Paid to Kill: An Examination of the Evolution of Combatants for Hire

Throughout world history, as long as there has been conflict among people, there have been people willing to pay others to carry out violence. From assassins and mercenaries to bounty markers and paramilitary organizations, humans have found limitless ways to pay for their dirty work to be carried out by others. This process is one of the most common threads in human history and has been used by people in every position, of every origin, and in every location on the planet for thousands of years. The issue of pay for violence has entered the spotlight again in the modern age, as humanity moves closer together through information and technology proliferation. The world is growing smaller, and conduct unbecoming of a civilized society is finding fewer and fewer places to hide. This article examines, in part, the historical evolution of the roles of paid actors in the business of war and violence. A complete examination is not presented, as it would require detailing a complete history of humankind. The author instead focuses on the primary themes and points throughout history that explain the origin, necessity, and permanence of paid-for violence, framed by supporting historical and modern-day references to illustrate the concept of combatants for hire and their impact on human society.

Point of Order

Payment comes in many forms, not just money, and over time violence has always been paid for by the cheapest means possible, sometimes even just by allowing life to continue or through advancing promises of ideological or moral philosophies. Jihad, for example, is a direct bounty from Allah on the heads of all infidels, the reward being not financial at all, but promises of luxurious life after death. The most common form of payment is, of course, money and has been used widely for thousands of years to incentivize the public into helping catch or kill criminals or declared criminals of various forms. From wanted posters in the wild west to the modern-day Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) most wanted list, American law enforcement has continuously been a significant end-user of various types of bounty systems. Technically, all modern military forces are also a party to the payment-for-violence system as well, as the primary function of all militaries is either offensive or defensive killing operations, and they all receive payment from participating. Assassins, since humanity’s early days, have often performed their art for a variety of forms of payment, including revenge, land, influence, or positions in leadership, and of course, money. Some assassins and mercenaries have proven this point to the extreme by conducting operations for opposing factions of a single conflict, sometimes even simultaneously working for both. No matter which way the issue is framed, payment for death is a long-standing human tradition, and it is here to stay until the concept of violent conflict is eliminated.

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Assassination has commonly been used as a form of political terrorism. From a historical context, assassinations have been used to instigate larger movements, such as insurrections, rebellions, revolutions, and other events over time designed to conquer a social system or ideology of an era or region on Earth. In 1933, the attack on President-elect Roosevelt by an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Zangara, was an attack on the concept of leadership itself. Zangara professed that it didn’t matter who held the office and that his target was the symbol of the Head of State—any Head of State—as he admitted to considering other U.S. Presidents and the King of Italy as targets as well.1 The modern term ‘character assassination’ is based on this historical and persistent type of motivation for actual assassinations, where the ultimate goal is to target a public figure in a way that moves the public ideology surrounding the target in the desired way, which has become common in today’s political environment.

More to the point of payment for death, assassinations have been one of the most effective and persistent tools of ruling bodies, always. The first known writing describing methods of assassination is Kautilya’s Arthashastra (1915), an ancient text from India dated to somewhere between 300 BC and 300 AD. The text encompasses many areas of governing, including chapters concerning war strategy, poisons, spy techniques, and strategies for assassination-style killings.2 While payment is not explicitly discussed, the text is clear that the persons used in these operations are employed as a form of combatants. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (1910), believed to be written in the 5th century BC, also briefly mentions assassination as a type of mission assigned to paid spies.3 Echoing the ancient Indian Arthashastra(1915), a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) file, A Study of Assassination (1953), that was declassified in 1997, likewise details modern versions of assassination techniques, potential weapon ideas, and methods to be used for killing,4 and presumably was used as a training doctrine for paid employees of the Agency from its estimated publication in 1953 until the assassination ban encompassed in Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Impacts achieved from assassinations, or other forms of paid-for violence, can vary from insignificant, like the Italian who failed to assassinate President-elect Roosevelt, to toppling governments or starting a major war. World War I, for example, was initiated by just such an act. Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence and leader of The Black Hand organization, Dragutin Dimitrijević, was the head of the snake that took a bite out of the Habsburg Monarchy by orchestrating the assassination of the heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914. The same Dragutin Dimitrijević had led an overthrow of the Serbian Monarchy just a decade prior, in 1903, to install a puppet on the throne to enhance his power and political relations with Russia.5 The Black Hand, a unified “Serbian nationalist organization,” also known as “Unification or Death,”6 was recognized as an arm of the Serbian military, acting as an early twentieth-century clandestine organization much like modern Private Military Companies (PMC), with civilian members who could offer plausible deniability to the government when necessary.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an advocate for peace,7 and at the time, most Serbians wanted to retaliate against Austria-Hungary for annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The Archduke was; therefore, the primary obstacle preventing a war that Dimitrijević and many Serbians wanted to start. Ferdinand was also the heir to the throne, and the Emperor was dying, which provided Russia an opportunity to eliminate a Monarchy standing in the way of Russian expansionist ideas as well. This opportunity incentivized Russian approval of the assassination, even if it meant going to war as Serbia’s ally. War could not be achieved with the Archduke constantly advocating for peace and preventing any Austro-Hungarian aggression, so The Black Hand assassins, controlled by Dimitrijević, launched their operation. Ferdinand was attacked in his motorcade on his way to give a speech in Sarajevo, but the attack did not go as planned. The first assassin shot at Franz from a distance and missed; the second threw an explosive that ricocheted off the Archduke’s car and exploded under the vehicle following behind.8 This first attack failed, and the Archduke survived to give his speech, only to be targeted on the next leg of his journey through the city by the remaining assassins. As the motorcade came to a halt, Gavrilo Princip walked up to the vehicle and shot Franz in the neck, and his wife in the gut.9 Both died of their wounds shortly thereafter.

After the assassination of the Archduke, there was a military escalation of forces between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and all of their allies. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, one month after the assassination of the Archduke, after Serbia refused extraordinary terms offered by Austria-Hungary, which were not expected to be met anyway. Russia, allied with Serbia, mobilized its military upon this declaration of war, and Germany responded by declaring war on Russia, which caused Russia’s ally, France, to declare war on Germany. Then Germany invaded Belgium to get to Paris, instigating Britain, allied to Belgium and France, to declare war on Germany, followed a few weeks later by Japan, bound by a military treaty with Britain – Voila, World War I.10 While this is a unique assassination in the history of assassination because the goal was achieved, this is not an unprecedented success in the theme of payment for death, or of payment for death in war, as the history of mercenaries changing the tides of battle clearly shows.


Mercenaries have been participating in violence for likely the same amount of time as assassins, though generally on a more public and destructive scale, without much in the ways of stealth and treachery. Before countries began fielding standing armies, mercenaries were the primary method of large-scale combat. Being a mercenary was a regular job. Groups of mercenaries would sell their services to the highest bidder, always aware that nations would continue to find reasons to use their services. When problems became scarce, and nobody wanted to pay them, they would create problems of their own, extorting their hosts in the process. Throughout most of history up to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648, which were the origin of the modern-day nation-state with recognized national borders, mercenaries were the primary forces used for war.11 Mercenaries grew primarily to fill a skill void in the area of combat expertise. Before the creation of standing armies, the duties of war were rotated among individuals too often to retain the necessary experience and skill to achieve efficiency, which led to the rise of experienced warriors willing to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Eventually, mercenaries became a global industry, attracting violent, greedy people with the sole motive of money as their driving purpose. The only logical outcome of this scenario is chaos and tyranny, if for no other reason than that the existence of a large permanent mercenary population creates a strong incentive for constant war. In peace, mercenaries posed a threat to the general population, often resorting to extortion for protection to continue their livelihood when their services were not required, as happened in France in the late 15th century following the end of the Hundred Years War.12 Despite the drawbacks associated with mercenaries, the industry itself survived long after the Peace of Westphalia, and even into the modern world, as supplemental forces to a standing national army have often been seen as desirable for several reasons, from bolstering force size to match an enemy force to bending the rules of national militaries to provide plausible deniability.

Force size has been a constant issue in war, often leading to hiring mercenaries to supplement militaries. This method is not always successful, however, as Great Britain learned during the American Revolutionary War. Unable to maintain security throughout the British Empire around the world and quell the American uprising simultaneously with available military forces, Britain hired approximately 10,000 Native Americans and 30,000 German mercenaries to help fight the American Continental Army.13 The Revolutionary War highlights the fact that mercenaries are only as good as the money they are paid, illustrated by the fact that the American Congress instigated the distribution of “leaflets offering the Germans land and livestock” to switch sides.14 The nature of the Revolutionary war itself also highlights a more general flaw in the use of mercenaries, in that the Revolutionary war, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, had “no cause but malice against liberty.”15 This stance points out that the cause of a war, if not properly sold to the participants, can cause a severe undermining within the ranks of the combatants, in turn hurting morale, fostering dissent, and decreasing efficiency, which was experienced significantly on the side of the British. Ultimately, the British use of mercenaries failed to win the war; however, the resulting Constitutional debate was greatly informed by the use of paid actors in warfare, strengthening the Constitutional guidelines for military force regulation in America.

As America grew throughout the transition of the world from mercenary warfare to national militaries, mercenaries became less and less acceptable to the international community. Mercenaries became used primarily to provide plausible deniability to governments and avoid regulations, in much the same way assassins have been used to further objectives of leaders over time. The controversy over the use of mercenaries in warfare grew so extensively that the United Nations decided to institute a new international law, in the form of a treaty titled the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, signed in 1989.16 The treaty is interesting in that while signed by many countries, neither the United States nor Russia, the two primary superpowers at the time, has signed onto it since its creation, and the language used in the treaty leaves significant room for interpretation, specifically with regards to the treaty’s definition of a mercenary.17 These flaws have led to the continuation of non-military payment for violence, both with the continued use of bounties and bounty hunters and in the case of carefully labeled paramilitary forces that don’t fit within the legal parameters of the treaty definition for mercenaries.

Bounty Systems

In the late 19th century, after the American civil war, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a precursor to the American FBI, established what amounts to the first criminal database in history, with mug shots, wanted posters, and descriptions of criminals and their crimes, all circulating in newspapers across the country and filed with the agency until the death of the criminal.18 Bounties have also been used extensively since the signing of the 1989 UN treaty as an incentive for individual citizens to assist law enforcement and governments in capturing or killing wanted persons, from criminals to terrorists. The most widely known examples of this in America are the FBI’s most-wanted lists, which are updated regularly, and put price tags on fugitives at large in the United States and around the world. Among the lists, the FBI provides a top ten list of fugitives and a top ten list of terrorists, with price tags ranging from thousands to millions of dollars in rewards for information leading to capture.19 While the FBI’s bounty lists today are generally for capture, not killing, some infamous outlaws in American history, like Frank and Jesse James, were the targets of wanted posters that promised a reward whether the criminals were brought in dead or alive.20

The American justice system outlined in the U.S. Constitution eventually eliminated the use of dead or alive wanted posters, as they are illegal under the Constitutional Bill of Rights that provides for a fair trial before sentencing. Still, the bounty system remained intact for capture. During the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, another bounty-style system was used to target the most important members of the Iraqi forces and government, in the form of a deck of cards. The Defense Intelligence Agency, after years of research, developed a target/value identification system based on the standard value system assigned to a deck of cards in poker games to assist ground forces in identifying targets of value in Iraq.21 Saddam Hussein occupied the highest value position, the ace of spades, with consecutively lower-valued individuals identified in succession throughout the deck, aces first, then kings down to twos. While money was not directly associated with this example, prestige was undoubtedly a motivating factor for ground forces capturing high-value targets, and the system set the stage for non-government paramilitary forces to participate directly in ongoing military operations during an active war.

Private Military Companies (PMC)

Blackwater quickly emerged as one of the first major controversies of the 21st century, as a PMC working for the United States government in active military combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, without oversight from Congress equal to that of U.S. military forces, but with missions encompassing the same areas as the American military.22 Acting independently of the military, the organization participated in defensive and offensive combat operations to help accomplish military missions of the United States. Without military oversight, and acting directly on behalf of the Executive Branch of government, PMCs like Blackwater are nearly identical to historical mercenary organizations working for pay in combat environments. The United States is not the only country with PMCs. The practice has become widespread since the signing of the 1989 UN treaty banning mercenaries and includes the Russian PMC, The Wagner Group, which is essentially the Russian version of Blackwater. The authoritarian government of Russia, however, has resulted in a much more dangerous version of a PMC than Blackwater and has included domestic operations within Russia as well as foreign operations.23

Iranian governing practices have given rise to a very different type of PMC. Iran’s military, paramilitary, and intelligence organs are all essentially PMCs in the way that they operate due to the nature of Iran’s government structure, and they are all directly controlled by the Supreme Leader. The primary arms of these enterprises are the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These organizations work together in directing and supporting the PMC-like Quds Force operatives around the world in support of collection efforts, intelligence operations, paramilitary operations, assassinations, and terrorist activities. While the Quds Force advances Iranian efforts to export revolution around the world, their local PMC-like organization, known as the Basij, works to subvert independence within Iran, assisting in tyrannical oppression of free speech and liberty within the country and violently suppressing any attempt to cause disturbances against the Supreme Leader. Iran targets enemies abroad using a decentralized system of third-party actions and efforts, combining the principles of the bounty system and PMC architecture instead of engaging directly in combat efforts. In 2006, for example, when the Islamic State terror organization was still called Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I),24 the MOIS provided “financial, material, technological, and other support” to their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, directly supporting the terrorist’s war against U.S. personnel in Iraq.25

The contrast between Blackwater and the Iranian Quds Force is extreme, but the core issue inherent in their existence is nearly identical. With the rise in popularity of PMCs around the world after their successful use by the United States in the War on Terror, the core issue of their existence needs attention from the world. The international community recognized that even though Blackwater was targeted for their deeds, their success in achieving mission goals was undeniable. China, Pakistan, Great Britain, Australia, India, and many other countries have worked to develop similar types of organizations in their countries to take advantage of the gray area of contractor combat operations. These organizations are primarily in the employ of the Executive Branch of government or its national equivalent. They are generally not under the structure of the national military for legal purposes or oversight. They are mercenaries, being used in the modern-day to bolster force size that otherwise cannot grow and to skirt existing national and international laws with regards to combat operations and security. While the attention drawn to Blackwater caused them to change their name to Academi, the core issue of the existence of PMCs, in general, has not been significantly addressed in the international community.


The practice of paying people to kill has been around for a long time and is likely to stay, absent total world peace. The question that comes to mind isn’t whether or not this process exists, or even how to eliminate it, but rather, what the best way forward is for the United States and the international community, knowing that this process is an inherent part of world politics and international relationships. Attention, publicization, and regulation are likely the most effective weapons against barbarity in warfare, as has been shown throughout history. Attention drawn to assassins led to a ban on the practice of assassination. Attention drawn to mercenaries led to a ban on mercenaries. Attention drawn to the American Constitutional justice system led to the elimination of dead or alive bounties. Attention drawn to PMCs led to a restructuring of the relationship between the United States government and third-party contractors and continues to shape the potential future of PMCs. When the people of the world pay attention, publicize rights and wrongs perpetrated by governments and leaders, and work to create effective regulations to ensure that human dignity and individual liberty are the primary goals of such regulations, freedom succeeds, and tyranny fails.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency, including but not limited to the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, or the Marine Corps. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any U.S. government entity.


1 William Crotty, “Presidential Assassinations,” Society 35, no. 2 (1998): 102-103.

2 Kautilya, Arthashastra, Translated by R. Shamasastry, (Bangalore: Government Press, 1915), 461-474.

3 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Lionel Giles, (London, UK: Luzac and Co., 1910), 34.

4 Central Intelligence Agency, “A Study of Assassination,” Central Intelligence Agency (1953), Accessed on July 2, 2020,

5 Donald Yerxa, “July 1914: An Interview with Sean McMeekin,” Historically Speaking 14, no. 3 (2013): 12-16.

6 Elena Kosmach, “Serbs and Russians,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 43, no. 1 (2001): 109-114.

7 Ian Beckett, “Franz Ferdinand,” Historian no. 120 (2014): 18-22.

8 Geoffrey Wawro, Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, (Boulder, CO, USA: Basic Books, 2014), 104-106.

9 Wawro, Mad Catastrophe, 106.

10 Martin Levinson, “Mapping the Causes of World War I to Avoid Armageddon Today,” Et Cetera 62, no. 2 (2005): 157-164.

11 Matthew Underwood, “Jealousies of a Standing Army: The Use of Mercenaries in the American Revolution and its Implications for Congress’s Role in Regulating Private Military Firms,” Northwestern University Law Review 106, no. 1 (2012): 317-349.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Benjamin Franklin, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin, (Eau Claire: E.M. Hale & Company, nd), 253.

16 United Nations, “International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries,” United Nations (1989).

17 Ibid.

18 Pinkerton, “Our History,” Pinkerton (2020), Accessed on July 6, 2020,

19 FBI, “Most Wanted,” FBI (2020), Accessed on July 6, 2020,

20 Sophie Tanno, “$5,000 for Jesse James ‘Dead or Alive’ and $100,000 for Lincoln’s Three Killers: The Fascinating Wanted Posters for America’s Biggest 19th Century Criminals,” Daily Mail (2019), Accessed on July 8, 2020,

21 Doug Sample, “The Faces Behind the Faces on the ‘Most Wanted’ Deck,” American Forces Press Service (2003), Accessed on July 6, 2020,

22 Underwood, “Jealousies of a Standing Army.”

23 Kimberly Marten, “Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group,” Post-Soviet Affairs 35, no. 3 (2019): 181-204.

24 Kenneth Katzman, “Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights,” Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East 5, no. 4 (2014): 415-476.

25 Library of Congress, “Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security: A Profile,” Federal Research Division (2012), 37.

Joshua E. Duke

Joshua E. Duke served as a military intelligence analyst, including 24 months in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I, II, III, and IV. He holds a B.A. in Intelligence Studies with a Concentration in Counterintelligence from American Military University, and is now serving in his second branch of the military. Joshua focuses on several national security and intelligence-related subjects, including new approaches to counterterrorism using counterintelligence-based models, autonomous weaponry developments and their applications to international law and United States national security, and the future impacts of the space domain on global economics and security.

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