Considering recent and upcoming articles on SOFREP, I wanted to take a moment to flesh out the phenomenon of volunteer soldiers a bit more. As we’ve written about previously, mercenary fighting forces are hardly something new. For instance, one SOFREP writer pointed out to me that Europeans who volunteered to fight alongside the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans conflict used that experience to kickstart their careers as private security contractors, later finding work as bodyguards elsewhere in Africa and Europe.
Today, we see the same thing happening. Not all, but some of the volunteers in Kurdistan, Syria, and Ukraine, are attempting to build their resume so that they can move into the world of contracting. To be clear, contracting can be difficult even if you are a special operations veteran with combat experience. Even such guys oftentimes end up being glorified mall cops for the Central Intelligence Agency. The job isn’t quite as cool as movies and video games would have you believe. For someone who served in the conventional military but was never deployed, it is even more difficult to break into this industry.
The environment has changed. American forces withdrew from Iraq and are in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan. Granted, our troops have now been re-deployed to Iraq to advise and assist, but the days of hardcore combat deployments to Kunar or Mosul are long over with. Today, we have a generation of soldiers who feel they missed out on the Global War on Terror. Simultaneously, shooting wars are currently ongoing in Ukraine, Kurdistan, Iraq, and—to a lesser extent since the South Africans helped take out the trash—Nigeria.
So let’s take a look at the push-and-pull dynamics for the “new” paradigm of soldiering.
- Push factors: Missed the chance to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Lack of economic opportunities in home country. Lack of applicable skills to transition to the civilian world. Did deploy to combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, and enjoys going to war. Also may involve nationalistic and idealistic sentiments.
- Pull factors: Wars breaking out in various corners of the globe, some of which are open to accepting volunteer soldiers. Foreign militaries like using Western soldiers for public relations/propaganda to give the impression that the “entire world” is on their side. Ability to jump into a war may provide the opportunity for foreign volunteers to bounce into private security contracting down the line.
It isn’t so hard to imagine a potential career trajectory of a 21st-century “mercenary:”
- Four-year stint in the military of a Western nation.
- Volunteer to fight alongside the YPG in Syria, the Peshmerga in Iraq, or with Azov Battalion in Ukraine.
- Come home and jump on a maritime security contract in West Africa, East Africa, or the South China Sea.
- Go hang out with Karen rebels in Burma for a few months.
- Do an oil infrastructure security contract somewhere in Africa.
- With resume padded, you may eventually be able to find work doing executive protection.
This, of course, is just one possible outline of the career of a quasi-military contractor. The reality is that the career progression track in this line of work is anything but certain.
In the near future, one can imagine that the 21st-century contractor, mercenary, or volunteer soldier will survive on a combination of security contracts and donations through outlets like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. Sometimes I wonder if, eventually, each of them will have their own online ‘baseball card’ listing their experiences and stats. Sort of like those superhero cards I used to collect as a kid.
“Hey, look! Patrick is level nine with a Kalashnikov and level six with homemade explosives!”
In the coming years, I predict that the world is going to get a whole lot more chaotic. America created the market force for private security contractors, and the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine have provided a context for foreigners to sign up to fight. The foreign volunteers and mercenaries I’ve described are going to be swimming in a world of warfare between institutionalized, state-run violence and deinstitutionalized violence as freelancers. What happens next will be interesting to say the least!