Munich - Private armies have a very sinister reputation in Europe.Memories still linger of Germany's post First World War army veterans, the Stahlhelm, and Nazi Brownshirts, who battled Communist street toughs in Munich and Berlin.
Europeans remember Italy's fascist Blackshirts and, most recently, Serb neo-fascist gangs like Arkan's Tigers and the White Eagles who committed some of the worst atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Germany also remains haunted by folk memory of the hordes of blood-crazed mercenaries who turned much of this nation into a wasteland during the savage 30 Years War. The name of the great mercenary captain, Wallenstein, still resounds, and of those most feared mercenaries of all, the ferocious Swiss, who once terrorized Europe.
Wrote Machiavelli: "where there is gold and blood, there are the Swiss." The Vatican's Swiss Guard is a faint reminder of the "furia Helvetica."
Small numbers of mercenaries have been used in many modern wars, from Vietnam to Central America. The most famed modern mercenary force is France's tough Foreign Legion.
The rise of powerful mercenary armies within the United States, and their use in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an entirely new, deeply disturbing development.
Last weekend, mercenaries from the U.S. firm Blackwater gunned down 11 Iraqi civilians during an attack on a convoy they were guarding. Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, ordered Blackwater's thousands of swaggering mercenaries expelled from Iraq. But his order was quickly countermanded by U.S. occupation authorities.
There are 180,000 to 200,000 U.S.-paid mercenaries in Iraq -- or "private contractors" as Washington and the U.S. media delicately call them. They actually outnumber the 169,000 U.S. troops there. Britain pays for another 20,000. At least half are armed fighters, the rest support personnel and technicians. Without them, the U.S. and Britain could not maintain their occupation of Iraq.
These private enterprise fighters, like the Renaissance's Italian condotierri, German landsknecht, and Swiss pikemen, are lawless, answering to no authority but their employers. Democrats in the U.S. Congress are rightly demanding these trigger-happy Rambos to be at least brought under American military law.
The U.S. State Department now has its own little army in Iraq and Afghanistan of about 3,000 Blackwater gunmen who protect American officials and their local collaborators. Some reports say the State Department has spent $678 million alone with Blackwater since 2003.
Afghanistan's U.S.-installed leader, Hamid Karzai, is surrounded at all times by 200 American bodyguards, his own people not being trusted to protect their president. Iraq's U.S.-installed leaders are similarly guarded by U.S. mercenaries.
Nearly all Washington's contracts for mercenaries are awarded without competitive bidding to firms close to the Republican Party. Blackwater's owners are major contributors. Their 7,000-acre base in the southern U. S. is likely the world's largest non-government military operation and a menacing creation straight out of the famous film, Seven Days in May.
This unprecedented use of mercenaries has masked the depths of U.S. involvement in Iraq and clearly shows how little the occupying forces can rely on the locals, whom they supposedly "liberated." It has also allowed the U.S. to sustain an imperial war that could never have been waged with conscripted American soldiers, as Vietnam showed.
Vice-President Dick Cheney took Vietnam's lesson to heart by championing use of mercenaries for nasty foreign wars. But democracies should have no business unleashing armies of hired gunmen on the world.
Worse, these private armies hardwired to the Republican Party's far right are a grave and intolerable danger to the American republic. Congress should outlaw them absolutely. The great Roman Republic held that mandatory military service by all citizens was the basis of democracy, while professional armies were a grave menace.
How ironic that colonial America, which rose up in arms in response to the British crown's use of brutal German mercenaries, is resorting to the same tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. Europe wants no more of private armies. Americans have yet to learn this painful lesson.
Eric Margolis is columnist for the Toronto Sun.
© 2007 The Toronto Star