The best books on mercenaries

Sean McFate Author Of The New Rules of War: How America Can Win--Against Russia, China, and Other Threats
By Sean McFate

The Books I Picked & Why

The War for Africa: Conflict, Crime, Corruption and Foreign Interests

By Eeben Barlow

The War for Africa: Conflict, Crime, Corruption and Foreign Interests

Why this book?

A difficult book to find, but worth it. Barlow was the founder of Executive Outcomes or “EO,” the (in)famous mercenary corporation based out of South Africa in the 1990s. Now decommissioned, no other private military company has since rivaled EO’s power. When I worked in Africa, I would look to the EO alumnae network for talent. That and former French Foreign Legionnaires. In this memoir, Barlow reflects on his time as a private military commander, his missions, what he’s learned. It’s not prose but it is honest, and the best window into today’s market for force.


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Dogs of War: A Spy Thriller

By Frederick Forsyth

Dogs of War: A Spy Thriller

Why this book?

I read this classic as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army when I was training at Jungle Warfare School in Panama. I was already a huge fan of the 1980 movie adaptation, starring a young Christopher Walken. The book is billed as ‘fiction’, but accurately describes an attempt by mercenaries to overthrow the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in 1972. Forsyth was a BBC reporter in Africa and witnessed wars often fought with mercenaries. He also advised the movie Wild Geese, based on true events led by the mercenary "Mad Mike" Hoare. When Mad Mike died in 2020, I had the privilege of discussing his legacy with Freddy Forsyth on the BBC.


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The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa

By Adam Roberts

The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa

Why this book?

An uncompromising look at a real-life mercenary operation gone bad by a veteran journalist in Africa. In 2004, a group of salty British, South African, and Zimbabwean mercenaries sought to takeover — wait for it — Equatorial Guinea. Simon Mann, a former EO mercenary from the British upper classes, leads the mercenary coup, backed financially by Sir Mark Thatcher, son of famed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Unknown to them, South African intelligence had penetrated their organization and set a trap. It goes badly for the mercenaries. I knew one of them.


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The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

By David E. Sanger

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

Why this book?

There are cyber mercenaries too. Called “hackback” companies, they are illegal, offshore hackers who hack the hackers. While they cannot retrieve hacked material, they can cause a world of hurt for anyone who tries to hack you, and that’s why they matter: deterrence. CEOs and others around the world sometimes turn to hackback firms to make them hard targets. Also, countries like the United Arab Emirates hire former NSA hackers. New York Times reporter details some of this industry in his book about cyberwar. Like many in cyberspace, his claims are often sensationalized, but his reportage cannot be beat.


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The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

By Christine Shaw, Michael Mallett

The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

What would a world awash in mercenaries look like? Like medieval northern Italy, which was the Afghanistan of its day. Back then, mercenaries were how you fought wars, and anyone who could swipe a check could wage war no matter how absurd or petty. Aristocrats, city-states, and popes routinely hired mercenaries. When I wrote The New Rules of War, I spent three months digging through the archives in Florence, Bologna, and other city-states to understand how the dynamics of private warfare worked. For those who want a feel of the times, try this rare book by famed historian Mallett. It was his last book, finished by Shaw after he died.


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