In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Semi-Military and Paramilitary Organizations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Military Contractors and Mercenary Forces
  • Border Security Forces
  • Coast Guards and Customs Services
  • Semi-Military Police
  • Militarized Police
  • Combined Police/Military Organizations
  • Police as Covert or Embryonic Armies
  • Paramilitary Organizations
  • Political and Religious Militias

Military History Semi-Military and Paramilitary Organizations
Benjamin R. Beede
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0100


Semi-military organizations take many forms and perform varied functions. Such organizations can be placed in three general categories: legally established entities, organizations that are opposed to a particular regime, and groups that support certain aspects of the regime but exist outside the law, such as death squads. Organizations in the first two categories are described as “semi-military” in this article, and the third category is characterized as “paramilitary.” Legally established entities can be divided further into those that are intended to support the armed forces through the provision of various services and those that are designed to supplement or substitute for the armed forces in order to keep the military services focused on defense against foreign threats and, further, to free them from tasks such as suppression of internal unrest or enforcement of controversial laws. Semi-military organizations vary considerably, ranging from those that have constituted little more than concealed armies to those that consist of unarmed men and women who have been recruited for largely humanitarian duties. The focus of this article is on those semi-military organizations that are closest to regular armed forces. Organizations, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, a major New Deal program to combat the Great Depression set up by the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt in the United States, and Organisation Todt, a large labor service force in Nazi Germany, are omitted. Military Contractors and Mercenary Forces and Proprietary Airlines may be seen as serving armed forces. Border Security Forces and the various categories of police organizations can be viewed as substituting for armed forces. Paramilitary Organizations have a position of their own. They may be linked to the armed forces, but unofficially. They often operate in a clandestine fashion.

General Overviews

Scobell and Hammitt 1998 should surely be the first source to be consulted, given its broad, but sophisticated, treatment. Mulaj 2010 is an imposing collection of case studies of guerrilla forces, militias, and paramilitaries. Davis and Pereira 2003 contains much important material, and the integrative essays by the two editors add significantly to the value of the book. Manwaring 2010 examines a number of contemporary semi-military groups, largely in contemporary Latin America; a long “afterword” by John T. Fisher helps put Manwaring’s research and theorizing into historical perspective. Singh 2005 focuses on women in an Indian militarized police force, and, thus, it breaks new ground at a time when women in several countries are moving closer to engaging in combat roles. The book also describes various types of semi-military forces in India. Berti 2013 addresses the development of political strategies and structures by organizations that are also using military means to achieve their objectives. Given its range and its detailed coverage of many little known aspects of the post–World War I era, Gerwarth and Horne 2012 is almost a reference work on semi-military and paramilitary organizations worldwide during the period considered. Diedzic 2016 analyzes the criminal networks that are often deeply imbedded in civil wars and insurrections and that assume greatly varied forms.

  • Berti, Benedetta. Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

    Examines Hezbollah, Hamas, and the IRA and their efforts to operate effectively in the political sphere. The study is much more than a collection of case studies, though, because Berti uses the rich material she has gathered to develop further hypotheses and to suggest how to react to such dual-faceted movements.

  • Davis, Diane E., and Anthony W. Pereira, eds. Irregular Armed Forces and Their Role in Politics and State Formation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511510038

    A somewhat diffuse, but, nevertheless, valuable collection of case studies, many of them historical. The book might have been strengthened by the omission of several chapters.

  • Diedzic, Michael, ed. Criminalized Power Structures: The Overlooked Enemies of Peace. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

    These structures have different levels of commitment that make this highly sophisticated analysis required reading for anyone concerned with semi-military and paramilitary forces.

  • Gerwarth, Robert, and John Horne, eds. War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199654918.001.0001

    Comparative study with an exceptional geographical scope. For the most part, the chapters are based on extensive archival research. The authors are advanced specialists, who explore fully the nuances of their often complicated topics. The only significant shortcoming is the general lack of comparisons with present day semi-military and paramilitary structures.

  • Manwaring, Max G. Gangs, Pseudo-militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

    Initially, readers may be confused by Manwaring’s constant use of the word gangs to describe a variety of semi-military groups, but this is an important study by a seasoned specialist in the field of guerrilla warfare. He emphasizes the primacy of politics in any effort to deal with semi-military forces.

  • Mulaj, Klejda. Violent Non-state Actors in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    Focusing largely on Third World organizations, the collection also includes the various elements of the IRA and the Basque nationalist movement.

  • Scobell, Andrew, and Brad Hammitt. “Goons, Gunmen, and Gendarmerie: Toward a Reconceptualization of Paramilitary Formations.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 26.2 (1998): 214–227.

    Seminal article for understanding the nature of semi-military groups. This is probably the single most important study of the subject.

  • Singh, Santosh. Combatant Women: The Ultimate Warriors. Jaipur, India: RBSA, 2005.

    Although it concentrates on the Central Reserve Police Force of India, the book provides enlightening material on semi-military organizations generally.

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