Should States Hire Mercenaries?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I was recently asked by a friend for an opinion on the use of private military contractors. After ruminating on the subject off and on for a couple days, I recalled an interesting chain of thoughts I once had on the subject, which I intend to reconstruct today in this piece.

The initial thought was a recollection of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I had read some years ago. I had the fortune of reading the Tim Parks translation, which is excellent by virtue of its clarity, modernity, and commitment to getting at what Machiavelli said without the bias of many of the older translations. I highly recommend it, it’s very readable. The bit I remembered in particular was chapter 12, in which Machiavelli, through Parks, says this:

Now, the armies a ruler is depending on to defend his state will either be his own, or mercenaries, or auxiliaries, or some combination of these. Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous. If you are counting on mercenaries to defend your state you will never be stable or secure , because mercenaries are ambitious, undisciplined, disloyal, and they quarrel among themselves. Courageous with friends and cowardly with enemies,  they have no fear of God and keep no promises.  With mercenaries the only way to delay disaster is to delay the battle; in peacetime they plunder you and in wartime they let the enemy plunder you. Why? Because the only interest they have in you and their only reason for fighting is the meager salary you’re paying them, and that’s not reason enough to make them want to die for you. Sure, they’re happy enough to be your soldiers when you’re not at war, but when war comes, they run for it, or just disappear.

Machiavelli offers a litany of historical examples of mercenaries in one way or another betraying or abandoning their paymasters:

  1. The Italian city-states of his period relied on mercenaries to defend themselves, but when the French invaded, these forces melted away.
  2. After the first Punic War, Carthage’s mercenaries revolted against it.
  3. Milan hired a mercenary, Francesco Sforza, to fight Venice. Sforza took Milan’s money but went on to defect to Venice, taking the Milanese state with Venetian help.
  4. Venice hired a mercenary, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola, to help them expand their territories in the Italian peninsula. After some success, Carmagnola became famously lazy and lost his taste for war. The Venetians, unable to fire him for fear of losing the lands he’d seized, had to trick him into returning to Venice where they then proceeded to capture and execute him.

The list goes on–Machiavelli blames the mercenary commanders for the fecklessness of the Italian city states in the eventual war with France. He throws out an old Latin saying:

Quod nihil sit tam infirmum aut instabile quam fama potentiae non sua vi nixa


There is nothing so weak and unstable as a reputation for power that is not backed up by its own army.

For Machiavelli, it is very important that the people who defend the state be themselves dependent on the state for their security and quality of life. For this reason, Machiavelli prefers the citizen armies of Rome, Macedonia, and other such places.

Interestingly, Machiavelli leaves out one very pertinent example of the principle that sticks out in my mind–the tendency for the late Roman Empire to hire soldiers rather than levy them through a draft as had been done during the early period. Roman armies grew steadily less loyal to Rome and steadily more loyal to their individual commanders, leading to endemic civil war among the generals for the purple. In the late period, the Romans began to hire non-Roman mercenaries, as it became harder to recruit the early Christians, who did not believe in defending their worldly bodies or possessions, into the army. These non-Roman mercenaries were not only even less reliable (Alaric led tens of thousands of Goths to defect from the Roman army and march on Rome, sacking it).

The attentive reader will note that most of these tales of mercenary trouble are quite old. It would be highly surprising if the kind of private military contractors the US government hires in recent times were to defect in favor of say, the Taliban. But then again, why would that be so surprising? The Taliban doesn’t have any money, and the Taliban is vastly weaker than the US army even without contractors. Defecting to the Taliban is a losing proposition. The US military is so much stronger than others around the world that defecting to any other military from the United States would likely result in a world of pain. Mercenaries, to the extent that we feel we can get away with relying on them now, are only reliable to the extent that we don’t actually need them–our ordinary armed forces are extraordinarily strong relative to to others with or without private contractors. Mercenaries are most apt to defect in cases in which the relative strength of the combatants is very close, such that the defection may turn the tide of the war. It is in this situation in which mercenaries can extract the most payment for turning their coats at the least risk. Mercenaries will abandon altogether their paymasters in situations in which victory appears hopeless. It’s not that modern contractors are different, it’s that the United States has never been in any situation remotely similar to that to this point.

Of course, that could change–and for that reason, it is important that the United States (and indeed, all states) always avoid dependency on private contractors. Private contractors are best used where they are a luxury and not a necessity, not especially crucial to the outcome. They should never be relied upon. The more minor the role, the better. Given that contractors tend to be more expensive than ordinary soldiers, ideally the state should not use any mercenaries at all.

Those stories of Roman generals defecting with their armies also resonates with me–when soldiers are not drafted but instead volunteer, only a certain kind of person becomes a soldier, the kind of person who volunteers to be in the army. The average person does not volunteer for military service, which is in part why citizens in countries with volunteer armies tend to lionize soldiers for defending them when they would not defend themselves. What these citizens miss is that volunteer soldiers do not see soldiering in the same way that they do–if they did, they would never have volunteered for the service in the first place. The result is that our military is psychologically and ideologically different from the the population as a whole, and grows more different the longer voluntary service persists. There is a growing class divide between those of us who see joining the army as a reasonable thing that one might do and those of us who see it as borderline crazy, or an immense and unthinkable sacrifice. In the time of the draft, every class of people had to fight in the army, and this widened the perspective of the army and made it match the general population culturally. Today, that’s no longer the case. Might this, over time, erode the devotion of our volunteer army to the people it serves, as it did in the Roman period? Might the army become increasingly sectarian and politicized? Might it one day be used to achieve domestic political objectives? All of this seems unthinkable now, but we have only been off the draft model for a few decades, and most of the post-draft uses of the military have been in relatively small-scale conflicts. The Iraq War was expensive, but compared to say, Vietnam, Korea, or in particular, the World Wars, its human cost to the armed forces has been slight. We have not really put the professional model to any kind of test, and the historical examples put its long-term efficacy in doubt.

This leaves me with a strong ambivalence, grounded in the history, toward both mercenaries and the professional army more generally. The most successful military forces have always been citizen-armies, levied through drafts. The big turning point for the United States, World War II, was won in that way. The deviations we have made from that model, more in favor of late period Roman practices, like hiring mercenaries and eliminating the draft, could, some day in the future, lead to unfathomable harms the contemporary mind cannot presently altogether imagine.