A mercenary is a person who takes part in an armed conflict, motivated to take part in the hostilities by the desire for private gain.
Mercenaries have a long and sometimes distinguished, sometimes inglorious past. Some of the more famous mercs include those Hoplites used by the Greeks in their city state armies during the bronze age (300bc) and by Alexander the Great.
Roman and Byzantine armies used them extensively (sometimes getting honourable service, sometimes getting total betrayal) right up till 1453. German Landsneckt and Swiss mercenary pikemen duelled it out (mostly fulfilling their commissions) during the Renaissance but with the advent of nationalism, the mercenary fell into disrepute, distrust and disuse.
In more modern times mercenaries are totally reviled due to coup attempts by mercs in African and South American countries. However, it should be noted that the French Foreign Legion and the Gurkhas are NOT mercenaries under the laws of war - even if some journalists do describe them as mercenaries.
The USA has some ground rules and terms for 'Private Military Contractors':-
- A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.
- A mercenary is any person who:
- is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
- does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
- is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
- is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
- is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
- has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.