Sunday, June 10, 2007

The hole in my head

Robert Young Pelton, amongst other things, is also an author and a journalist. The kind you can’t describe without bringing into mention a dash of steel and the unmentionables. Pelton has a habit of running into people with issues – you know, the kind who use ammunition belts to hold up their pyjamas and don’t mind using a blood-dried dagger to pick their teeth, ears and other bodily orifices. Pelton, who has made a living off his encounters with genial folk like those from FARC and the Taliban, once ran into a bloke called Bob Denard. French born Denard was called Gilbert Bourgeaud as a child and Said Mustapha Madjoub as husband to a Comoran girl in the Comoros. Between the two, Denard went to Africa, cut his teeth at the high-stakes business of mercenary warfare and was left standing while a litany of governments and rebels played musical chairs to the sickening tune of skulls cracked open by machetes and Magnums. In the Comoros however, Denard, with a tiny private army had staged a successful coup and practically ruled the islands. Pelton mentions how, when he first met Denard, he took Pelton’s hand to the dimpled crater on his head and said, “Here, feel the hole in my head”. Boyish bravado is typical of most mercenaries (an unpopular word, now replaced by the more acceptable Private Military Company/Contractor or PMC).

Traditionally, mercenaries were soldiers of fortune who would happily slit any throat as long as they got paid for it. If captured, they did not enjoy Prisoner of War status and a summary execution was the usual fate. And yet, so lucrative is the business of war that organisations like Sandline International and Executive Outcomes (EO) became immensely profitable businesses by supplying private armies to oil-rich, weak-kneed governments and corporations. In the 70s and 80s in Angola, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebels stayed afloat in the war against the government with the help of American dollars and the South African army. The same UNITA, in the 90s had to face off against their one time allies – former South African regulars now employed by EO – who were now fighting for the Angolan government. After the cold war, mercenaries became unpopular, even illegal and many private armies disappeared, their philosophy sustained in spirit by the Mujahideen. They travelled across the globe for faith more than fortune, as they fought against the ‘enemies of Islam’ in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo and then Iraq.

The Iraq war proved to be a shot in the arm for mercenaries on both sides of the political faultline, as Mujahideen fighters from the Muslim world as well as PMCs from Europe, South Africa and USA descended on the second largest oil reserves of the world, to make the most of a bloodbath. While the excesses of mercenary Mujahideens like Zarqawi have been well documented, what deserves mention is that a lot of the wanton aggression in Iraq, including some of the events at Abu Ghraib, for which coalition regulars got blamed, had been perpetrated by trigger-happy American PMCs who couldn’t control their weapons, their emotions or their hormones. Ex SAS John Geddes, now a British PMC, wrote of an incident involving a British PMC column headed for Baghdad. With Union Jacks fluttering like butterflies in a garden, they came across an American PMC column that started shooting at them. The Brits jumped out and started waving, hoping that that would stop firing, and thankfully it did. The British convoy leader, unable to restrain himself, asked one of the trigger happy Americans why he was shooting at a convoy that was flying the Union Jack. Nonplussed, he replied that he thought it was the Iraqi flag. And as Geddes mentions, it didn’t occur to the idiot that even those flying the Iraqi flag were supposed to be on his side. Boorish behaviour has been the calling card of mercenaries across time and space. From the Barbarians who raided China, to the war vets who took and switched sides in Africa, to the Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries in Kashmir to the PMCs and insurgents in Iraq, almost all have invaded with a view to plunder. And sooner than later, they end up making enemies of their staunchest defenders. Without accountability or responsibility, they take what they can and often destroy the rest. There is nothing glorious about killing strangers for money, and whether they do it in the bye-lanes of Fallujah or Florida, most deserve to be treated like criminals.

PMCs in Iraq make up a bigger contingent than the British forces. South Africa has been increasingly wary of the high number of South African PMCs and the firepower they command and Jeremy Scahill’s book, Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army warns of the ills that could stem from letting private armies grow unchecked. There are almost 100,000 PMCs engaged in Iraq, making almost $1000 a day, much more than the average American soldier, helping the Bush administration sustain an unpopular war and its tenuous positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Time to remind a hole headed American about another mercenary they once had eating out of their hands – a certain Osama bin Laden.

Soldiers of fortune

Mercenaries have been in existence for over 3,000 years, maybe more. Maybe because hiring highly trained soldiers to do one’s dirty work just makes so much sense. If you have the money that is, because these guys aren’t exactly at bargain basement prices. But still, starting from ancient Egyptians to present day U.S.A, governments all over the world have found them to be a useful and a convenient tool with which to further their political ambitions. Due to the nature of their work, mercenaries care little about nationalism, patriotism or any other irritating ‘isms’, except for capitalism. So history records Greeks fighting against Greeks while in service of their Persians masters. Such instances are innumerable in the saga of mercenaries.

Among the most famous mercenary outfits is the French Foreign Legion. Formed over 150 years ago, this small band of hardcore soldiers, collected from all over the world, has fought in numerous wars, local conflicts and many other little known skirmishes. Over the years this outfit has maintained its reputation as a dangerous, committed and capable force. The British too have a tradition of hiring mercenaries; for instance the Gurkhas, who continue to serve Queen and country (although no longer as mercenaries). In recent years mercenaries have been active mainly in Africa where they are directly or indirectly involved in dozens of coup attempts (successful or otherwise) and are partly to be blamed for destabilizing the region. PMC’s like Blackwater or Sandline are the modern day mercenaries. These are being extensively used in Iraq by the U.S. military, as they are the only viable solution owing to the manpower crunch, and the need to keep things quiet.


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