Fightin’ ‘Round the World – The Whores of War: Mercenaries Today

Well, I’ve done it. As discussed last time, I recently moved to London. The biggest issue involved in this move was, naturally, which books to take. I settled on about 20, and half of these were Pelicans in an attempt to force me to read some more of them. That way, this blog could take on a new life – in which the entries were on subjects as eclectic as the Pelicans, though in a sense by ranging from Star Wars to the Berlin Wall, we have already done that.

The Pelicans I chose were as follows:

  1. The Caliphate
  2. Aid as Imperialism
  3. Social Class in the 21st Century
  4. The Whores of War: Mercenaries Today
  5. Family and Kinship in East London
  6. Language, Truth, and Logic
  7. Asylums
  8. We All Fall Down – The Prospect of Biological and Chemical Warfare
  9. Derelict Britain
  10. The Chemical Industry
  11. Portugal: Fifty Years of Dictatorship

Where to start from this suitably diverse mix? I had to go with what I considered to be the best-titled and most interesting-sounding of these books – The Whores of War by Wilfred Burchett and Derek Roebuck.

The Whores of War is an expose of the dark underbelly of mercenary operations. The whole thing centres on the trial of 13 British and American mercenaries captured fighting in Angola in the mid 1970s. That’s where things start to get a bit confusing. It would not be unfair to classify what happened in Angola in the 1970s under “things that are a bit confusing”. Basically, in 1974 there was a military coup in Portugal designed to end decades of dictatorship. This led to the pretty swift independence of Portugal’s African colonies – of which Angola and Mozambique were the major two (sorry Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde).

Angola being the big one on the left

In Angola, there were three different groups all claiming the post-colonial crown. In true African nationalist style this meant there were a lot of acronyms, here’s a brief glossary:

  • The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) – were the ones to whom power was handed by the Portuguese. They continue to rule Angola today, and got some help from the Cubans, the Soviet Union, and other African countries.
  • The National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) – a more rurally-based movement, they got help from China initially, but also from the USA and – most importantly for this review – mercenaries. They were based in the North of the country.
  • The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), supported chiefly by the US and also South Africa – which actually invaded the country from Namibia (then South-West Africa, a South African colony).

Got all that? Salient point is – it was bloody confusing, and the invariably murkiness of trying to work out how mercenaries are hired and used makes it even more confusing. The first major problem with this book is that it does a very bad job of setting out what was going on in Angola at the time – assuming the reader has a familiarity which might have been the case in the mid-to-late 70s but certainly isn’t today. I only broadly had a grasp of what was going on because I have spent nearly half my life studying central African colonial history…

Essentially, white mercenaries were quite common in conflicts in a decolonising Africa, most infamously in the Congo, where the UN had to launch an operation (the excellently-named Operation Rumpunch) to kick them out. In a world wracked with economic depression, there were plenty of down-and-outs with military skills ready to fly out to a distant land and, to paraphrase a poster one of the recruiters had, meet interesting people and kill them. Roebuck and Burchett take a sympathetic view of these “whores of war”, deliberately evoking the image of desperate prostitutes at the mercy of avaricious pimps. With journalistic flair, they seek to expose the recruiters in Britain and America, who lured men out to Africa on the pretense of fabulous riches and full combat support. However, at the same time, we can’t forget that these mercenaries possess agency. They made a conscious choice to go and fight in Africa for money rather than earn it some other way, and the authors repeatedly highlight the ignorance of the mercenaries to the conflict beyond it being a means of earning hard cash. Many of these mercenaries visited, and relished in visiting, horrific violence upon Angolans and each other in the course of their job. They were not helpless men nor were they glamorous soldiers of fortune, but rather parasites feeding off the bloodshed of a particularly violent episode of African decolonisation.

White mercenaries fighting for the short-lived secessionist state of Katanga in the Congo Crisis, 1960s.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, then, is the way the authors erode the recruiters’ myths. The mercenaries who fought for the FNLA were neither well organised, nor well supported. The only remuneration many received was a premature death, sometimes at the hands of their own commanders like the psychotic “Colonel Callan”, actually Costas Georgiou, a Cypriot former Para who was dishonourably discharged and incarcerated for robbing a post office in Northern Ireland. They tell a story of the chaos and collapse of the FNLA’s futile attempts to hold onto the Northern areas of Angola, of greed, death, and brutality.

The problem with all this compelling source material is that it is not organised in any meaningful way. The authors jump from one thing to another, from the trial  to Britain, to Angola and back again. The book would benefit from a more coherent narrative structure, and it is a testament to the tale being told and the skill of the writers that it remains readable in this jumbled form.

Then the book takes a bit of a nosedive into what I can only describe as incredibly dull legal territory. What the authors are seeking to do is illustrate international law as regards mercenaries, and suggest how their use might be prohibited (one dreads to think what they would have made of companies like Blackwater). Parts of this are interesting – for example I learned that the United States was the first country to legally prohibit its citizens serving other countries for financial gain.

Parts of it are exactly the sort of thing you would expect from a rundown of laws – incredibly dry, lengthy quotations, many of which amount to the same thing. There is a serious point to all this – the authors want to bring to our attention the fact that governments, most notably Harold Wilson’s British Government of the day, weren’t doing anything to stop this mercenary menace, or even effectively enforce their own laws on the topic. As Burchett and Roebuck point out several times – both the Belgian and British police knew who the mercenaries who were travelling to Angola were (some had outstanding British arrest warrants), yet they did nothing to stop them going.

The book’s plea to end mercenary activity had a particular salience at the time, mercenaries were known to be operating in the Lebanon and – perhaps more interestingly for me – Rhodesia. The white Rhodesian military forces contained many soldiers from other countries, though the whites denied they were mercenaries because they received the same pay as ‘home-grown’ soldiers (a bit of a misnomer in a country where the majority of the white population was always born somewhere else). I was particularly intrigued by the mention of the infamous Selous Scouts unit (not by name) in the book by one mercenary recruiter:

“We understand that you can only get into the fourth group, currently unidentified, after having served in the SAS. They paint themselves black, speak the language, and actually filter into the terrorist camps.”

Naturally, the fact that the war in Rhodesia kept coming up made me very excited. For people less mad on Rhodesia than I am, this is important because – as the author’s argue – mercenaries were being used to prop up regimes (Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and others) which were denying colonial peoples their freedom.

So, in conclusion. The Whores of War was an interesting read, but perhaps more so for me because of the not inconsiderable background knowledge I could call open to make sense of its hodgepodge structure. The second part contained far too much legalese for my liking, lengthy quotes should never take precedence over succinct explanation of the same (which could have easily been done). I am going to be harsh for this and give it two cent signs ¢¢ to represent the mercs’ meagre pay. God only knows what the authors must think of the world today, which has seen the rise of Private Military Companies as states shrink their standing armies and the nature of warfare changes. There are even computer games in which  the player can manage their own mercenary company (god I loved Mercenaries 2).

On a more positive note, this is the first of my old Pelicans that I have read – one down, sixty or so to go!









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