The best books on mercenaries from a former military contractor

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

Who am I?

Dr. Sean McFate is an expert on international relations and a former military contractor. He is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC think tank, and a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Syracuse University's Maxwell School, and the National Defense University. He began his career as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. 

I wrote...

The New Rules of War: How America Can Win--Against Russia, China, and Other Threats

By Sean McFate,

Book cover of The New Rules of War: How America Can Win--Against Russia, China, and Other Threats

What is my book about?

The New Rules of War has been called the “The Freakonomics of modern warfare”. It was named a “Book of the Year” by The Economist, The Times [UK], and Evening Standard. Additionally, it is an Amazon bestseller and Editor's Pick, and is included on West Point’s “Commandant’s Reading List”. 

The book provides ten new rules of modern warfare and explains how to win. China, Russia, and Iran understand these new principles but the “West” doesn't and struggles against weak foes like terrorists and the Taliban. But we can win, if we update our strategic IQ. Admiral Jim Stavridis, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said: “Sean McFate is a new Sun Tzu.” In the U.K it is titled: Goliath: Why the West Doesn't Win Wars. And What We Need to Do About It

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

This book is currently not available on or Amazon.

Dogs of War: A Spy Thriller

By Frederick Forsyth,

Book cover of Dogs of War: A Spy Thriller

Why did I love 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.

By Frederick Forsyth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dogs of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 New York Times bestselling author Frederick Forsyth delivers an international thriller that takes readers into the darkest hearts of men and nations…
In a remote corner of the impoverished African republic of Zangaro lies Crystal Mountain. At certain times of the day, the mountain itself seems to glow with a strange light. Only the ruthless and untouchable tycoon Sir James Manson knows why: the mountain contains billions of dollars worth of the world’s most valuable mineral—platinum. And he wants it all.

To do so, he must first remove the unfriendly government currently in power and replace it with a…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Adam Roberts,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Wonga Coup as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country roughly the size of the state of Maryland. Humid, jungle covered, and rife with unpleasant diseases, natives call it Devil Island. Its president in 2004, Obiang Nguema, had been accused of cannibalism, belief in witchcraft, mass murder, billiondollar corruption, and general rule by terror. With so little to recommend it, why in March 2004 was Equatorial Guinea the target of a group of salty British, South African and Zimbabwean mercenaries, travelling on an American-registered ex-National Guard plane specially adapted for military purposes, that was originally flown to Africa by American pilots? The real motive…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David E. Sanger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Perfect Weapon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Russia's tampering with the US election to the WannaCry hack that temporarily crippled the NHS, cyber has become the weapon of choice for democracies, dictators, and terrorists.

Cheap to acquire, easily deniable, and used for a variety of malicious purposes - from crippling infrastructure to sowing discord and doubt - cyberweapons are re-writing the rules of warfare. In less than a decade, they have displaced terrorism and nuclear missiles as the biggest immediate threat to international security and to democracy.

Here, New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger takes us from the White House Situation Room to the dens…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Christine Shaw, Michael Mallett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Italian Wars 1494-1559 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Italian Wars 1494-1559 outlines the major impact that these wars had, not just on the history of Italy, but on the history of Europe as a whole. It provides the first detailed account of the entire course of the wars, covering all the campaigns and placing the military conflicts in their political, diplomatic, social and economic contexts.

Throughout the book, new developments in military tactics, the composition of armies, the balance between infantry and cavalry, and the use of firearms are described and analysed. How Italians of all sectors of society reacted to the wars and the inevitable political…

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