Why am I caught up in the Wagner Group drama? I love a gripping tale. Besides, I share the cultural fascination with groups that operate outside the law, provided they’re long ago and far away. It’s easy vicariously to relish the supposed freedom and adventure of old-time pirates, train robbers, and freelance fighters on horseback.
Freelance is a term from early-1800s Romanticism to mean medieval mounted warriors who fought for profit rather than loyalty to lord or country. We freelance writers will recognize the trade-off between security and independence. Mercenary is much older, from Latin for “hireling.” Soldier of fortune is another classic term for one who fights in other people’s wars, motivated by pay not patriotism.
Long ago and far away? Hardly. Much as the line between legal privateers and illegal pirates in Elizabethan England was a thin one, only a thin line distinguishes some “private security companies” from mercenaries. Remember Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq, responsible for many civilian deaths? It’s one of many, from Mali to Syria, Sudan to Indonesia. “Business is booming,” Sean McFate of the National Defense University wrote in 2019.
As best I can find, neither the U.S. nor Russia has signed the United Nations convention to forbid outsourcing warfare to mercenaries. The attractions are too great. The contracting nations get plausible deniability. Their contractors get a lack of accountability. It’s win/win for them, if not for anyone else.
Image: From Paulus Hector Mair, De arte athletica II, 16th century.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.