I know a man who served in Vietnam and got offered two job opportunities once he got home: police officer and mercenary. He turned down both. I guess he’d had enough of war. Plus, the Marines still owned him, and would for the next few years. He wasn’t about to cross the Corps by screwing up somewhere.
My impression of mercenaries used to be that they were trigger-happy adventurers who for some reason just loved the thrill of war. If only it were that colorful. Soldier of Fortune magazine is said to attract its share of poseurs. But some of the people seeking this employment are regular guys with wives, kids, mortgages, bills to pay. Warfare is what they know. Being a professional soldier is something they’d be good at. And the pay would come in handy.
If you get caught, though, you’re pretty much on your own. The Geneva Convention carefully defines what a mercenary is, but makes a mercenary an unlawful combatant – unless he’s a national of the country that has him in custody. He still has to be given a fair trial, in any case.
If he’s found to be a mercenary, he is no different from any other criminal.
A Vietnam veteran named Daniel Gearhart wanted to be a mercenary, for pressing reasons. He needed the money, badly. So he placed an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine. He got hired not long after, and went to Angola.
Angola was in the middle of a civil war. A war which some might characterize as yet another proxy war war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Angolan civil war had broken out not long after Angola had nominally been granted independence from Portugal.
To oversimplify, Gearhart was among those who were on the side of the USA-backed National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). The FNLA had been opposed to the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
Gearhart got arrested soon after he arrived in Angola. He was put on trial, along with other mercenaries. He denied ever firing a shot in Angola. But the ad he had placed in Soldier of Fortune was one of the things used against him.
He was executed by firing squad, along with three Britons.
Risky business, being a soldier of fortune. Anyone willing to put himself on the line in this way gets a kind of respect from me, and from many people. What I’ve found eye-opening, though, about the mercenary business are all the allegations lodged against XeServices LLC – otherwise known as Blackwater, labeled “The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” by author Jeremy Scahill.
Four “contractors” working for Blackwater were brutally killed in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. The families are suing Blackwater for wrongful death, accusing the company of taking cost-saving measures that may have led to these deaths.
You have to sympathize with these grieving families. And maybe in their place I’d do the same thing they’re doing. But anyone who chooses this line of work chooses all the risks and all the consequences, presumably. Are people signing up for this business unaware of what it might cost them? Are their families in the dark as well?
This country’s propensity for litigation means that it is increasingly unlikely that anyone is responsible for choices freely made. Not even the choice to rush into known war zones, placing yourself in the hands of a private outfit and with little or no legal protection in the event that something goes terribly wrong.