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Birth of a PMC (Private Military Contractor)
Birth of a PMC (Private Military Contractor)
by Peter "Razor" Slade
(This article is excerpted from his just-released memoir, Razor’s Edge).

Most employment experts suggest putting a professional “summary” at the start of one’s resume or CV. I think mine describes me quite well.

The majority of my professional life has been associated with the military/security industry. I have had extensive local and international experience, dealing with multi-national, high profile clients. I have strong management and training skills, and continue to be very much involved operationally.

This means I prefer to spend at least part of my time in the field, “doing,” as well as planning, managing and training others to do – important as that is. But what have I been doing? There are a few questions, one might ask.

Am I a mercenary? Am I a security consultant? Am I a private military contractor? Am I a free lancer, or as they sometimes say today, a deniable? Am I a bit of all of them, perhaps? Decide for yourself. Personally, I am not sure the question really needs an answer, or that an answer is really relevant.

See the movie “The Wild Geese“. This first rate film is loosely based on the career of Major “Mad” Mike Hoare and events in the Congo in 1964 and 1965. This is a good film, but also one with lessons. The lead character, played by Richard Burton, and the other main and supporting characters, are soldiers for ‘’hire’’– and for a lot more money than they earned in the military. The soldiers Burton and his men are fighting against, are brutal and murderous, seemingly more interested in serving their commanders, and their own privileges, than in serving their people. Burton and his men are working to rescue a democratic leader. So who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys?

Is soldiering for pay, by definition, bad if you do it for another government? But is it no problem, if you do it for your own government? Is regular military service a good thing if it is for a bad cause?

I have not always used good judgment – no one always uses good judgment. But I like to think, that at least as to goals, if not always methods to reach the goals, I was ethical, or at least tried to be. One lesson I learned, is that the ethical way tends to be the more practical way. Rough methods, to put it mildly, may be necessary – but be very careful. Ends only rarely justify the means. Doing a small bad, for a big good, only rarely works.

Whatever I am, I joined a long tradition.

Probably the first work of serious military history was The Anabasis -- at least after the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Anabasis by Xenophon, tells of the adventures, or misadventures, of a force of Greek mercenaries trying to get home from Persia. Xenophon and his men get caught up in, and end up on the wrong side of, of Persian politics. Their leadership was betrayed and murdered.

Xenophon was one of those who took over, and had to get his men home. Getting home from a war has been a classic plot element since The Odyssey. Cave men probably sat around the fire telling tales of how they returned from some adventure. It still appears in such books as Star Rangers, the classic science fiction novel by Andre Norton[1], heavily adapted from The Anabasis.

The tradition continued of hiring outside soldiers continued. The Roman army hired auxiliary troops, recruiting them directly or through local chiefs. Most of these troops were non Roman citizen residents of the empire, or of friendly barbarian tribes. The auxiliaries were first hired to bring skills in which the Roman army was short, in particular cavalry. However, the Romans probably had no conception of deniability, at least in dealing with other nations. They wanted people to know about their power.

In the Middle Ages, in a transition time between feudal armies raised by the local lords, and varying mixes of professional and draft armies, kings sometimes relied on mercenaries when they could not afford to keep a regular army.

During the American War of Independence, both sides used American Indian allies to attack the other side, even civilians supporting the other side, often brutally. The British government most famously used troops hired from the ruler of the German kingdom of Hesse -- the infamous Hessians. About one quarter of the British combat troops in that war were Hessians. Not so infamous in all cases, it seems, as many of them stayed in America after the war ended – roughly 5,000 of the roughly 30,000 who served.

The young French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette ended up commanding troops in George Washington’s army. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer, showed up claiming to have been a general under Frederick the Great. He was a bit of a con man – he had not been a general, maybe not even an officer, and the “von” marking Prussian nobility was questionable -- but this con man delivered what he promised, professional quality training to American troops, and contributed to the birth of the United States.

Things have changed since World War Two. During the Cold War a country, particularly a major power, did not want to have its “signature” on a military operation. One example is the British/French/Israeli actions which managed to tie down thousands of Egyptian troops in Yemen, with only about 100 men in the early 1960s. The American involvement against the Soviets, in Afghanistan after 1979, was much the same. But this time, the deniable third parties were the Afghan rebels. This is also a good example of the need to stick around after the job is done, and of the need to control those working for you. Neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989, left a power vacuum and is credited with helping set the scene for the Taliban to come to power, and all that followed. Afghanistan is a complex situation, not solved as of this writing – early 2011.[2]

PMCs are likely to continue to be a fact of life, as long as there are wars to be fought, and governments seek the cover of ‘’deniability.’’ Look at the recent Academy Award winning film The Hurt Locker. In one scene, the American unit at the center of the story runs into what they think is a group of Arabs in the desert. They turn out to be British personnel – probably PMCs. The bomb disposal unit is almost certainly regular army. But National Guard troops, a sizable portion in Iraq, may well, in many cases, have less military experience than retired military doing contract work as PMC’s.

I didn’t start out wanting to be a private military contractor. My active experience with the military was with the Australian Army. Part of which, was served in Vietnam, 1968-1969. I learned a lot. One thing I learned, is that with all it’s other characteristics, most of them bad, war included both the unpredictable and the absurd.

My first posting in Vietnam, was at ARU, ( Australian Reinforcement Unit ). This unit was located within the ATF, ( Australian Task Force ) base camp, in Phuc Thuy Province, South Vietnam. But we didn’t just sit and wait for the enemy to attack us. We patrolled outside the wire. One day I led a patrol.

I had taken a patrol out overnight, and we were to set up an ambush position about two km. from the main base. I got the guys together for a briefing at 1600hrs, issued extra ammo, claymores (mines), checked weapons, and told them we would be going out at 2000hrs. If the VC are going to come into one of the villages, they tend to do it late, and leave just before first light in the morning. Most of the guys in my section had only been in Vietnam a week or so, and it was their first patrol - they were a bit apprehensive!!

As the section went out through the wire, I checked each guy’s kit, to make sure he took only what was needed. Anything that rattled, or was going to get in the way, I took off them. The area we were going to be set up in is heavy bamboo, and makes a lot of noise when you are moving through it. The last thing you want is for metal objects hitting, or getting caught up in it, as we would have the VC on top of us in a heartbeat. The section was comprised of a scout up front, (on point) followed by 2-3 rifleman, myself, comms (radio ), a couple more guys, being the M60 gunner and his number two, 2IC (second in command), and a couple at the rear. In total, usually about 10 guys.

As we were setting up an ambush, I took an extra M60, so we could set one at each end of the track. We got to the location approximately at 2100 hrs. The section then went to ground and secured, as I wanted to take two guys with me and recce the area. Within 15 min. I found an ideal spot to set up an ambush position. It was a main track leading into the village, and I could see from the track compared to others, that it had been used regularly. Also there was heavy bamboo on each side, which makes it very hard for the VC to run off to the sides for cover. They would, particularly in the dark, stay on the track, and more than likely go back the same way from where they had come.

I got back to the guys, and told them the plan. We moved into position and set the M60s at each end, placed trip wires across the track with flares attached. We also put two claymores also each end. As the bamboo was so dense, visibility was limited, even with a starlight scope, (night vision, an earlier version of the scopes used to great effect in the two Iraq wars). The last thing I wanted was guys shooting at each other, as most of them, as mentioned before, were on their first patrol. I decided to lay the section out all on one side, and if the bad guys came down the track, we would let them come in ‘’deep’’ This means we let them get into the middle of the ‘’kill zone’’.

The reason for this is that once you open up, they will fire back, and those still alive will try and run out of it. The problem they face is getting to either end of the section in one piece, as they are in the middle. The claymore mines wouldn’t be used until they are running to either end, the trip wires with flares attached, are positioned also fairly deep in on the track. In short, when the flares go off, the bad guy is slap bang in the gates of hell, and there are 10 guys unloading with 2 M60’s, SLR’s, M16’s, frag. And last but not least, claymores. Placed in the right spot, they do a lot of damage. Inside the curved face of the claymore, are 400 steel ball bearings, when detonated by remote, or trip wire, they are very effective.

We all settled in and waited. The one thing you can be sure of, is that anything moving, is fair game – though we certainly would not want to fire on civilians. All the civilian population, for their protection as well as our, had to be back in their villages before last light, and can’t go back out until first light the next day. This is standard curfew drill right across South Vietnam. They also had to carry, 24/7, ID Cards.

It was about 0300 hrs. I could hear very slight movement coming from down the track. It then stopped. I pulled on the 550 cord (army issue cord). In an ambush situation, you can’t talk, or make a squeak, so you run the cord along to each guy, peg it in the ground next to him. When you give a couple of tugs he can either feel or hear it moving. It started again, and this time, it was closer, just as I was about to tug on the cord again, flares went off everywhere, weapons opened up. The smell of empty casings flying out from the feed plate of an M60 is something I’ll never forget.

It was all over in a matter of minutes. I yelled out for a status, (roll call) to see that everyone was ok. They were. We didn’t have to use the claymores, as there was no activity either end of the track, and no movement on the track in front of us. Best thing to do was to wait it out until first light. We only had a bit over two hours. I got on the radio and called it in to HQ. They had heard the gun fire from their location, and as we were the only patrol out that night, they understood it was us. I told them that we were ok, but didn’t know at this stage the status of the bad guys, and didn’t want guys wandering around on the track exposed in the dark. We would deal with it first light.

As the sun filtered through the canopy the next morning, it became evident very quickly, what the end result was. What we had scattered all over the track, were Mum, Dad and the kids coming home after a night out on the town. Yes, I know what you are thinking, but it’s the truth - A family of pigs!! The end result was worthy of a laugh, but in the end, the way the ambush was triggered; how the guys responded, was what we intended. They had done what they had been trained to do. Most importantly, there were no casualties on our side. Unfortunately that was not to be the case, as time went by.

We collected our kit, got HQ on the radio, and headed out back to base. In hindsight, we should have taken a pig back, and had a BBQ, but there was enough embarrassment as it was, let alone walking through the wire with a pig over my shoulders.

Peter “Razor” Slade is an experienced private military contractor. This article is excerpted from his just-released memoir, Razor’s Edge.
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Show Footnotes and Sources

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Copyright © 2011 Peter Slade

Published online: 02/20/2011.

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