Monday, July 13, 2009

U.S. troops: modern-day mercenaries?

"The fact is, they [mercenaries] have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend..." - Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. 12

I’m a big fan of The Prince by Machiavelli; I think it’s definitely a must-read for everyone even remotely interested in politics (and it’s a fairly short read as well). The above-mentioned quote comes from a chapter in which Machiavelli discusses the ways a ruler goes about defending his territory. Machiavelli puts forth the options of 1) using one's own army, 2) using mercenaries, or 3) a combination of the two. A mercenary is defined as the following by

1. working or acting merely for money or other reward; venal.

2. hired to serve in a foreign army, guerrilla organization, etc.

With Machiavelli's quote and the first definition (since the second definition is irrelevant to this discussion ) in mind, I ask the following: are there some (emphasis on some) members of the United States Armed Forces who are, essentially, modern-day mercenaries?

Let me say this: US troops (especially the ones who have been, or are currently, deployed to war zones) display such courage, loyalty and selflessness that the label of "mercenary" seems blatantly disrespectful (which I don't mean to be by any means) if taken merely at face value. For many people the discussion stops here, because for them to even speculate that US troops are mercenaries is a big slap in the face to those who have given their lives serving this country.

Fair enough. But here’s the million-dollar question: why do most people in this day and age join the military to begin with? Is a sense of patriotism the prime motivating factor for enlisting? For some (like the late Pat Tillman), yes, but I would speculate that this does not ring true for quite a few, or perhaps even for the majority. A steady income, the possibility of travel, educational opportunities, medical benefits, financial perks (such as reduced interest rates for loans, student loans being paid off or deferred, etc) and the like are more than likely the main reasons for people joining the military. I know they were mine and I have no shame admitting it, because I know that I would have never joined if there weren't any perks to joining the military besides the steady pay and at least 4 years of job security (barring any court-martials or early discharge, of course). Many would probably echo my sentiments.

So, with all this on the table, does that make me - and other military folks who, like me, joined up primarily because of the perks - a mercenary? I'm really not sure. One the one hand, I would fight for this country if needed, and there is no way I'd ever jump ship to another country's military, or illegally assist another country's military (or militia or non-state actor), no matter how much they offered me; my services are for sale, but only to one buyer.

On the other hand, if the military reduced base pay or threatened to remove perks such as the G.I. Bill or other educational opportunities, there's no way I'd stay in longer than my current contract or, if I wasn't already enlisted, there'd be no way I'd enlist to begin with. I certainly didn't join for the base salary alone; my last job paid way better than the military. But it didn't offer a G.I. Bill, travel opportunities, or tuition assistance to get my master's degree even without using the G.I. Bill.

Serving in the military is first and foremost a job, and our modern-day society dictates that having a job means one is compensated monetarily. Being a soldier in and of itself requires payment, so that negates the idea that a soldier is a mercenary simply because he gets paid. But when some members of the US military (myself included) join mainly for the perks, at what point (if any) do they cross the line from being a soldier into being a mercenary?

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