Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Dogs of War

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare

Mark Antony's famous line, "Cry Havoc and let loose the Dogs of War," in Shakespeare's play Julius Casar, was his promise to take revenge upon the conspirators who assassinated Caesar. He knew very well that this would lead to a bloody civil war of Roman against Roman. His term Dogs of War, which formerly simply meant soldier, has changed somewhat over the years. Today it is a term often used for mercenaries.

The hiring of mercenaries has been a part of statecraft for thousands of years. While it was usually preferable to use native soldiers, rulers in the past were often forced to hire foreign born troops to augment their armies. The ancient Greeks hired themselves out to the Persians, the men of Genoa were known for their ability with crossbows and the Swiss fought in many of Europe's wars under other flags.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities in his American colonies King George III was faced with the immediate prospect of needing more troops. Rebuffed in his efforts to hire Russian soldiers from Catherine the Great, King George turned to the divided German states for his needs. The German Princes were more than willing to rent out their native sons for currency. Most of the soldiers came from Hesse-Kassal, which led to the German troops being referred to as Hessian's, but soldiers from Brunswick and other states were also hired.

Also during the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, along with many others, took up the cause of freedom and fought the British. Ireland's Wild Geese, Irish soldiers fighting under foreign flags, made a name for themselves throughout the world. During the Spanish Civil War many idealists fought against Franco's regime, while Nazi Germany sent troops, including the Condor Legion, to support Franco. Frances Foreign Legion, whose enlisted ranks are made up solely of foreign born soldiers, has been making history since 1831. Finally Jews from all over the world have fought for Israel since its creation in 1948.

Under the Geneva Convention and according to the laws of many nations, a mercenary is someone who hires themselves out as a soldier and is paid more than the common soldiers whose army he has joined. This is to differentiate a mercenary from someone who has joined a foreign army to fight for a cause he believes in, or quite often, because soldiering is the only trade he knows.

In the past being a mercenary, or as he is sometimes referred to, a soldier of fortune, was considered an honorable profession. Myles Standish in his hiring by the Pilgrims, the Ronin of feudal Japan, the hired soldiers fighting for Biafra's independence, were all mercenaries. They all fulfilled a need to provide military expertise, or perhaps just a sword, in a dangerous world. Today's world is not really all that different. It is perhaps a much more dangerous world in that today many choose to believe that the world no longer needs mercenaries, or for that matter, soldiers.

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