Yesterday we honoured that breed of person known as Soldiers. We can add the word ‘old’ in front, as in ‘Old Soldiers’ and we become particularly deferential. Somehow existing for 50 years in peacetime after your stint in the battlefield makes you even more worthy of our reverence. I do not say that in any critical way of our Armed Forces, I admire and respect them, but I am critical of the way the media mould and manipulate the titles we give to people who bear arms on our, or rather the Government’s on our, behalf.
You have only to add the word ‘mercenary’ in front of ’soldier’, to enter a completely different descriptive vision of the man with a gun.
There is a convenient fiction, upheld at every opportunity by the main stream media, that a soldier signs up, fights in the battlefield, and exists, in a noble and laudably simplistic manner, purely to fight and defend Queen and Country and with no thought of the financial benefit to himself. Whereas a ‘mercenary soldier’ is assumed to have no thought for anything beyond the financial benefit, and is thus denigrated.
This has nothing to do with ‘fighting for a foreign power’ – the Gurkhas would not be venerated in the way that they are if the objection was as simple as fighting for and on behalf of, a foreign power.
We can find examples of our own Armed Forces advertising which extol the many benefits of signing up – learning a trade, travelling the world – I have yet to see an advertisement which extolled the virtues of dying nobly for your Queen.
Undeniably, mercenaries are better paid than ‘regular’ soldiers, but if you took away the many (assumed!) fringe benefits of belonging to the regular army, the army housing, the support (??) for when things go wrong, the medical treatment for self and family, the training, etc, and merely left the basic wage behind, then the Army recruitment figures would quickly look pretty sick; the higher pay assumed to be the province of mercenary soldiers is in part to compensate them for the fact that they are ‘on their own’ when things go wrong.
Mercenaries are often portrayed as a ‘rag tag and bobtail’ army – and certainly John Banks and his cohorts expeditions into Angola in the early 1970s fed into that image, even those conscripts who did have military training often turned out to be hopelessly inappropriate – there is only so much training as a submariner that is of use in the midst of the Angolan jungle. However, companies such as Sandline and its subsequent spawning as Aegis International, and certainly the infamous US Blackwater have won their reputation on the back of the knowledge that they employ some of the most highly trained and skilled military personnel – trained by their respective countries.
It cannot be the fact that mercenaries do not always fight for the power ‘in control’ of the country – were that true then we would be in more difficulty than we are to justify the use of foreign troops – including our own – to topple the ruling power in Iraq, or to install the corrupt Kharzi regime in Afghanistan. Mercenaries have a long history, particularly in Africa, of fighting for regime change.
It is certainly not true that mercenaries do not fight for their own Governments, nor are they automatically disapproved of when they fight for other Governments. Aegis holds a $300 million dollar contract with the American Government for the work it carries out on its behalf in Iraq. Blackwater has a similar arrangement.
Machiavelli might have had a point when he argued that mercenaries, with their assumed sole motive of pay, might be less inclined to take the sort of heroic and selfless actions that are often required in battle, but that is an argument against their effectiveness rather than an explanation to why they should be so denigrated. The Italian Army has a long history, possibly unfounded, of being seen as less than heroic – it doesn’t result in their being termed mercenaries.
Some 2,000 Britons, including many from the Commonwealth, travelled to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War, without the backing of their Government – they managed to escape the label of mercenary, even though, notionally, the Government of Spain was at peace with Great Britain, so technically they were in contravention of the Foreign Enlistment Act.
When Simon Mann flew into Harare airport with 64 like minded individuals (and we have not yet proved to my satisfaction that they had any more or less interest in the financial rewards involved than any other soldier) he was memorably described as being a ‘complete twit’ for having left behind his comfortable retirement in South Africa to go on a ‘jolly jape’ – would he have been described thus for having come out of retirement to join a territorial unit in Afghanistan? I doubt it, his heroism would have been lauded. Not one word was said of President Mbasogo’s appalling Human Rights record – instead it became a ‘given truth’ that they could only have been after the oil billions – or ‘Wonga’ – to the point where the episode became known as the ‘Wonga Coup’. I have never heard of the UK soldiers entering Kuwait, or Iraq being described by our media as engaged in a ‘Wonga Coup’.
Now that Simon Mann has been released, allegedly as a result of having agreed to testify against the supposed involvement of Mark Thatcher and Eli Calil – Peter Mandelson’s close friend and earstwhile landlord in time of need – in the Equatorial Guinea affair, we can be sure that the fur will fly. Mann has had several years of ill health in a less than salubrious Equatorial jail to ponder the semantics of whether he is a mercenary or a soldier, and who exactly put him in that position.
How the media handle the accusations and counter accusations that will be flying faster than ricocheting bullets will be equally as interesting as the story behind the posited involvement of the UK and Spanish Government in the coup itself.
Meanwhile Mark Thatcher must be wishing he could get lost in the Saharan desert again, and as for Eli Calil – possibly praying that his chum Mandy is still in a position of influence when the writs hit the fan.
Coming to a cinema near you shortly……….