But with the demise of colonialism, their ilk has all but disappeared. Yet, every so often, some distant intrigue finds use for these hardened soldiers-for-hire who reappear on the front pages of some almost-forgotten war.
Names such as Mad Mike Hoare and Bob Denard were once synonymous with coups d'etat, violent bush wars and battles for control of mineral-rich provinces of Africa, or other Third World nations that Europe's colonial powers tried to exploit and control.
Over the years, much has been written about these warriors, including dozens of best-selling novels penned by famous authors, and a number of "made in Hollywood" feature films. Those include John Irvin's 1980 "The Dogs of War," starring Christopher Walken, based on Frederick Forsyth's best-selling novel by the same name, and of course, "The Mercenaries," with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, filmed in 1968.
The latest episode that brought these almost-forgotten soldiers of fortune to the forefront of the world's attention occurred just over a week ago, when a planeload of about 15 Frenchmen, thought to be mercenaries, were apprehended on their way to the island of Madagascar, on the far southeastern coast of Africa. They were held briefly in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, before being returned to France, where they were questioned, then released by authorities.
Madagascar, a former French colony since 1886 that attained its independence in 1960, is a nation of almost 16 million. The country, slightly less than twice the size of Arizona, has been recently beset by civil strife since last December's election.
Two men, former President Didier Ratsiraka, the mayor of the capital Antananarivo, (formerly called Tananarive), and current President Marc Ravalomanana, have been feuding for control of power since the contested elections. Ravalomanana's victory, it seems, was disputed by Ratsiraka, and supporters of both men have clashed, especially in the north of the island. As the situation worsened, Ratsiraka has been reported to have sought the assistance of mercenaries to retake control of the island.
This is not the first time mercenaries have been called in to help a dethroned leader claim or reclaim power. Much of Africa's recent history is intertwined with that of mercenaries fighting on behalf of one side or another. Since African nations started to claim their independence from colonial powers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mercenaries have been active in Angola, Sierra Leone, and of course, the Belgian Congo, where many made their names.
Some countries, such as the Comoros, for example, find their post-independence history closely affected by mercenaries. Since their independence from France in 1975, the islands, with an area roughly 12 times the size of Washington, D.C., and located off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Mozambique Channel, have experienced no less than 19 coups.
In 1975, three islands of the archipelago -- Anjouan, Grand Comore and Moheli, whose population is 98 percent Muslim -- proclaimed their independence from France. Mayotte, the other island, opted to remain French.
Col. Bob Denard, the legendary French mercenary who had made his mark in Yemen in the 1960s, as well as in several African conflicts, and acting under instructions from the French intelligence service, launched an operation in September 1975 in the Comoros to overthrow President Ahmad Abdullah and install in his place Prince Said Mohammad Jaffar.
Bernard Kouchner, minister of health under French President François Mitterrand, and one of the co-founders of Medecins Sans Frontierre (Doctors Without Borders), called Denard "the mercenary of charity."
Jaffar was soon replaced by Ali Solih, who tried to turn the country into a socialist state and was in turn killed by mercenaries led by Denard, who re-installed Abdullah to power.
Denard, however, decided to remain in the islands, assumed the name of Said Mustapha M'hadjou, and married a young islander. He organized the presidential guard and took it upon himself to become Abdullah's protector.
In 1989, fighting erupted, and Abdullah was killed under still-sketchy conditions while Denard and some of his men were in the room. France dispatched about 2,000 paratroopers and arrested Denard. He was imprisoned for his part in a tentative coup in Benin in 1977.
But that is far from the end of the infamous Frenchman's career. In 1995 he obtained a ship, recruited a mercenary force and headed for Moroni, the capital of the Comoros. He deposed President Mohammad Djohar, liberated Abdullah's son from prison and installed him as new ruler.
While they are paid for their services, mercenaries, for the most part, have high standards regarding who they will kill for. They are, almost to a man, staunchly anti-communist. Money is often secondary to the cause they choose.
I remember one French soldier of fortune called François, whom I met in Beirut during the early days of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975. He was fighting with the right-wing Christian Phalangists, because he wanted "to fight communism, wherever it was." His previous assignment had been in Cambodia, where he had accepted the pay of a simple Cambodian army private. François died a few weeks later while dislodging leftist snipers.
One can find a similar trend among many Islamists who joined al Qaida and the Taliban. It was seldom for the money.
Mercenaries are not a new phenomenon; they have been around since antiquity. In fact, the word "soldier" is an old French word meaning "solde" or pay. The Roman legions paid their troops a "solde."
There were German mercenaries who fought on the British side in the American war of independence, which gave an early start to the general American dislike of mercenaries. They weren't in it for the money, either. They were in it because their sovereign prince sold their services and pocketed the money himself.
And of course, one must not forget that Britain's Gurkhas and the Papal Swiss Guard are mercenaries, too, but no one ever refers to them as such.
Since "mercenary" is a pejorative term for so many, it is not surprising that Russians refer to foreign Muslims fighting alongside Chechen rebels as mercenaries.
The mercenary may well be a dying breed, but continues, nevertheless, to re-emerge periodically, as the need for paid-for-hire combatants resurfaces. In fact, several outfits that supply mercenaries continue to do a brisk business.
Sandline International and the South African outfit, Executive Outcomes, supplied mercenaries to Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.
Then there is MPRI, based in Alexandria, Va., "with program offices in several states and foreign countries." It describes itself as "a professional services company engaged in defense-related contracting in the U.S. and international markets."
The company incorporated by eight former senior military officers is now entering its 13th year, and boasts about 800 employees.
As geopolitics evolved, so have the mercenaries. Much of their work has shifted over the years from fomenting revolutions and coups, to providing security services, serving as bodyguards for business tycoons and shady politicians, and offering protection to large corporations who may find themselves engaged in business in sensitive parts of the globe.
As the saying goes, old soldiers never die, they just fade away. The same can be said about mercenaries. They never die, they simply adapt to a changing world.