Mon, 22 May 2000

The case of mercenaries serves as a lesson for UN

By Gwynne Dyer

These, in the day when heaven was falling, The hour when earth's foundations fled, Followed their mercenary calling And took their wages and are dead.

LONDON (JP): A.E. Housman wrote that in 1922 about the old British regular army of long-service professional soldiers -- mercenaries, if you like -- who almost all died in three dreadful weeks near Ypres in 1914, in the bloody delaying actions that narrowly prevented a German victory in the first month of the World War I.

They were the same sort of men who had been the backbone of the British army in the battles against Napoleon under the Duke of Wellington (who called them "the scum of the earth"), and of whom Kipling wrote a century later that "single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints." They are still not the stuff of which yuppies are made.

Another British army of professionals arrived in Sierra Leone early this month, and saved a United Nations force that was on the brink of collapse. Like most UN peace-keeping operations, UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone was made up of many different national contingents that arrived piecemeal, and had no experience in collaborating with each other.

Some of them were good soldiers at the individual level, but the command structure was chaos. Almost 500 UN troops (out of a force now numbering 8,500) had already been taken hostage by the ragged, drugged-up teenagers who make up Foday Sankoh's rebel army. Panic was spreading through the UN command, and the city of Freetown trembled in fear of another incursion by the limb- chopping lost boys of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Then a mere 1,500 British troops flew into the country, ostensibly to evacuate British citizens, and turned the situation around. They secured the airport and the city center, flew UNAMSIL troops back to the front in their helicopters, and generally put some backbone into the operation. The British government swears that they are not part of the UN force and have no operational role, but they have already outstayed any need to help with an evacuation.

On Wednesday morning, on a patrol 20 miles (30 km.) out from Lungi airport, twenty British soldiers ran into a group of around forty RUF troops. A firefight broke out, and in ten minutes the RUF force fled, leaving four dead behind. Not one British soldier was even wounded. What does this tell us about professional soldiers (mercenaries, if you like), and about the composition, utility and future of UN peacekeeping operations?

It tells us, first of all, that in conditions of small-unit combat, well-trained, well-equipped troops enjoy an absolutely crushing superiority even over much larger numbers of less well- trained men.

On the high-tech battlefields of the developed world, where artillery fire, air power, and even nuclear weapons dominate, the traditional soldierly qualities matter for less, but in the low- tech environment of the typical UN operation, they make all the difference in the world. What the typical UN operation desperately needs (but spectacularly lacks) is well-trained professional soldiers who are used to operating together.

It takes months of combat or years of peacetime training to forge such a force, which is why its core members are usually "mercenaries" in the broadest sense of the word. Short-term volunteers and conscripts come and go too quickly. The true professional soldier is someone who stays around long enough -- who actually makes a living from it.

The men who held the line against the savage cruelty of the RUF "rebels" in Sierra Leone for some years were true mercenaries supplied by Sandline International with the secret support of the British Foreign Office. Then Britain's complicity was confirmed, there was a great scandal, the mercenaries were withdrawn, and the country went to hell.

Eventually, with the RUF halfway into power and the population wholly traumatized, Sierra Leone was granted the doubtful mercy of a UN peacekeeping force. It arrived late and did little good -- whereupon a small force of British professionals showed up and saved the day. The main difference between the earlier British "mercenaries" and today's British regular soldiers, however, is that the more recent lot are working for their own country, whereas the Sandline lot were working for somebody else's.

But that's what ALL UN troops are doing: working for someone else's country. Might it not be a good idea, then, to create a professional UN army that can actually do the job? A non-national army whose soldiers really want to be there, who spend enough time training together to be useful, and whose inevitable casualties do not threaten the survival of any national government. It's not a new idea, but it is an idea whose time has come.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth's foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.