Foreign Fighter or Mercenary: A valid distinction?

In spite of the recent attention that has been paid to the foreign fighter phenomenon, there’s still no agreement on just who foreign fighters are. Many academic definitions have been proposed, notably from Cerwyn Moore and Paul TumeltyThomas Hegghammer, and David Malet.

One thing most definitions share is that they exclude combatants who are motivated by money. The idea behind this is that it differentiates foreign fighters from mercenaries. However, this just raises an equally complex question: who is a mercenary? The Diplock Report of 1976 found it impossible to differentiate between mercenaries and volunteers because motivations for enlisting may ‘run through the whole gamut… The soldier of conscience may be found fighting side by side with the soldier of fortune – in the same ranks and for the same rate of pay.’

For love or money

David Malet found that as all foreign fighters receive some benefit for their services, it is hard to tell whether this is an incentive. The historical record also suggests things may be more complicated than we’d like to think. Tom Wintringham, who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War wrote that in October 1936 volunteers were paid three pesetas a day, which could buy ‘enough drink to knock any man off his feet.’ Australian volunteer Lloyd Edmonds, who enlisted as a foreign fighter in Spain in June 1937, wrote that he was making eleven pesetas a day, ‘big money when everything is supplied and all you buy is luxuries.’ There are conflicting reports of Islamic State fighters, however leaked internal documents reveal that they are also paid a salary and given provisions.

What’s in a name?

Citizens who offer their lives for their country are celebrated for defending the unique values of their nation. Perhaps this is why we assume that those who fight for foreign causes are motivated by tawdry considerations, like money. However, David Malet observed that insurgents typically lack the resources of their conventional adversaries, and struggle to use material incentives to attract recruits.

Nicholas Farrelly reached similar conclusions in his study of the foreign fighters in the Burmese civil wars. Farrelly found that economic incentives didn’t play an important role in their decisions to participate because the guerrillas didn’t have the resources to pay volunteers. Instead, he found the foreign fighters to be mostly adventurers. French Foreign Legion understands the desire for adventure. They have used change ta vie’ as their recruitment slogan for more than half a century.

This prompts the question: can we make a meaningful distinction between mercenaries and foreign fighters? If money is the only difference, how much money does it take to make a mercenary? Distinguishing actors on the basis of subjective motivation is highly problematic, and may result in artificial categories.