Soldiers For Sale
Foreign nations lure ex-military adventurers to teach war tactics
by Rowan Scarborough, American Legion, Apr 2002, p.18
Rob Krott quit the active-duty U.S. Army in 1988. But more than a decade later, he still has not left the battlefield. The former infantry officer is a genuine soldier of fortune, although he'll tell you the fortune part of the job is mostly myth. Krott can point to hotspots on the map, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa, where he's hauled a sleeping bag and fatigues and plied his combat trade as either a freelancer or American corporate employee.
"I was bored," Krott says. He recalls the moment in 1993 he decided to join the Croatian army. "It was a European ground war. When was the last time we saw one of those? It was something I wanted to do. It's what some other ex-American soldiers are doing now. They're bored and they want to put to use what they learned."
Hard numbers don't exist on how many American mercenaries roam the world looking for action. Army Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., say perhaps 200 ex-Green Berets work for foreign governments today. Most, if not all, work for private U.S. companies under license from the State Department. They teach combat skills rather than directly participate in violence.
A precedent exists for what they do. The job of mercenary is as old as the nation-state itself. Foreign soldiers helped expand and maintain nearly every great empire. The ancient Romans, Greeks and Chinese all used mercenaries. Today, only the chaotic African continent provides steady work for soldiers-for-export, most often former commandos from Britain and South Africa. The French Foreign Legion stands alone among Western powers as a reminder that armies used to be regular places of employment for foreign combatants.
A Natural Progression
In the five-year-old civil war in Afghanistan, no reports exist of ex-American soldiers joining the opposition Northern Alliance and fighting the Taliban. The best opportunity for ex-military people came from the CIA. It assembled a paramilitary force of several hundred field officers to aid the rebels.
The job of mercenary, however, is not so much a dying art as an evolving one in a natural progression - from exported soldier to corporate employee, with health and pension benefits to boot. Being a mercenary has gone legit.
The U.S. State Department issues scores of permits annually to U.S. security companies to train and advise friendly foreign armies. The Cold War's end 12 years ago, along with America's status as the world's most efficient military power, opened up new opportunities for these companies in places like Taiwan, the Balkans and Saudi Arabia without Soviet protests.
"It has become more institutionalized," says Dwight Swift, managing editor of the Colorado-based Soldier of Fortune magazine, a forum for rugged, gun enthusiasts like Krott to read and write about mercenary adventures. "A lot of us grew up on the idea of forming groups and joining causes and actually building our own units. That's changed a lot. I think now companies have taken the role over. They are not forming armies as we did, but they are certainly in the business of training government troops."
Military Professional Resources Inc., an Alexandria, Va., firm founded by retired Army generals, is credited with turning a ragtag Croatian military into a top-notch group able to handily defeat Slobodan Milosovic's Yugoslav Serbian army and keep their country independent and democratic.
Another Northern Virginia company, Vinnell Corp., supplies to Saudi Arabia a cadre of ex-American service members who train the oil kingdom's National Guard. The Guard is the country's elite force charged with protecting the House of Saud from assassination and insurgency.
Soldiers of Fortune
The last ex-American GI known to have died violently while engaged as a mercenary is retired Army Col. Bob McKenzie in 1995. He went to the West African nation of Sierra Leone on the payroll of the ruling government council, whose forces were battling the rebel Revolutionary United Front. British press reports said RUF fighters killed McKenzie while he was scouting for a live-fire training range.
Krott says that whether his urge for excitement takes him to Somalia, Kuwait or the Balkans, he makes sure he sides with the "good guys." He views his service in the Croatian army in 1993 as an example. The Yugoslav army invaded the Croatian Republic in 1991, and Krott and about a dozen other ex-GIs saw their roles as helping an emerging nation beat back an evil force.
"Most of us were not mercenaries," he says. "To a lot of us, this was just plain old adventuring. 'Soldier of fortune' is a much better term."
In Croatia, Krott was paid $250 a week in German currency. "I taught them light infantry, everything from small-unit patrolling to rappelling, to rubber-boat insertion," he recalls. "We did everything from hand-to-hand combat to mine warfare, long-range patrolling, reconnaissance, communications and map reading. It was sort of like Ranger school, without the starvation and stress."
For a lifelong soldier like Krott, the best pay lies in corporate America, where a grunt can make $50,000 teaching basic tactics. An ex-soldier skilled in weaponry can earn more than $100,000 teaching tank warfare or signals intelligence. He says he earned $10,000 a month in Somalia in 1993, working for an American company. "The most money I ever made is when I was paid by my own government," he says.
A Risky Business
Rusty Rossey, a former Marine who specialized in survival training and desert warfare, aided anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua from bases in Honduras. In the early 1990s, he advised the Guatemalan army on counter-insurgency tactics. "I didn't do any of this for more money," says Rossey, who lives in the United States making precision rifles and teaching marksmanship.
Rossey declines to say whether he engaged in combat in Central America, or in Burma in the late 1980s where he traveled to teach rebels fighting an oppressive regime. People like Rossey are reluctant to discuss their overseas adventures for a reason. It is risky business not just from a physical standpoint, but also from a legal one. The U.S. Criminal Code generally prohibits an American citizen from serving in a foreign military.
William Woodruff, a former Army lawyer and now a professor at Campbell University School of Law, says any American joining a foreign army is legally at risk. "It would certainly raise the issue, especially if in some way, shape or form that foreign force came in hostile contact with elements of the United States," Woodruff says.
U.S. statutes single out those who enlist as commissioned officers in foreign armies, Woodruff says. "The law is assuming some sort of leadership. When you are a commissioned officer, you are an officer of the United States. When you are a private, you are not. It is not a constitutional office you are holding."
The rules for retired military personnel are much stricter, says Charles Gittins, a former Marine Corps judge advocate general who practices military criminal law.
Gittins also says that any American who decides to fight on his own overseas cannot expect constitutional protections enjoyed by the U.S. armed forces.
Money to Be Made
A nondescript office building in Alexandria, Va., best personifies the corporate face of the modern-day mercenary. It sits a few miles down the Potomac River from the Pentagon and contains some of the brightest minds ever to wear Army green. Former three- and four-star generals created Military Professional Resources Inc.
"We were majors and lieutenant colonels when the Vietnam War ended," said retired Lt. Gen. Ed Soyster, an early MPRI executive. "When the all-volunteer Army came, we recognized it was going to have to work. When people hire us, they want U.S. military expertise because of the status of the army we left behind."
MPRI's president is Gen. Carl E. Vuono, an ex-Army chief of staff. Its vice president is retired Gen. Ronald H. Griffith, who led a division in the Gulf War. Ex-generals founded the company in 1988 chiefly to advise the U.S. Army. Their brainpower helped the Army devise new doctrine and training techniques, leaving active generals free to stay in the field with their combat units. The fall of the Berlin Wall created new opportunities, especially in the fractured, hate-filled Balkans, where democratic minded Croatians and Bosnians needed help breaking free from Yugoslav Serbs.
Croatian officials were wise enough to realize they had little skill at building a civilian-run armed force. "'We don't have the foggiest idea how to do this,'" Soyster recalls the Croatians telling MPRI in December 1994. "'We're a bunch of old communists.'"
The company decided money was to be made in the Balkans and won permission from the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls to work overseas. Soyster said the firms' involvement in Croatia spurred news stories that the company was a shill for the U.S. government and passed intelligence to the Croats that helped them defeat the Serbs in 1995. The suspicions were fueled by the fact that Soyster's last posting was as director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. But Soyster calls the speculation "pure myth."
The 1995 Dayton Accords provided a larger market share. While the U.S. Army went in to keep the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims apart, the State Department needed a second party to teach them to work as an effective armed force. MPRI got the contract, hired more than 200 ex-Army soldiers and went to work teaching the Bosnians how to organize and use the hundreds of pieces of surplus armaments flowing into the shattered country.
Today, the company that began as a consulting team for the U.S. Army has employees working for foreign governments in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Soyster says that at first MPRI was tight-lipped on its overseas operations. This may have contributed to what he terms "myths" about the company's true involvement in the Balkans. Today, officials readily grant press interviews and invite journalists to view headquarters.
A Close Eye
Not all companies take an open-door approach. DynCorp generally doesn't discuss its consulting operation in the Latin America drug wars. Vinnell Corp., a subsidiary of TRW, declined to answer questions about its contract to advise the Saudi royalty. Company documents state that Vinnell is "a leader in training foreign military forces to U.S. standards. Vinnell has been the contractor for training and modernization of the Saudi Arabian National Guard." It advertises for ex-soldiers able to train the Saudis in battalion operations, the Bradley fighting vehicle, anti-tank weapons and physical security to guard against terrorist attacks.
The U.S. closely regulates MPRI, Vinnell and other "corporate mercenaries" for a reason. The government does not want its seal of approval on direct military actions that it cannot control, and it does not want exported soldiers to appear to be doing the United States' dirty work.
No company better illustrates such pitfalls as the now-disbanded Executive Outcomes, which tried to cash in on Africa's corrupt leaders and prolific insurgencies. The South African-based company closed shop in 1998 after media reports charged that its cadre of apartheid-era ex-soldiers directly participated in bloody conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone and Papua, New Guinea. The Associated Press quoted the firm's director, Nico Palm, as saying that improved government-run armies, not misconduct, forced Executive Outcomes out of business. South Africa was so alarmed by reports of abuse it passed an anti-mercenary law.
But in the United States, corporate soldiers of fortune are thriving. "People have a misconception of what a mercenary really is or what an American soldier might be involved in," Rossey says. "These little countries where all these wars are going on all the time don't need-trigger pullers. They need people that are valuable as instructors to show them how to carry out their desire or intent."
Rowan Scarborough covers the Pentagon for The Washington Times.
© 2002 American Legion
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.