Comparing PMCs and Their Private Force Antecedents

Battle of San Romano. Photo Credit: National Gallery

By: Nikolai F. Rice, Columnist

The last time private military forces were so widely employed as today, America was a confederacy without a constitution, every currency depended on the value of precious metals, and sailing ships were the fastest mode of transportation. Simply put, the two-hundred-year norm that proto-securitized private force from being employed in warfare is being overturned. Great and small states alike are turning to private military corporations (PMCs) for a variety of tactical, operational, economic, and political advantages. PMCs are not the immediate successors of medieval retainers-turned-mercenaries, Renaissance condottieri, nor rent-a-conscript Hessians. PMCs are, however, similar to them in critical ways, and three important revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries massively enable the 21st century proliferation of private force: casualty consciousness, post-Cold War decolonization, and a networked, globalized economy.

The Levée en Masse and the 21st Century

The British crown has never had an army big enough to invade a continent on its own. British forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War were ‘locals,’ and it was common for ancien régime-era armies to fight colonial wars with heavily-outsourced armies—be they mercenaries or auxiliaries.[i] The British decision to employ Hessians in the American Revolution is only logical considering the numerical disadvantage they faced if the majority of military-aged colonial men took up arms against them. This kind of nation-wide mobilization, the levée en masse, is exactly what made highly-trained, elite and smaller mercenary forces like the Hessians obsolete on the battlefield.[ii] As a revolution in military affairs, massive conscription forced smaller, professionalized forces to adapt or collapse.

The United States and most allies have moved away from conscription in favor of professionalized all-volunteer forces. With this comes the risk of fielding insufficient force if great need coincides with political apathy. The fact stands that many Americans detest dead soldiers and have the power to show that distaste in the voting booth.[iii] Logically, PMCs pick up that slack—especially in operations where soldier-casualties might cause particularly visceral domestic political backlash. Though the levée en masse empowered states to numerically disadvantage private forces, the expansion of citizens’ rights in the 20th-century has created enfranchised populations that mostly refuse to accept massive volunteer- or draftee-casualties.[iv] This is evermore true with respect to wars and operations ‘of choice’ like the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States military’s solution has been to shift the casualty-toll onto locals and proliferating private force actors.[v]

 Power Vacuums, Capacity Gaps, and Contractors

Peace is the ruin of any mercenary. Power vacuums are the womb of conflict. It rarely takes long for mercenaries to exploit weak clients. Niccoló Machiavelli’s personal biases against mercenaries aside, he was correct in asserting the monopoly on political violence was key to securing sovereignty. Renaissance Italy is a perfect case in point, where city-states were often too weak to control their lesser holdings and faced constant threats from rebellions, upstarts, rogue armies, enemy city-states, and papal and anti-papal leagues. Moreover, these all served to employ and be exploited by various mercenaries. The mercenary age in Italy lasted until contemporary great powers—France and the Holy Roman Empire—settled the vacuum with gunpowder, cannons, and professionalism that outmatched the capabilities of any contending mercenaries.[vi] Politically, Italy would only unite two centuries later, when nationalistic fervor and massive mobilization fielded armies large enough to overthrow an antiquated political order.

To simplify a complicated analogy, decolonization also stemmed from the upturning of an antiquated political order. Variously undercut as well as supported through the Cold War, decolonized nations had to face new realities with the collapse of bipolarity. Power vacuums emerged as weak governments failed to govern. Today, the securitization of ‘terrorism’ only reinforces states’ reasons to hire PMCs to maintain their monopoly on force.[vii] What the Nigerian military failed to do in years of conflict, hired helicopter gunships managed in weeks.[viii] In a time when military science has never been more advanced, the great powers have a limited tolerance to support weak states. Private force is the most professional and well-equipped option available, especially for states that are rich in either cash, credit, or liquefiable commodities.

The Modern Economy and Corporate Force[ix]

Renting is cheaper than owning, and as an economic actor, the modern PMC is spurred to maximize revenue at the lowest possible cost to earn the greatest possible profits. This is not a dissimilar calculation to that of the medieval ‘great companies’—retainers-turned-mercenaries. There are more differences, however, than similarities. Where great companies were essentially standing armies that filled the capacity gaps created by the slow-to-amass feudal levy systems of the day, most modern PMCs highly depend on decentralized structure, short-term contracts, and highly-networked systems to mobilize and materialize niche, professional forces at short notice.[x] Great companies required fields and cities to feed and pillage—while PMCs require clients with liquid assets, relying on subcontractors and modern infrastructure to deliver their force multipliers—as few as necessary—to the field as quickly as possible.

A Final Takeaway

Mercenaries are professionals in their field. Historically, prolonged peacetime harmed mercenaries more than prolonged wars. Long wars train experienced soldiers, who in turn command a price—especially as war weariness variously constrains strategic options. Today, as never before, private force can draw from an internationalized talent pool of specialized, highly-experienced warriors. Moreover, PMCs leverage networks to create genuinely unique groups of operators at a time when modern militaries are strained to adapt to a number of evolving battlefields, opponents, and operations. Though the levée en masse devalued experienced soldiers, volunteer militaries fighting prolonged wars of choice, still operating in the shadow of massive combined arms warfare, have trained the most capable generation of soldiers ever seen.[xi]

Private force draws on these professionals, whose skills nations spent decades, treasure, and casualties to develop and multiply. Those investments enable PMCs to operate. Private force never starts from scratch. In that observation lies a deeper point about the proliferation of private force in the 21st century—that PMCs provide a skilled service, one that is necessary by virtue of the emergence of long, war-wearying conflicts after decades of relative peace. Long wars are power vacuums in and of themselves, and PMCs are the modern iteration of private force that thrives in the vacuum of prolonged conflicts.

Bibliography & Notes

[i] Beatrice Heuser, “Small Wars in the Age of Clausewitz: The Watershed Between Partisan War and Peoples War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 1 (2010): 146-47.

[ii] The Hessians were technically conscripted, often for life, in the service of their ‘prince.’

[iii] Charles K. Hyde, “Casualty Aversion: Implications for Policy Makers and Senior Military Officers,” Aerospace Power Journal 14, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 18-20.

[iv] Sarah Percy, Mercenaries the History of a Norm in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 139-45.

[v] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal, “U.S. to Withdraw About 7,000 Troops From Afghanistan, Officials Say,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018,

[vi] For an overview of Renaissance Italy and mercenaries: Mockler, 42-73.

[vii] Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 82-83.

[viii] David Smith, “South Africa’s Ageing White Mercenaries Who Helped Turn Tide on Boko Haram,” The Guardian, April 14, 2015,

[ix] For an overview of incorporated private force: P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

[x] Singer, 169-71.

[xi] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (New York, NY: William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2019), 128-30.

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