Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries:
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
— A. E. Housman
I recently finished reading A.J. Venter’s 2006 book, War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars – The Modern Mercenary in Combat, a fascinating collection of exploits by modern soldiers of fortune, with an emphasis on Africa. Venter is an experienced “Africa Hand” and has been writing about the continent for decades. I can’t help but think he belongs to a dying breed of journalists. One of the photographs included in the book depicts Venter – graying beard and all – dressed in camouflage, holding an AK, and posing with one of the South African mercenaries he was “embedded” with in Sierra Leone. The back cover features another image of Venter in the front pod of an Mi-24 Hind gunship as it prepares for a sortie against RUF rebels. To get his story, Venter isn’t afraid to take risks that most people would pale from, occasionally becoming part of the story in the process.
By contrast, today’s ideal journalist is the Ivy League-educated political reporter who measures success in terms of subversion and risk in terms of distance from the nearest coffee shop. Their output focuses ad nauseum on political nuances that exist only in their minds, and they rarely venture out of their precious coastal cities; forget venturing into some Third World hellhole (though they will claim credit for this if they’ve ever traveled beyond the suburbs). Without reporters like Venter much of what happens deep in the wilds of the world would pass unknown to the rest of civilization.
The stories recounted in the book range from the halcyon days during decolonization to the current operations of private military corporations in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a particular emphasis on aviation; with no industrial capabilities of their own, underdeveloped African states often employ mercenaries to pilot the handful of Eastern-bloc aircraft in the government’s inventory. Venter relays some truly remarkable adventures: Neall Ellis, the prolific South African gunship pilot who single-handedly saved Sierra Leone from RUF rebels – not once but twice – by flying multiple combat sorties per day for months on end (Venter often accompanied him on these missions, hence the photograph on the back cover); Dana Drenkowski, the American pilot who flew hundreds of missions in Vietnam, fought for Ian Smith in the Rhodesian Bush War, and even flew for Qadhafi (back when the CIA still had a relationship with him) before settling down for a successful career as – of all things – a San Francisco lawyer; the first mission of the South African firm Executive Outcomes, when a handful of mercenaries defended Angola’s Soyo oil installation against hundreds of UNITA rebels for several days.
The exploits of Executive Outcomes in both Angola and Sierra Leone are fairly well-known, but Venter is one of the few journalists to write about them in detail. In Sierra Leone a few hundred EO mercenaries accomplished what tens of thousands of UN troops would later fail to do: defeat the RUF. Venter’s account of UNAMSIL’s (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) will be disturbing reading for anyone who still hopes that blue helmets will bring peace. The mission was monumentally corrupt and incompetent. The military forces that were committed – entirely by Third World governments, as is typical of UN missions – were useless. Some Nigerian officers even became involved with the RUF to enrich themselves from Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth. Even more disturbing, there is evidence that, out of some juvenile fascination with revolution, some NGO personnel acted as informants for the RUF despite the latter’s horrific atrocities. And yet they constantly condemned the mercenaries (who were actually fighting the RUF) as paid killers.
Venter closes out the book with a discussion on the industry’s efforts to “go legit” through incorporation, and how this process is playing out in Iraq and Afghanistan. He echoes several other commentators by asserting that the world should welcome the advent of private military corporations. After all, contract soldiering is as old as war itself, and it’s not going to die; allowing mercenaries to “go corporate” makes it possible to regulate, channel, and exploit the phenomenon in the service of national interests and the international community at large.
Interestingly enough, Venter interviews several people who worked with Simon Mann, the recently released British mercenary who was jailed in Equatorial Guinea for his role in a coup attempt, and few have anything nice to say about him. Some of his colleagues thought him an arrogant little man who always managed to make himself scarce when the shooting started. It’s fair to say that many were frustrated by the entire harebrained scheme, which was a PR disaster for mercenaries trying to go legitimate in the corporate world; overnight Simon Mann and Co. undid years of work toward improving the credibility and public image of the private military industry.
The book itself could have used some better editing. As I mentioned, it is not a cohesive history but rather a collection of exploits. Venter has a tendency to repeat himself and to veer off in a completely different direction in the middle of his chapters. Some of the tales he recounts have only one witness (the person involved) and thus seem rather exaggerated (a few “there I was…” sort of stories). But the book is an excellent read or those interested in how the mercenary industry has evolved over the past 5 decades and the corporate direction that it’s headed in.