World Building Wednesday: Mercenaries

Tweet of the Day: Meditations on Ray Bradbury


Mercenaries are extremely popular in speculative fiction. They make for both disposable cannon fodder for the baddies, despicable villains that do what they do for the money or roguish anti-heroes who  follow their own conscience.  Often the realities that create a need for and sustain mercenary work are often ignored to the detriment of the story.

Mercenaries rise out of extended periods of warfare. Most mercenaries cadres are the veterans with extensive experience which either train raw recruits or recruit more veterans for their cause. Often these men were trained under a form of government, be it tribal, city or nation-state and then sought work as mercenaries. The continuing cycle of conflict provides them with a source of employment. But why would rulers chose to hire mercenaries forces  instead of raising their own armies?

Mercenaries can do three things for a ruler, either provide an instant army, a disposable army or provide instant expertise.

In the first scenario a state has the funds but not the time or means to raise an army. Thus they turn to mercenary companies to providing a military force that can be deployed immediately, usually for a short amount of time. Hire them for too long and they will put a serious dent on your treasury.  Even in situations when there is a standing army, the demand to expand it may be so great that mercenaries are the only ones that can do it quickly enough before they meet the enemy.

The second scenario occurs when a war is unpopular among the nation’s citizens. Mercenaries are often foreigners whose loss will no be mourned by the nation’s mothers nor will take laborers from their task. Thus the ruler trades treasure for foreign blood while keeping his economy intact and his people happy.

The third scenario is a far more common one in modern times. Buying basic weapons like rifles or anti-tank rockets is easy, creating a modern well discipline army is not. Mercenaries provide basic training to the country’s troops and fill more technical spots on the armed forces rooster such as pilots, technicians or similar duties until the army can come up with their replacements. Thus the infantry maybe local militia, but their officers, helicopter pilots and communications specialist are mercenaries filling technical positions.

Yet the author must always remember that no matter how colorful the traditions or how honorable the mercenary leadership may appear to be, these are soldiers of fortune. Their primary motivation is money. That means that when they have no loyalty to their employers beyond the four corners of the contract. That means that if the money stops or they get a better offer, more often than not they will abandon their employers or worse, turn on them. They are also despised by regular troops since they do not share loyalties or follow the same rules.  And, as mentioned above, because they work for money, rulers often see them as disposable, often using them as shock troops or leaving them to their fate on the battlefield.


2 comments on “World Building Wednesday: Mercenaries

  1. Thanks for the great post!

    I’d never really thought of why mercenary companies form or why people would hire them, but what you’ve written makes so much sense I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

    I’m looking forward to further Wednesday Worldbuilding posts!


    • You’re welcome. This was a comeback of sorts, since I hadn’t written a World Building post in awhile. Ran out of topics to talk about. Let’s see if I can pick up the pace.


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