LONDON — We all know the difference between a mercenary and a soldier. Right?
Mercenaries are the "dogs of war" - "freebooters" or, less charitably, "hired killers" who forgo the comforts of a normal career and family life to fight in exotic wars abroad. They're the gun-toting freelancers of the battlefield, in it for the money or the glory or a bit of both.
A soldier, on the other hand, is one who serves in an army - an active, loyal, and unswerving member of a military organization who sacrifices creature comforts, not for cash or kicks, but for a greater good.
A mercenary fights to make a buck, a soldier to make a difference. Right?
This age-old distinction between "soldiers of fortune" and "soldiers of destiny" has been cut and pasted on to the debate about Iraq.
There may not, strictly speaking, be mercenaries in Iraq who are paid cold, hard cash to fight the coalition's battles. But many aspects of the occupation - including airport security and bodyguard duty - have been outsourced to private security firms. Many have contrasted the private guy's paycheck mentality with the soldier's commitment to the mission's aims.
But Iraq shows that, in fact, there is little to distinguish today between a mercenary and a soldier. The military itself seems to be infected with a mercenary culture, where even the enlisted soldier has a pretty perfunctory relationship with war and occupation.
Manysoldiers in Iraq appear to view their military service as a temporary job, as something that will look good on their résumé. It's striking that the most famous and infamous American privates - hero Jessica Lynch and villain Lynndie England - both said they signed up, not to fight, but to help secure a future career.
For Private Lynch, military service was a means of "securing her college tuition" so that she could become a kindergarten teacher; for England the military provided an escape from working in a chicken-processing factory and the first step toward getting to college and training as a meteorologist.
Other soldiers' sense of military duty appears to have been permanently damaged by their experiences in Iraq. A poll of 2,000 troops carried out by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes at the end of 2003 found that a third of soldiers rated their personal morale as "low" or "very low," and 49 percent said it was "not likely" or "very unlikely" that they would remain in the military after completing their current obligations in Iraq.
Many claim that the problem with using private personnel is that they can up and leave whenever the going gets tough - yet there seems to be little compelling some soldiers, apart from "obligations," to stay either.
The military itself has done much to foster this mercenary mentality. In recent years the US military - much like the British military - has sought to win new recruits by presenting military service as a means of personal betterment rather than as a lifetime commitment to national security. Recruitment campaigns focus on what individuals will get out of signing up for military service, rather than on what they can give to the military.
In the late 1990s, the US military launched the "Army of One" ads, presenting service as a highly individuated and self-reflecting experience.
"Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force," said a soldier in the ad. "With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was."
Earlier this year Staff Sgt. Katrese Clayton, who works as a military recruiter in New York, provided a glimpse into modern recruiting methods. She told USA Today that she tries to win new recruits by focusing on "perks rather than patriotism," because "incentives such as free health coverage, a housing allowance, and money for college are what ultimately compel many young people to join the military."
Sergeant Clayton said she originally signed up because she "couldn't pay for school. I wasn't thinking about any war."
The message of these campaigns is that there is little special about the military - that it is a job like any other that can help you get to college or earn a decent wage or give you a step up to your preferred job for life.
The military appears to have abandoned any notion that individuals should give themselves fully to military life, so that through tough training and hard work they might be turned into fighting machines. Instead the military is presented as something you can make a temporary half-commitment to, while you work out what to do with the rest of your life - much like the happy-go-lucky mercenary.
In such circumstances it isn't surprising that some soldiers complain when they are sent off to fight a war. After all, many of them will have signed up for the perks, not the patriotism.
What does this imply for the future of the military and its ability to fight full-scale wars?
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.com.