The Atlantic interviews Africa Center Senior Fellow Sean McFate on his new book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order:
The use of mercenaries in warfare has a very long history—much longer, in fact, than the almost-exclusive deployment of national militaries to wage wars. Before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and marked the rise of the modern state system, medieval powers from kings to popes routinely hired private fighters to do battle for them. As state governments sought a monopoly on the use of force within their territories in the 17th century, however, they moved to stamp out violence by non-state actors, including mercenaries, driving the industry underground.
Private militaries never really went away, but according to Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and associate professor at National Defense University, they have experienced a resurgence in the past 25 years. McFate himself was a contractor with DynCorp International, one of the private military companies whose rise is the subject of his recent book, The Modern Mercenary. Companies like DynCorp—and, more infamously, Blackwater—were major players in the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing logistics and other services, as well as armed guards and trainers for local armies. McFate draws a distinction between these types of support contractors, used for defense and training, and mercenaries, who stage offensive operations on behalf of a client. Nigeria has reportedly deployed mercenaries from South Africa and elsewhere in the fight against the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. In practice, however, that difference is not clear-cut. “If you can do one, you can do the other,” McFate told me in a recent interview.