US behavior and evidenced the ascendancy of mercenaries. Also worrying was the substitution of American combat veterans for more traditional British, French, or South African ex-soldiers.

A Mercenary Past

In the 19th century, such American adventurers were called “filibusters,” and repeatedly invaded Latin American countries. Most sought plunder, but some hoped to annex new slave states to the union. One famous filibuster even briefly installed himself as president of Nicaragua. Nonetheless, while these invasions often received financial support from prominent slaveholders, Washington’s connection was at best tenuous.

The Cold War was the true golden age of US mercenary employment. Even then, Washington rarely hired Americans. European veterans of imperial wars and anti-communist Chinese or Cuban exiles predominated. The US paid these fighters to install and prop-up right-wing dictators or topple vaguely leftist governments.

In the 1950s, the US employed 15,000 exiled nationalist soldiers who had fled to Burma after the Chinese civil war. Washington used them to challenge Communist China, discipline the left-leaning Burmese government, and to allegedly smuggle heroin for the CIA. The US also recruited Chinese exiles to pilot fighter bombers in its then largest covert operation: toppling uncooperative Indonesian President Sukarno. Washington then supported – even providing lists of Communist Party members – the new military strongman, and stood by as he massacred half a million leftist-sympathizers in a matter of months. More well known was the disastrous CIA-orchestrated 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles. Yet less remembered is the agency’s subsequent use of Cuban expats in a decades-long campaign of sabotage and terror against the island.

In mid-1960s Africa, the CIA paid and organized European mercenaries – including famed Brit “Mad Mike” Hoare – to suppress a faintly socialist rebellion in Eastern Congo. It also operated a private air force piloted by Cuban exiles. They bombed rebels and ferried 500 Belgian paratroopers (of the hated ex-colonial power) into the fight. The US then lost control of its hired guns, who unleashed an abusive fury. One mercenary recalled seizing a Congolese town: “After the looting came the killing…Three days of executions, of lynchings, of tortures, of screams, and of terror.”

Unfazed, the CIA raised a new mercenary army in 1974, to back its favored faction in the Angolan Civil War. The agency advanced $500,000 cash for Bob Denard, the infamous soldier-of-fortune and Congo veteran, who provided twenty fellow Frenchmen. Once again, the US added despised former colonialists, recruiting 300 Portuguese settlers for the campaign. According to the CIA’s mission chief, the key was deniability:

Mercenaries seemed to be the answer, preferably Europeans with the requisite military skills and perhaps experience in Africa. As long as they were not Americans.

The operation failed miserably, but the core concepts persisted.

The New American Mercenaries

Trends in modern mercenary recruitment had three main phases. After the Second World War, most soldiers-of-fortune hailed from declining empires. The majority were disillusioned veterans of the final imperial “dirty wars” in Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam, Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. Most sought fortune, glory, or adventure, but some maintained connections to their home governments. This was particularly true in the era’s mercenary mecca: the Congo Civil War (1960-65). There, the Britons were tacitly supported by conservative factions in Parliament tied to local mining interests. One top mercenary was the brother of a prominent MP. The French contingent was considered the most political – often described as “fanatics” – and operated as an unofficial arm of Paris’ neo-imperial Africa policy.

As this generation died off, seasoned veterans from Africa’s last two white settler regimes dominated the mercenary business. Thousands of white soldiers were demobilized after Rhodesia (1980) and then apartheid South Africa (1994) finally succumbed to majority-rule. Many out-of-work veterans of Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts and South Africa’s 32 Battalion – the ex-unit of Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional character in Blood Diamond – turned guns for hire. Most had served in earlier forever conflicts: Rhodesia’s Bush War (1964-79) and the South African Border War (1966-89). In the more corporate 1990s, they formed official-sounding private military companies (PMCs).

The most famous, Executive Outcomes (EO), sold its services in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea, enriching its leadership with conflict diamonds and other mining concessions. White mercenaries were loathed by most Africans, so EO repeatedly rebranded until forced to shut down. Nevertheless, some of its former employees joined a farcical 2004 coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, funded by the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. According to the group’s leader, Thatcher encouraged the mercenaries to next overthrow Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor. As late as 2015, aging EO alumni were battling a current U.S. nemesis, Boko Haram, in Nigeria.

Until recently, relatively few Americans joined the mercenary ranks. While hundreds – many Vietnam vets – fought for white Rhodesia in the 1970s, this was a rare exception. However, endless post-9/11 wars produced a surplus of younger American combat veterans. Hit hard by the 2008 economic crash – and now facing pandemic unemployment – many “war on terror” veterans gladly collect six-figure salaries from private security companies. One of the first and most famous was an American rehash of Executive Outcomes: Blackwater USA. Its founder and CEO was the ex-Navy SEAL, Erik Prince.

A Mercenary Future

The Blackwater model set an industry standard and undoubtedly influenced Goudreau’s smaller Silvercorp organization. It also portends an American mercenary future. Prince is a religious fundamentalist, militarist right-wing zealot, and was an early Trump-ally. His sister is the current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Talk about a sibling power-couple.

Early on in the “terror” wars, George W. Bush’s administration hired Blackwater to provide security in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, the company and Prince became infamous for their employees’ violent excesses. I served in Baghdad when Blackwater contractors shot and killed fourteen civilians – “without cause,” according to the FBI. The anti-American blowback was palpable and predictable, since most Iraqis (understandably) didn’t distinguish between private and public armed occupiers. Nevertheless, criminal convictions of the Blackwater guards and condemnation from senior military officers hardly stemmed the PMC tide. Nor did it drive Prince permanently underground.

Donald Trump’s election generated fresh energy and new schemes from the ex-CEO. Since 2017, Prince has briefed the president on plans to privatize the entire Afghanistan War, and recruited ex-spies to infiltrate liberal groups. Trump was reportedly “interested,” but ultimately passed on total outsourcing of operations in the graveyard of empires. This hardly tempered Prince’s oddball imagination. Before Goudreau beat him to the punch, Prince apparently considered raising his own mercenary army to topple Venezuela’s Maduro.

If Prince lost the battle in Afghanistan, he and his broader privatization project won the war. While Washington still hires European mercenaries that “mentor” its dubious proxies in Somalia, the Blackwater/Silvercorp model is the new normal. After the Cold War, the Pentagon downsized the bloated military by privatizing key support positions. Simultaneously, it outsourced many protection duties. In the 2003 Iraq invasion, the proportion of security contractors was 10 times greater than it had been in the First Persian Gulf War (1991). Yet the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations truly altered American war-making. Despite already enormous changes, the contractor-to-soldier ratio was still 1:10 during the Gulf War. By 2016, contractors outnumbered uniformed troops three-to-one in Afghanistan.

But see, there’s a method to Washington’s madness. High casualty rates at the height of the Iraq and Afghan Wars demonstrated that even volunteer soldiers’ flag-draped coffins raise pesky public ire. On the other hand, few Americans know or much care that more contractors than servicemen were killed in the ongoing wars. Thus, part of the mercenary strategy’s cynical brilliance is that privatization helps enable perpetual war.

In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump made at least one solid point: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Not that he’s really ended any.

Perhaps Trump should have clarified: They pay others to do it for them.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.

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