12/07/2002

Executive Outcomes and the mercenary life

Many people wonder, how exactly do mercenaries live? The image they have in their head is of a bunch of half-wild criminals and thugs dressed in colourful disarray, and armed like Rambo in First Blood II.

Actually, the reality is very different. Mercenary armies are mostly legal. They also often pay higher than normal armies, so we get really talented professionals applying. Training is important and mandatory, but one has a lot more free time than if one were in a traditional army.

In my first SA stint, I was posted with Executive Outcomes, a private South African mercenary army. Let me describe briefly how it looks like.

The base I lived at was in a South Africa ranch in the middle of about 10 kilometers of wildland. The ranch had a large number of small bungalows, and each bungalow had 16 inhabitants : 7 footsoldiers each in two rooms, and a sergeant and his aide in the other room. Meals were doled out at a central location, but one could eat anywhere, usually in the TV room. Outside, there were the usual outdoor training equipment, like crawl-barbs and logs. Inside was a very well equiped gym. On the left, about 1 kilometer distant was the shooting range. On the right about 5 kilometers distant, and confined with barbed wire to a 3 kilometer square was the warplay zone. If you went in there without authorisation, and got shot, nobody would care. In other words, you always had to register to enter that zone because of the risk of flying bullets. It was dug into the ground about 2 meters deep to prevent bullets from hitting camp.

The daily routine mostly consisted of morning training, lunch, and then you read a book, go for a conference, or go off into town. You could also go off to practise shooting or something. Every few weeks, we would get a job.

Mercenary Jobs are of different kinds. There are open missions, such as when we fought in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, or Ivory coast. In these cases, the government invited us, and we go fight on the side of the government, using local troops as backup, and it is known openly that we are mercenaries. In such cases, almost everybody would go, and only the 'crack team' would stay behind.

The 'crack team' was usually sent when the second kind of job came up. These are covert missions where we do not openly pose as mercenaries. For example, in Columbia, we have fought for both the government and for the rebels. We go there and fight in plain clothes. Mercenaries are usually not called in for banal tasks such as taking a town, but for specific tasks, like killing a certain leader.

And why are mercenaries so succesful? It is a combination of skill and some really bad-ass weapons. EO had some of the best bp-vests I have ever seen. They were very very light, and almost as thin as a normal shirt. I saw them stop .375s easily. EO also had RPGs with heat tracking grenades. They had a few copters, but I never saw those being used. They had a single spy plane, and it was used all the time.

Against that arsenal, it is no wonder that an army of 40 000 surrendered to a group of 300 mercs in Sierra Leone.