Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army is a tour de force of investigative journalism and a work that should be read throughout the antiwar and emerging GI resistance movements. Currently, the employees of the 180 “private contractor” companies operating in Iraq, who supply everything from logistical support to security services, comprise more employees than U.S. combat troops. While American forces have relied on mercenaries in previous wars, the government’s campaign to privatize the war effort is distinctly new and has grave implications.
Scahill points out that the current push towards “guns for hire” is neither an accident nor the flawed strategy of an errant president. Rather, the use of private contractors dates back to the early 1990s with the downsizing and restructuring of the armed forces. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have taken part in it. The military began a massive privatization drive under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during Bush Sr.’s administration. According to Scahill, “The idea was to free up the troops to do the fighting while private contractors handled the backend logistics. . . .More contractors meant fewer troops, and a much more politically palatable troop count.” By August 1992, Halliburton, soon to be headed by Cheney himself, led the support work for the military for the next five years, during Bill Clinton’s presidential tenure. Clinton continued the privatization agenda, and Halliburton received lucrative contracts for services during the Balkans and the Kosovo conflicts. The Clinton years helped open the door for the Rumsfeld Doctrine, which promoted the use of private contractors for all aspects of war, including combat.
Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL from a wealthy establishment family, saw financial opportunity in these developments and formed Blackwater USA in 1997. While privatization schemes for the military crossed party lines, Prince and the crew at Blackwater are decisively partisan. Prince is a participant in and major donor to fundamentalist religious and right-wing causes, while the upper echelons of Blackwater’s staff reads like a who’s who of the extremist theocon Right, including Paul Behrends and Joseph Schmitz.
What began as a training facility for law enforcement personnel and special operation forces in North Carolina has become a corporation providing the world’s most powerful mercenary army, what Scahill terms the “Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration’s ‘global war on terror.'” Blackwater currently has forces deployed in at least nine countries, including over 2,300 mercenaries. Moreover, private contractor companies are now hiring the most notorious global thugs, including Chilean commandos who served under General Augusto Pinochet and white apartheid-era South African Special Forces.
Blackwater’s success, Scahill writes, has grown from two key factors. One, through Prince’s connections with Christian/Republican causes, he has garnered a powerful lobbying arm composed of well-connected former federal officials and military brass. Through these ties, Blackwater has been able to win key government contracts and shift its services to meet the cutting-edge needs of a growing security-industrial-complex. Two, Blackwater has benefited from the post-9/11 geopolitical climate. Scahill explains how the “war on terror” has proven to be a boon for Blackwater and a “key ideological underpinning of legitimating private contractors and security.”
Beyond this, the instability in Iraq has benefited the entire mercenary industry, diverting expenditures away from reconstruction. The more effective the Iraqi resistance becomes against U.S. regular forces, the greater the call for increased private security services. On March 31, 2004, four Blackwater contractors were ambushed and their bodies mutilated by an angry mob in Fallujah. To date, Blackwater has evaded prosecution for its negligence in how their employees were sent out on a mission ill-equipped and unprepared.
Yet rather than calling into question the role and mission of private contractors, the incident played into the war propaganda machine by providing the pretext by which to exact revenge and launch one of a series of devastating military attacks against the people of Fallujah.
A week after the ambush, Prince met with key members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. “The mercenary gold rush was on,” as Scahill put it. With the reality of a resistance movement on the rise in Iraq, “Blackwater was thrust into the fortunate position of a drug rep offering a new painkiller to an ailing patient at the moment the worst pain was just kicking in.”
At the same time, Blackwater won a contract to begin operations in the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea region. Acting as a “backdoor U.S. military deployment” instead of sending in divisions of the U.S. Armed Forces–which might be politically unpalatable to Russia–Blackwater served a dual function. They both protected the oil and gas operations in the region and laid the foundation for a possible forward operating base to attack Iran.
On June 2004, Paul Bremer passed the infamous Order 17, which granted sweeping immunity for the actions of contractors in Iraq. That is, mercenaries were now no longer accountable under any military or national laws or codes of conduct. Contractors had free reign to potentially commit atrocities or war crimes with impunity. Scahill points out that at the time, the United States began to move towards “the Salvador option,” the use of death squads to foment sectarian divisions in Iraq, with the appointment of John Negroponte as ambassador to Iraq. Facing no criminal prosecution, mercenaries were free to potentially utilize assassinations, repression, and torture as methods aimed to stoke divisions in Iraq and pacify the resistance.
Scahill includes a brilliant chapter on Blackwater’s rapid deployment to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, pointing out the irony that guns for hire arrived faster than government relief and rescue services. Preying on the racist fears of the white elite, Blackwater marketed itself as a force capable of protecting business interests from Black “looters” and “criminals.” As Chris Kromm, editor of Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch described, “That’s what happens when the victims are black folks vilified before and after the storm-instead of aid, they get contained.” Blackwater was able to utilize Katrina to further expand its ever-widening list of services, which now included “humanitarian aid” and domestic security details for natural disasters. While Louisiana’s National Guard was in Iraq, Blackwater was on hand to provide so-called “relief” via black t-shirts, wraparound sunglasses, and guns.
Scahill does not shy away from asking the larger questions. What are the consequences for democracy when military services are outsourced to corporate entities with no accountability? What are the implications of a government that relies upon paramilitary organizations that flought U.S. law and potentially the Constitutional rights of its citizens?
While some may argue that the use of mercenaries represents the telltale sign of the decline of U.S. Empire, Scahill’s work puts Blackwater and private contractors in a different light. The rise of the security-industrial-complex represents the potential staying power and resilience of U.S. imperialism around the globe. Scahill’s Blackwater is a clarion call to the Antiwar Movement to redouble its efforts by demanding not only that coalition soldiers be pulled out of the Middle East-but that, in addition, that all occupying foreign forces, including those of Blackwater, withdrawal immediately as well.
Martin Smith, former Sgt. USMC, is Midwest regional coordinator of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He can be reached at: email@example.com
This review originally appeared in the ISR.