Mercenary: noun

  1. A professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army.
    “He had planned to seize power with the aid of a group of mercenaries.”
    Synonyms: soldier of fortune, professional soldier, hired soldier

When a samurai lost his lord and became a ronin, he often had one of two choices if he was to continue living by the sword. He could either become a bandit and sacrifice his ethics for money, robbing and murdering the innocent, or he could offer his sword to another lord in an attempt to serve again—retaining his honor and his livelihood.

Let’s talk about one of the oldest professions in the world known by a dirty little word that has always had a bad stigma attached to it: mercenary. Over the past few years, during the war in the Middle East, volunteers, freedom fighters, mercs, or whatever you want to call them, have become a hot topic. As time has worn on, they’ve become rather high profile.

This is in part due to social media and the fact that it has become easy to volunteer your services in a war zone. With this massive influx of volunteer fighters, the face of the modern mercenary is changing—possibly for the better.

In the past, a negative stigma has been attached to the term mercenary. Men who sold their swords and souls to the highest bidder. Scumbags with no morals fighting for whomever would write them a paycheck. Assassins. Now, while these types do exist and are very active in the modern world—the Chechens fighting for ISIS, for example—they are not the majority. There have always been two sides to the coin, a light to the dark.

These mercenaries for good have historically kept to the shadows. In my opinion, they do so primarily due to fear of reprisal from their governments, and perhaps partly due to the previously mentioned negative stigma and a lack of positive media attention on their exploits. However, as the frequency of media mentions increases, public opinion of those mercenaries will continue to change, and with that comes the dawn of a new age.

Pick a war zone, and a side, and you can find a foreign fighter in the ranks. They fight in the YPG, the Peshmerga, the Ukrainian military, and the Karen People’s Liberation Army. You can find them in Africa, combating Boko Haram. The French Foreign Legion arguably has thousands of foreign fighters in their ranks. These are just a few of the big ones, but just about every military force in the world has volunteer fighters in their ranks, attempting to make a difference in a world filled with conflict.

More often than not, these men are offering their services free of charge, regardless of what their reasons for fighting may be. Now, obviously this is not always the case. Mercs, even those who pick the moral high ground of a conflict, are still showing up for money. But what separates them from the image of the bloodthirsty mercenary portrayed in the media is the fact these men posses a moral compass.

The history of the mercenary is fascinating and covers a wide range of people and places. For instance, the first Gurkhas were mercenaries for the British, and they signed up for a paid term of service in a country’s military that was not their own. The French Foreign Legion, which is comprised nearly entirely of foreigners, conscripts men into the service of France and pays quite well given some of the places these men come from.

In the Rhodesian Bush War, men were traveling from all over the world to earn a wage, some of them even American Vietnam War veterans. There are countless other examples going back to the earliest civilizations, including the American Revolutionary War.


How is a man who sells his skills in war any different from a man who sells his skills in another field, such as a mechanic or a freelance journalist? You scratch out a living being paid for a skill you possess; it’s the same for anyone. Just because the mercenary trade involves violence doesn’t make it much different. As I said previously, those mercenaries from the developed world often join the fight on the side of moral justice, or in an attempt to better the world by helping an oppressed people. Sure, that’s a double-edged sword, but the good guys usually outweigh the bad, especially in the age of combating global terrorism.

I am fully aware that a mercenary is traditionally defined as a person “primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics,” but I feel that’s incorrect. I know many mercenaries who would never sacrifice their ethics for money, but will still search for an employer in a war. They just happen to pick and choose carefully in that regard, being careful to side with their government’s interests.

They are attempting to scratch out an existence and living using their skills while walking the warrior’s moral high ground at the same time. I think maybe it’s time we change our perspective of the so-called “mercenary,” because in an age where joining a war is as easy a Google search and a mouse click, a new breed of warrior is emerging.