Ozvegan Griz: And sometimes you're bound by your word to kill people.
Tagon: But they're almost always bad guys and we only do it for the money.
Private Military Contractors (PMC) are mercenaries, soldiers, and other combatants employed by a private company or other organization and fighting on behalf of clients. While such soldiers of fortune are regarded with wariness in most settings, they're generally considered distinct from criminal enforcers, mafia hit men, and the like. The polar opposite of conscripts.
In the real world, they are usually ex-soldiers with decent to slightly-above-average equipment from the United States — the largest company, and largest number of companies, are American. Other common national backgrounds are former Soviet Republics or South Africa. Of course, there are plenty of less professional and less affluent outfits out there, some of which will hire just about anyone who'll take them up on their offer. It's a great summer job! In fiction, though, they tend to get all the latest and most expensive vehicles and support equipment as well, and are often recruited and trained by the company itself. Fictional mercenary groups often hire unique individuals or groups of various special types of fighters: Ninja, Rōnin samurai, dishonored knights, mages, shapeshifters, and left-over warriors of defeated organizations, nations, or races that need to make ends meet. Some PMCs are just a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, others have their own Adventure Guild.
These characters can be depicted as anything from heroic to villainous; in a conflict, they usually are allied with the richest party's faction, but sometimes have a strict honor code that prevents them from switching sides mid-battle. If they get too enthusiastic about their job, they may become Blood Knights and try to start a War for Fun and Profit. On the other hand, they do have to deal with the risk of their employers double-crossing them when the job's done. And if their clients run out of money before the fighting's done, things will get ugly in short order in one or more of many ways.
In recent years, there's come to be a distinction between a "mercenary company" and "corporate mercenaries", especially in Western (American) television and movies. The traditional mercenary who hires himself out (or himself and a dozen of his best buddies) is seen as somewhat honest, with at least a personal code of honor of some kind (even if it's just "do the job, get paid"); determined to accomplish the mission for which he has been paid and takes his reputation very seriously; and is scrappy yet skilled. This character is usually played moderately sympathetic, or at least as an antihero. They will typically have some attention given to their, quite possibly colorful, personalities.
In stark contrast, the "corporate mercenary" is usually just a Mook or Red Shirt of some kind, and the "character" takes the form of the PMC corporation itself. Corporate mercs are usually depicted as being up to no good, or are the hand-puppets of some shadowy organization which is itself up to no good. They are portrayed — when anything more than Faceless Goons — as amoral, ethically challenged, and professional but hardly ever inclined to argue with Corporate Headquarters. If former military, many will have been dishonorably discharged. Unless the writer's bent on defying What Measure Is a Mook?, they will almost never be the "good guys" in recent years. Their parent company usually has a name based loosely or thematically on "Blackwater" in a No Celebrities Were Harmed Expy of that real-life PMC — examples include "Blackriver", "Red River", "Blackthorne", "Murkywater", "Starkwood", "Bluewater", "Black Mountain", "Silverpool", "Highstar", and "Merryweather".
Note that although this trope description uses the terms "PMC" and "mercenaries" interchangeably, in Real Life the distinction between them is extremely Serious Business. This is because the international treaties that establish The Laws and Customs of War explicitly forbid the usage of mercenaries in warfare. While traditional mercenaries might be tolerated in practice, legally they are neither lawful combatants nor non-combatants, and thus aren't eligible for protection and respectful treatment under, for example, the Geneva conventions. When captured, they are treated as a criminal gang at best, and at worst as complete outlaws.
Private military contractors are the way that some people try to weasel out of this ban on mercenaries. Even though the largest of these companies employ material that is ordinarily associated purely with the military — armor, helicopters, light warships — on paper, they are just your garden-variety mall guards writ large, and they are not authorized to wage war on their own. Officially, these units may be employed only in some duties not involving actively engaging the enemy (though they can do this if forced), such as escorting convoys and guarding some civilian structures. In practice this mandate could be, and often is interpreted very broadly — "While you're on patrol, don't go and get into a fight with the insurgents at yonder hill three klicks to the southwest, but if they fire first, or if you see anything indicating a possible threat, then by all means, do whatever you must." Note that not all PMCs necessarily are thinly disguised mercenaries; a private military contractor is any non-government organization contracted by the military, which may include as mundane things as a contract to make and serve food for an army in peacetime.
Real Life PMCs run the gamut from dirty-working Hired Guns outfits to highly scrupled organizations with very strict rules about what they will and won't do, and for whom. Some PMCs provide armed security for Christian (and occasionally Muslim) charities in war-torn regions like Darfur (the contractors who do this kind of work often give their clients a discount rate — it's charity, after all). Others patrol African elephant habitats hunting heavily armed ivory poachers. Even those who take corporate contracts are much more likely to be doing "rent-a-cop" work making sure nobody blows up a pipeline than "massacre uncooperative village" jobs (although that does sometimes happen). Some PMCs are good people doing good work for good reasons (and making a living doing it). Others are willing to work for drug cartels. It is a very large and diverse category that probably shouldn't be painted with a broad brush, good or bad.
This is a classic Plot Device in tabletop games in general. Whether they're sword-swinging fantasy adventurers, Wild West bounty hunters or futuristic mercenaries, a time-honored means of getting Player Characters involved in a plot is to have someone hire them to accomplish some task or another.
A PMC can provide a villainous Evil Army if one doesn't actually want to insult any real country's Armed Forces. If they're too much of an army, then they are an N.G.O. Superpower.
Mercenaries are the basic, land-based version of this trope; at sea and in space, they're privateers operating under letters of marque.
A sub-trope of Hired Guns, and can overlap somewhat with the Professional Killer. If employed by a Mega-Corp, then Corporate Warfare can be expected. May also be utilized by The Warlord. Commonly a favorite industry of a Proud Warrior Race. A Private Intelligence Agency is usually another service a PMC will provide to its clients.
Note to Evil Overlords real, historical, and/or imagined: attempting to defraud your PMCs, or any other gratuitously over-the-top Bad Boss move, is, generally speaking, a very bad idea. They have experience with those weapons you helped them maintain until quite recently and they know your layout. Always pay the mercs.
Compare with Murder, Inc., a completely criminal enterprise devoted to assassinating selected targets, compared to the quasi-legal PMC. Compare & contrast with Pinkerton Detective.
- The Boys: The Red River company is closely aligned with Vought-American, a corrupt company behind the existence of superpowered individuals, in VA's quest for control over the US government. They prove to be very competent and ruthless, most notably when they wipe out the Captain Ersatz of the X-Men with frightening ease. They're amoral enough to be willing to take on nearly any job Vought throws at them, even potentially the assassination of the President of the United States, but they draw the line at killing kids.
- DMZ has a company that is a mix of Haliburton and Blackwater called Trustwell. Their private army is ruthless, amoral, and brutal.
- Jon Sable, Freelance: Jon Sable belonged to a mercenary company before returning to the U.S.
- Marvel Comics:
- Deadpool: Wade Wilson, the Merc with the Mouth. It's right there in the name. He's been a temporary member of the Six Pack, who also do this kind of job.
- Moon Knight: Marc Spector started out as a mercenary who, while working in Africa, had his life-changing encounter with an Egyptian god.
- The New Universe includes Mark Hazzard: Merc.
- The Punisher:
- In one comic where American special forces are trying to capture Castle, one of the injured soldiers is told that Blackwater (a real-life PMC) won't hire him now.
- In another issue, Castle has a run-in with a bunch of Private Military Contractors, hired by Norman Osborn. Their group's name? Blackwater. It doesn't end very well for them.
- Silver Sable: Silver Sablinova is the ruler of her own micronation who employs her mercenary group Wild Pack as a way to support her nation. She also takes many jobs on her own and has employed superheroes such as Spider-Man from time to time.
- Spider-Gwen: Earth-65's version of Tony Stark owns a mercenary company called "War Machine". Frank Castle and Kraven the Hunter are both former employees.
- X-Force: The second X-Force essentially consists of Private Military Contractors doing occasional crime-fighting superhero work to keep up their image.
- Paperinik New Adventures" Colonel Neopard is a humanoid leopard space mercenary. The sequel also features Commander Alyonesse, Neopard's greatest rival-and girlfriend (he even named his ship Dama Elenthari after her real name, Dama Elenthari Lleyr Dalagh). Somehow, their relationship works perfectly.
- Red Sonja: Sonja frequently works as a mercenary.
- Robin (1993): Strader Pharmaceuticals hires a group of unethical Private Military Contractors to clean up the evidence of their fatal and incredibly dangerous unethical testing of a new Psycho Serum by tracking down and killing the already dying victims.
- Shooters: The private military contractor is much closer to real life; the PMC is shown guarding supply trains, and bodyguarding diplomats, including the guy responsible for the protagonist's friendly fire incident.
- Sin City: The ex-IRA mercs are just soldiers of fortune that have the weaponry of a small army. It's hinted that the Colonel might use his Guild as one of these considering he recruits snipers and even black helicopters.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (IDW) featured Darkwater, a covert operation mercenary group led by Colonel Wesley Knight. The organization had a rather tense client/ally relationship with Agent Bishop's Earth Protection Force.
- "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" by Warren Zevon. Roland is a Norwegian mercenary hired to fight in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. He is betrayed by a fellow mercenary and goes seeking revenge, despite being dead. It's then implied he goes on to become a spirit of conflict, following the major ideological wars across the world and in some cases inciting them ("Patty Hearst/heard the burst/of Roland's Thompson gun/and bought it"). Notably, David Lindell, the man who co-wrote the song with Zevon and inspired him to write it, was a former mercenary.
- "Contractor" by Lamb of God
- "Ride Across The River" by Dire Straits.
- "Mercenaries (Ready For War)" by John Cale.
- Revolting People is a comedy set in Baltimore just prior to the American Revolution. With the exception of the CO and the senior sergeant, all of the "British" soldiers in town, an entire brigade of them, are Hessian mercenaries.
- In Darwin's Soldiers, Pelvanida guards are explicitly stated to from an unnamed private security company. And they carry some serious firepower.
- Netland`s TOAST Industries contracts out its own internal force group, as well as selling hardware to other PMCs (and the PCs).
- Cry 'Havoc': The Majan Hunters are just one of many mercenary companies, known in-universe as 'dogs of war'. These companies are seemingly used to support small national armies.
- My Life at War: The 1st Investment Recovery Battalion is one of a few mercenary companies. They seem to be rather professional mostly used for heavy-duty corporate security.
- Outsider: The Agumo Conference is a network of barsam pilots working as independent contractors willing to undertake a wide variety of jobs for paying clients. Many are currently employed by the loroi military as scouts, couriers, and guns for hire.
- Schlock Mercenary:
- Tagon's Toughs are one group in a universe full of them. Notable in that they have an In-Universe reputation as vaguely ethical semi-skilled suckers with milliseconds of genius who will gladly take almost anything if the money is good and are willing to let people get away with suckering them as long as they're paid well. In many cases this is actually their selling point; Hot-Blooded, Lower-Class Louts who are Only in It for the Money and will hit any Acceptable Targets you ask them to, Never Hurt an Innocent, and put up with all manner of abuse as long as they get to choose their own deployment, armament and payment.
- "Pranger's Bangers", on the other hand, are Consummate Professionals who are considered much more skilled than the Toughs. They just lack their luck and Crazy Awesomeness. It's notable that when the Toughs ended up fighting the Bangers in an alternate timeline, the Toughs accidentally ambushed the Bangersnote , killed their boss and all his elite troopsnote , and then went on to survive several revenge attacks. Don't underestimate the value of good luck.
- "Sanctum Adroit" are much more Lawful-aligned than the Toughs; they've built a reputation on respecting the letter of the law in all their operations — even the client has to beware if they catch them breaking the law.
- There are numerous single, independent antagonists that function more like Bounty Hunters.
- S.S.D.D.: The CORE was a company of mallcops before society collapsed. Now they're a vast army for hire that can conscript troops from client nations, has replaced many states' armed forces, and is one of the few things keeping the Collective of Anarchist States from conquering the rest of the world.
- Red vs. Blue has the aptly named Project Freelancer as the focus for much of the series' backstory. Additionally, the group of Insurrectionists the program was at war with was revealed to be a UNSC splinter group acting as a private security force for Charon Industries.
- The Boondocks: Spoofed in "The Red Ball". Ed Wuncler I hires a squad of mercenaries from Blackwater — not for security purposes, but to use them to fill up Woodcrest's local kickball team for an upcoming kickball game against a team from China. The Blackwater mercenaries (or "private kickball contractors", as they prefer to be called) are actually quite skilled at playing this sport. Unfortunately for Wuncler, the mercenaries quit because they're now busy with performing a special mission in Afghanistan.
- Kim Possible: Ron hires these guys in "Ron Millionaire" when he becomes filthy rich. They're not particularly effective — they fight the Red Shirts, the guys that Kim takes by herself, and lose.