WHEN WARS occasionally ceased in medieval Europe, unemployed soldiers would become free-lance marauders, swarming the countryside to pillage, rape and murder.
Nowadays they become consultants.
The Cold War is over. Armed services are shrinking.
Idle warriors need something to do.
Military Professional Resources Inc. has given it to them -- and done its bit to improve the trade deficit, too.
MPRI, based in Alexandria, Va., has a half-dozen former U.S. generals in its top ranks and boasts in brochures that it "has the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world."
That expertise, learned at the knee of the Pentagon, is for sale. Across the world.
MPRI's biggest client is the U.S. government. But the company has given military seminars in Sweden. It is seeking contracts in the remnants of the Soviet Union.
Its recent job in the Republic of Croatia, some people believe, may have yielded the improved tactics that let the Croats retake territory lost years earlier to rebel Serbs.
MPRI angrily denies that it taught the Croats anything more deadly than civics lessons about the military's duties in a democracy.
Even so, the United States, fatherland and former employer of the rental generals, was supposed to be neutral in the fighting.
The people at MPRI "have just found a niche in the new world disorder," said David Isenberg, an analyst at the for Defense Information, a Washington group monitoring arms policy. "They aren't necessarily the first, but they are the people who are best exploiting it. There is a demand for mercenaries, or, shall we say, foreign military trainers."
Martial assets tend to leak across borders. In 1807, Alexander Forsyth, a Scot, refused on patriotic grounds to sell his high-tech musket lock to Napoleon or anybody else outside Britain. But the Nobels, the Krupps and the Reverend Forsyth's other successors declined to similarly limit their marketing reach.
Universal though it is, military commerce has been treated by governments in recent decades as a moral dilemma and a crucial piece of foreign policy. The last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, fretted that the United States couldn't be "both the world's leading champion of peace and the world's leading supplier of the weapons of war."
Now, as alliances shift, nations are born and sovereign powers yield before a global economy, the Clinton administration seems to view America's armed might mainly as a really good export opportunity. The United States accounted for 23 percent of international arms sales in 1989; by 1993 we were hogging the market with 75 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. Last year we fell to 35 percent but stayed No. 1.
Recently a McDonnell Douglas Corp. executive told Brookings Institution senior fellow Lawrence Korb: "Boy, this administration really surprised us with their support for arms sales."
It's tempting. The forging and peddling of weapons does lend backbone to an economy.
Just ask the people at Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Linthicum, Lockheed Martin Corp. in Middle River, AAI Corp. in Cockeysville or AlliedSignal Inc. Communications Systems in Towson. As the United States has pared its war shopping list, those companies have collectively wiped out more than 13,000 jobs and fired more than 7,000 subcontractors.
But people such as Mr. Korb worry about the consequences, in a world of less-certain loyalties, of selling Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighters to places such as Taiwan. Or considering F-16 sales to places such as Indonesia, the Philippines, the Czech Republic.
"You're letting out a lot of your technology. We sell some pretty sophisticated stuff," said Mr. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense. "Those weapons are liable to turn against our men and women someday."
And the catalog doesn't just offer hardware anymore. Now companies such as MPRI, with the Clinton administration's blessing, are exporting military expertise.
Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich says the United States will succeed in the global economy by nurturing its "knowledge workers," selling expensive brainpower to compete with the rest of the world's cheap sweat labor. Is this what he had in mind?
In the Middle Ages, popes proclaimed Crusades to provide employment for surplus soldiers.
Our latter-day crusade against the Soviet Union is over. In the absence of a formidable new enemy, the United States' surplus war industry will continue, as industries do, to seek new markets.
It's not the same thing as shipping soybeans.
"How did the Croatian military get so good all of the sudden?" asks Mr. Korb. "Whether we like it or not, they [MPRI] are an extension of the U.S. government. That is the thing that we need to think through and they need to think through."