The Air Force's Mercenary Pilots

There's a great scene in the AMC show Turn where one of the main characters approaches a group of soldiers in the British camp in “York City” who are cooking some pungent sauerkraut. In an effort to glean some intelligence for the Continental Army, he offers that he is a cabbage farmer and asks where he might deliver some more cabbage when they move camp. The ruse works, and the intel is delivered to the detriment to the Redcoats.

Those Hessians, as they were known, were the 30,000 German mercenaries the British hired to assist them in the Revolutionary War. They were painted as the dregs of society but in reality they were good soldiers, with good officers, with good morale. The trouble is, they were very, very expensive. The rent the Brits paid was equal to thirteen years of tax income for the German state from which most of them hailed.

Of course, there have been mercenaries fighting for a wage from the Pharaohs to Blackwater, and this post is a follow-up to last week's where I suggested that none of us believes in the larger strategic vision of the Air Force, the DoD, and the nation's wars as a whole. I still think that's true, but mainly because it's always been true.

In a sense, serving in the military for other than ideological reasons is a bit like being a mercenary labor. If it's not ideological, what is it? A steady paycheck, that's for sure. And most of us didn't sign up for much more than that reason anyway. One of my big surprises after entering the service is that the vast majority of people I met weren’t there for ideology, some “save the world” kind of reason. And after teaching military history for three years, I realize now that that is quite fine, actually, if for no other reason than it has always been okay, from the very first days of our nation.

Take, for example: Washington’s near inability to keep the Continental Army together after guys’ one-year enlistments expired. Guys who enlisted to escape trouble or get free clothes and three squares a day or get a free ride out West throughout the nineteenth century. Guys who only reenlisted in 1864 because they got a month off and a big bonus. The Army's "earn while you learn" campaign in the 1920s as a recruiting tool when people had plenty of opportunity elsewhere. Pilots who only stay in if the money is good enough.

As it turns out, outside of our major wars, few have served purely for ideological reasons. Read some Dick Kohn or Ed Coffman for more.

I would like to introduce the next generation of mercenaries: America’s Air Force pilots.

It's no secret: the Air Force is paying its pilots HUGE bonuses just to stick around as little as an extra year. I'm not the only one who has made a detailed spreadsheet analyzing whether it is more financially advantageous to take the bonus and stay in until retirement or get out ASAP and get an airline job. Does that make me a mercenary? Probably.

But just like so many before us who needed a little incentive to stay in, it’s okay to run detailed spreadsheets and make the decision based on which one comes out a penny more in compensation, if that’s as simple as it is for a person. It's okay to put a price on staying in or getting out. Many have before us, many more will after us. We all have our reasons, but somewhere, for everyone, dollars and cents figure into the calculus.

I only hope that we all still have a glimmer of excitement in us about our continued service as we drive home from the BMW dealership in our new M5s. The money is great, but maybe we can still focus on how neat it is to be a part of something bigger than ourselves amid the Benjamins raining down from our desperate uncle.

So here we are, history’s latest brand of mercenaries. As with the Hessians, it is a very nice way to get your fighting done. The only downside is that it is really expensive. And the Air Force will probably have to pony up a whole lot more than $35,000 to keep its mercenaries around.


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