Mercenaries: What They Do and How to Become One

private military contractor during the special secret operation Shutterstock

If the idea of working in a safe, pristine office isn't for you, then pursuing a career as a mercenary might just be your true calling.

Find out all about what this controversial career entails, what the earning potential is and what it takes to become one.

What Is a Mercenary?

First things first, let’s take a closer look at what exactly a mercenary is.

In the majority of cases, they are privately trained protection personnel motivated by financial gain, or, as in certain instances, professional soldiers hired to serve in a foreign army or militia, such as the French Foreign Legion. Unlike volunteers or conscripts, they have no political, religious or cultural affiliation to their employer and are simply offering their expertise on a professional basis.

In real-world terms, they are often referred to as private military contractors (PMCs) (or private security contractors (PSCs)), and are often hired either as personal bodyguards for VIPs, or as security personnel to protect private premises within dangerous environments.

 

Is it Legal?

This is somewhat of a grey area.

The United Nations technically outlawed the recruitment, training, use and financing of mercenaries with the UN Mercenary Convention in 2001 (although countries like Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – all countries with large militaries – have not ratified the convention).

Therefore, it's not uncommon to see licensed private security companies from these countries offering the services of these armed, highly-trained personnel to private bidders, with clients ranging from legitimate contractors such as telecommunications providers to the downright murky, such as so-called "private militias".

Critics, meanwhile, argue that the UN Mercenary Convention (as well as Protocol I of the Geneva Convention) were designed to cover the activities of mercenaries in post-colonial Africa, and do not adequately address the use of PMCs by sovereign states.

 

What Is It Like?

Stephen Friday, who spent 12 years in the British Army before becoming a PMC in 2008, told the Guardian that ‘certainly my worst incidents were as a PMC rather than in the military… The firefights were a lot closer, a lot more personal.’

He claimed to have once come under fire for seven hours as a soldier in Baghdad, but ‘it was worse’ as a PMC. ‘When you’re in the army, you’ve got an army behind you. As a PMC, you can’t call for back-up; you can’t call fire missions in… There was a stage in 2009, for a period of about 3 months, where we were probably losing guys every second or third day. It was violent and emotionally difficult.’

Another PMC, who didn’t wish to reveal his real name, spoke to CNN back in 2011 and said of his experience: ‘I had spent five months not eating, not sleeping, because you’d have death missions, seeing people get blown up all around me, going on dangerous missions where I could have died… I had so many close calls when we should have been killed, dozens of times… It didn’t happen daily, but it was dangerous.’

 

Why Should I Become One?

For the money, of course.

While it is an extremely dangerous job, the salary and perks for putting your life on the line are enticing. A PMC in the employ of an established provider can easily make up to £10,000 a month, tax-free; to put that into perspective, the average infantry soldier makes, on average, £14,637 to £27,054 per year, according to the National Careers Service.

Essentially, PMCs have the potential to earn as much £120,000 a year – 4.4 times more than what a soldier would typically make.

How Do I Become One?

While there aren’t any set traditional requirements to follow this controversial career path, there are some things you can do to make you a more desirable candidate.

Gain Relevant Experience

You won’t need a PhD to become a private military contractor, but most employers usually require previous military or law enforcement experience as a minimum. Candidates who apply for a job without this are hardly ever accepted. That said, some companies offer training programmes to aspiring PMCs who do not have prior military experience.

Learn a Foreign Language

Though not required, obtaining proficiency in a useful foreign language like Arabic, Kurdish, Pashto, Dari, Somali or French can be extremely beneficial and help you to build relationships with contacts in conflict zones.

Get in Shape

As with the military, physical fitness is a must – simple as. In most cases, there are strict requirements that you must meet, and you will have to complete rigorous tests which assess your physical strength and stamina.

Fix Up Your CV

As with most other jobs, you’ll need to submit your CV along with your application. Make sure that it clearly highlights your military and security-related experience, skills and qualifications, and don’t forget to check out our comprehensive guide to help you craft a stand-out CV, no matter the stage of your career.

 

Where Can I Find Mercenary Jobs?

Due to the nature of the job, you won’t really open your local newspaper and find an ad saying ‘Mercenaries Wanted’; private military contracting - known within military circles as "The Circuit" - is very much a 'word of mouth' industry.

Many PMCs land roles upon recommendations from former military colleagues, although you can also directly apply to companies that specialise in the provision of military and security services. Below is a non-exhaustive list of such companies:

  • Academi (US): Founded by former US Navy SEAL Erik Prince in 1997. Originally known as Blackwater and then Xe Services, the company received widespread notoriety in 2007 when a group of its employees killed 17 and injured 20 Iraqi civilians.
  • Aegis Defence Services (UK): Founded in 2002, Aegis' CEO is a former British Army Major General, while its chairman, Nicholas Soames, is a former UK defence minister. It has offices in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Mozambique.
  • Corps Security (UK): Established in 1859 as a means of employment for Crimean War veterans, Corps Security is a diversified security consultancy with offices all across the UK.
  • DynCorp (US): Founded in 1946, DynCorp is best known for providing the security for former Afghan president Hamid Karzai during his interim years in office, as well as training the Afghan and Iraqi police forces. They have also been active in Bolivia, Bosnia, Somalia, Angola, Haiti, Colombia, Kosovo and Kuwait.
  • Erinys International (UK): Based in Dubai (but with additional offices in the UK and South Africa), Erinys was founded in 2001 by former British Army officer Jonathan Garratt. It supported US operations in Iraq and also has involvements in the Congo, the DR Congo and Nigeria.
  • Pinkerton Government Services (US): Originally a private detective agency, Pinkerton was acquired by Swedish security giant Securitas AB in 2003.

Life as a mercenary can be extremely stressful and dangerous, especially if your employer is involved in a particularly violent conflict, but for those ex-military professionals who need the adrenaline rush - and, of course, the impressive pay cheque - the stress can be worth it.

What is your view on mercenaries? Would you consider becoming one? Have you, or do you, currently work as a PMC? Join the conversation below and share your thoughts with us.

 

This article was originally published in March 2015.