If fourteen of them had not been shot for unwillingness to fight, the presence of a small number of British mercenaries in the war in Angola might well have been ignored. Their presence being made known through that episode, the result was disclaimers and threats by the government—and a study in capitalist interests being pursued.


Mercenaries are soldiers who fight for money alone, without pretending they are for good against bad. They are the “universal soldier” practically as old as war itself. In the period when feudalism was giving way to capitalism they were the nucleus of every army in Europe. The German Landsknecht and the Italian Condottieri were troops which plied for hire. With the development of the capitalist state, national armies took their place.


However, mercenaries have never disappeared. To a large extent they are produced by national armies. Speaking in the House of Commons about those who went to Angola, the Prime Minister said many of them were contacted through “lists of names of former soldiers”. Of one modern force of mercenaries, the Black and Tans recruited by the British government to serve in Ireland in 1920, a historian says:


[They were] for the most part young men who found it hard to settle down after the war, who had become used to a career of adventure and bloodshed, and who were prepared to try their luck in a new sphere for ten shillings a day and all found. They were the same type, and produced by much the same circumstances, as the Congo mercenaries of our own day.

(F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, 1971)


In the 1939-45 war there were mercenaries on both sides. According to H. W. Koch in History of the Second World War (Vol. 7) there were 130,000 West Europeans, mostly Dutch, Flemings and French, in the German Waffen-SS as well as Russians and East Europeans. In The Big Lie (1955), a jingoistic account of Allied propaganda organization in the war, J B. White mentions Circassian mercenaries serving under the French in North Africa. Previously, in the Spanish Civil War, men were recruited for Franco from Morocco on the promise of pieces of land afterwards. Mercenaries have taken part in other more recent wars. Besides the Congo, they were employed in the Biafran war of 1967 and included air-pilots on both sides.


The distinction between mercenaries and soldiers in standing armies is a scanty one. Men do not enlist from patriotic or moral sentiments, but for pay and security spiced with physical excitement; in the past the Regular Army was recruited chiefly from the able-bodied unemployed. Discussing the legal position of the British mercenaries in Angola, a Times leader on 10th February said the existing law (the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870) “makes no distinction between fighting for money and fighting for a cause”. It would make no difference if it did. The British government’s alarm was not because these adventurers were deficient in lofty motives, but because they might imply a general British partisanship. The French government disowned mercenaries in the Congo for the same reason, and threatened to withdraw citizenship from them. What is “a cause”? In this context, a capitalist interest agreeable to Our Side.


In a speech in the House of Commons the Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Ennals, said: “The mercenaries by their irresponsible action, are not only acting against Britain’s interests, they are bringing more suffering to the people of Angola.” (The Times, 11th February). The mercenaries deserve contempt, but not in those terms. It is Britain’s interests, and those of capitalism all over the world, that are responsible for the suffering. In the Biafran war, while similar pious sentiments were expressed, about one-fifth of the Nigerian side’s military purchases came from Britain. The officers and advisers in the Nigerian army were largely British-trained.


The position over the sale of arms to developing states is summed up in a chapter “The Merchants of Death” by Philip Windsor in The History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 8 (1968).


At present, practically everyone sells in the Middle East; the major European arms producers—Great Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium—are chipping away at the virtual American monopoly in Latin America. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union have very large markets in South-East Asia. France and Great Britain sell what they can in Africa, and France is taking over the British role in South Africa.


Nor is this a nefarious conspiracy. It is normal capitalism : the production of commodities sold at a profit because of the certainty that normal capitalism generates wars inexorably.


“Mercenary” is a disapproving word, and mercenary soldiers characteristically are turned out and despised when their job is done. In this case it was sooner instead of later. There is another lesson here. People are often convinced by the idea of a “just” war; for instance, that the Second World War had to be, because of the Germans’ totalitarianism and their persecution of the Jews. In fact anyone who set out to fight on those accounts before his government found it expedient would have been dealt with as a trouble-maker. Governments carry out the compulsions of each one’s national capitalism. The workers kill and are killed, by order—until they see the reason, and decide they will have no more of it.


Robert Barltrop