Mercenaries, pirates and other loveable rogues; or, how the desire to make a quick buck can change strategic outcomes

Money makes the world go round. For all that this is an ancient, not to mention disputed, adage, it’s hard to deny it stems from certain cold hard truths. Even for nation states, entities supposedly formed to defend the rights and interests of a group of culturally and linguistically related people, the whole sorry exercise frequently collapses into a money-making scheme. Mafia links to government leaders, a ‘revolving door’ between corporate boardrooms and national parliaments, even dictators who simply strip their countries’ assets and shift them into offshore accounts (yes, #Panamapapers, but also many other egregious examples stretching back much farther) – all of them demonstrate the simple yet powerful allure of the Almighty Dollar. Or Pound Sterling, or Yuan, or Euro, or Ruble, or… You get the idea.
Certainly this can have significant, and often devastating, effects on a state’s development, and even survival. How do you fight a war when your military is not properly trained, armed and equipped due to endemic corruption? (1) The less obvious damage, to education, healthcare, infrastructure etc can be even more damaging and long lasting. Corruption, as a result of sheer human greed, is a catastrophic problem for states around the globe.
But what about those who take a more direct approach to money making, and their impact on global strategic outcomes?
There is a reason that creators of fiction, whether novels, movies or even video games, love a certain type of character. I refer to the swashbuckling pirate captain, the salt spray swirling around him as he stands on the bridge of his ship, bearing down on his next unfortunate victim. To the bandolierswathed mercenary, hard eyes and stubbled jaw, rifle clutched in sinewy hands as he stalks through the African bush. To the wily mafia boss, sharp suit and dark glasses, sipping expensive Scotch in a wood-panelled office, bought with his ill-gotten gains.
These are all stereotypes, of course. The pirate captain rarely had a career of more than a few years before death in one form or another caught up with him. William Kidd, one of the archetypal examples of the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, had a run of less than five years before he was arrested in Boston, sent back to England and eventually hanged for his crimes (2). The mercenary is often killed in combat, his being a particularly perilous job, or captured and tried as a criminal rather than treated as a prisoner of war, since mercenaries are afforded no such rights even under UN regulations (3). And the mafia boss is as likely to be killed by his rivals, within or without his own organization, as to be arrested by the law enforcement agencies of the state, still the most powerful enemy against which to risk pitting yourself, at least in most corners of the world.
What then is the point of discussing such actors in the context of global strategy? Well the fact is that, far from the pop-culture caricatures they may usually be portrayed as, all of these figures can, and have, and will, be used by states themselves to further grand strategic objectives. Sometimes this brings stunning success with airtight plausible deniability, or absolutely minimal cost, or even both. Other times it ends in total, abject failure and recrimination.
Either way though their presence and actions are worth factoring in to any discussion of global strategic history, forecasts or policies.
Take pirates. Even now there are worries that the lull enjoyed in the past few years, in particular off the Somali coast, may soon end, and of the colossal costs this could have for global trade (4). How strategically significant this may prove is difficult to calculate given the myriad different variables involved. Historically, however, piracy has been used very clearly as a strategic tool, characterized by the same level of cynicism as any other field of international relations. The corsairs of the Barbary coast, the scourge of Mediterranean shipping for many centuries, survived for so long in no small part due to the various Christian European powers using them as de facto proxy forces in the constant European wars and power games of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this fashion the European naval powers, especially England and France, used just enough force and diplomacy to convince the rulers of the corsair cities that they were not worth the trouble, thus shifting the pirates’ attentions to the shipping of weaker powers and making their own commerce more effective. ‘Just enough corsairs to eliminate our rivals, but not too many’ was the ideal balance, as summed up by the French in a 1729 memorandum (5).
Privateering, the practice of commissioning civilian vessels to act against one’s enemies in times of war, was the Age of Sail’s equivalent of modern military contracting. By simply granting a captain a commission allowing him to attack enemy shipping and receive rewards for doing so a nation could effectively offload many of the costs of naval warfare onto these private ships, allowing for a massive expansion of their naval activity as long as the war continued. The problem, as was often foreseen by naval officers at the time, was that once the war in question ended some such privateers, or at least portions of their crews, would be reluctant to return to the harsher and less profitable work on merchant ships or whatever life they had left behind. These men would often continue their maritime adventures without official sanction, becoming pirates in some cases effectively overnight. This could lead to varying degrees of international friction as countries were often slow to rein in their own (former) privateers while being quick to launch vigorous diplomatic complaints when other nations’ citizens turned pirate.
These lines were often blurred anyway as, apart from the apparent ease of conscience and behaviour with which some men, and indeed entire crews, would drift back and forth between commissioned privateer and freebooting pirate, the issuing of commissions and the uses to which they were put were often vague. The commission under which Henry Morgan, arguably the most famous of the privateers to ply their trade in the late seventeenth century, committed some of his most famous feats against the Spanish was not signed for him until several months after the Treaty of Madrid had established peace between Britain and Spain. That the treaty was signed in July of 1670 and Morgan’s famous sack of Panama, a Spanish colony, did not occur until January 1671 gives some indication of the kind of lapse involved (6).
Morgan’s later knighthood and triumphal return to the West Indies as an authority figure, and his insistence on always sailing with a commission from the Governor of Jamaica, demonstrate that the truth surrounding such figures in history is rarely as clear as either principled patriot or bloodthirsty criminal. More modern examples abound of figures who, though labelled as mercenaries, and undoubtedly working as professional soldiers for forces other than those of their own nations, have much more nuanced justifications and motivations for their actions than a love of either money or violence.
Two notable examples come to mind. Mike Hoare was a former British Army officer who raised and commanded a multinational mercenary company, 5 Commando, during the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. After independence from Belgium the country descended into a melee of political and military chaos, including an Eastern secessionist movement calling themselves the ‘Simbas’, inspired by Maoist ideas. As part of the complex political dealings involving Belgium, the US, the UN and the Soviet Union, the
neophyte Congolese government decided to raise a mercenary outfit of experienced, hardened Western troops who would fight for cold hard cash rather than any of the complex political agendas involved. 5 Commando proved controversial but effective, utilising shock tactics against the rebels and pushing into battles with vehicles and heavy firepower rather than retreating, which terrified the hitherto unstoppable rebel militias, used to fighting poorly-motivated government troops. Eventually they, along with Belgian paratroopers, were instrumental in retaking the city of Stanleyville from the Simbas and freeing several hundred (mostly European) hostages.
A few years later a German named Rolf Steiner emerged in the forefront of the vicious Nigerian Civil War, training and fighting on the side of the secessionist region of Biafra. He was one of many Western mercenaries who flocked to the war, but one of only a handful who stayed on when they realized that, contrary to the ill-disciplined and drug-addled rebels of the previous decade’s African wars, the Nigerian federal troops they faced were well trained and equipped, often by the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic. After the loss of the war, and falling out with the Biafran leader, Steiner moved on to southern Sudan (now South Sudan), where he tried to help the people there stand up to the regime in Khartoum. He was captured, imprisoned and tortured, only being released after intervention by the West German government.
Whether Steiner should really be termed a mercenary is up for debate, as he did not profess to be motivated by money, and even took Biafran citizenship during that state’s short, turbulent existence. This again serves to illustrate how such people cannot be simply labelled as one or another type of actor. Nor can their impact, whether pirates of old or mercenaries of more recent times, be easily measured in terms of strategic impact. International criminal networks often intertwine with political goals, and terrorist and insurgent organizations are often funded by criminal enterprises, as well as relying on black market suppliers for arms and equipment. Crime and politics, as always, are never far removed from one another.
The recent focus on terrorism, and groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram which dominate Western news feeds about the actions of non-state actors, has served also to distract from the other breeds of nonaligned armed actors plying their trades in jungles, mountains, cities and high seas. We would do well to neither ignore nor underestimate them. Their strategic impact can be highly significant, and there is no reason to think they will disappear any time soon.

2. Earle, Peter The Pirate Wars (London: Methuen, 2004), pp.119 – 120.



5. Earle pp. 72 – 3

6. Earle, pp. 94 – 5