By late 1940, Japan had conquered Manchuria and was pushing south and west across China. Japan planned to subdue China and then turn east, towards American possessions in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, and Hawaii. President Roosevelt wanted to fight Japan in China before the war came to us, but what we’d now call “boots on the ground” was politically impossible: America had recently helped win the largest war in history, and wanted to let the rest of the world stew in its own juice.
align=”left” Mercenaries have been used (with varying though often impressive success) at least since Ancient Persia, and continuously throughout the 20th Century. They are the middle ground between conventional fighting and shoulder-shrugging.
That October, leather-faced ex-Army flier Claire Lee Chennault arrived in Washington from China, where he had been Chiang Kai-shek’s air advisor since the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The Chinese didn’t have the training or the equipment to fight the Japanese in the air. Chennault had an interesting proposal: a mercenary air force of American planes flown by American volunteers. The idea appealed to Roosevelt, who authorized the American Volunteer Group in April 1941. Roosevelt’s advisor Thomas Corcoran set up a shell corporation called China Defense Supplies, which bought a hundred P-40 fighter planes and recruited the pilots to fly them, in most cases straight out of the US military. Pilots received a much higher salary than they had in the army, and got a danger-bonus of $500 for every Japanese airplane shot down. The volunteer squadrons were to fight under the Chinese flag. But it was all paid for with US tax dollars.
This modest expenditure turned out to be absurdly efficient. The group became the “Flying Tigers,” famously recognizable by the devouring jaws with which they decorated their planes. They were the first Americans to fight the Japanese in World War II, and in less than a year produced more than twenty aces and shot down 230 planes. And though their first combat mission was a few days after Pearl Harbor and the AVG would be reincorporated into the U.S. military the following year, the Flying Tigers remain a cultural icon, a symbol of American fighting spirit––and an illustration of how America can fight a war without ordering troops to do it.
The United Nations Mercenary Convention of 1989 bans the use of mercenaries, but the United States is not a signatory—neither is the UK, Russia, or France. The French Foreign Legion remains the most renowned mercenary force in the world today.
In American law, the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 was intended to prohibit the government from hiring private detectives to act as policemen (the largest detective firm at the time was the Pinkerton Agency). With odd logic, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977 deemed this highly specific injunction to prohibit military mercenaries. Congress could fix that simply enough by authorizing a new American Volunteer Group.
It would start experimentally with one infantry regiment and a company each of armor and artillery. Like the original AVG, it would operate under control of a foreign group we wish to assist: the Kurds in Iraq would be a natural choice. They are already fighting what is more broadly the West’s war against ISIS, but lack the men and training and equipment to do more than hold their own ground. Operating with the Kurds, a new AVG would have much freer rein than the heavily handcuffed American Special Operators already in the region. If they happen to dip into Syria to shoot up ISIS there too, we won’t mind.
Mercenaries have been used (with varying though often impressive success) at least since Ancient Persia, and continuously throughout the 20th Century. They are the middle ground between conventional fighting and shoulder-shrugging. Individual Americans could join the fight at their own option. It would be the counterargument to ISIS’ own recruiting success. And American volunteers to fight ISIS would not be lacking: it’s an opportunity for young men to hit the battlefield with good pay, test their mettle and shoot at some of the people who are shooting at us. It is an unusual strategy, but we know it can be done—we have Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers to thank for that.