Because of the jury finding of guilty for four Blackwater contractors responsible for 17 civilian deaths in Nisour Square, Baghdad on September 16, 2007, a window has been opened—never closed in the first place, but now a useful reminder—to the widening concentric circles of private security companies on hire to the US government committing authorized public murder for a handsome fee, the USG standing behind them, fighting an illegal war for purposes of strengthening its geopolitical position in the Middle East, and America’s wider counterrevolutionary posture fighting what now amounts to a desperate rear-guard action to maintain its unilateral dominance of an international system which itself is becoming decentralized with the advent of new power centers including Russia, China, Japan, Latin America, and an awakening Third World.
Nisour Square is revelatory of a dying Empire, America, solipsistic, fear-driven, ideologically rigidified, a military Behemoth yet, given its passion for privatization, insistent on mobilizing private armed force to supplement its troops in prosecuting armed conflict. Supremacy, at the cost of humanity—hence, at all costs. Before commenting on the trial which has just concluded, I’d like to step back, explore in some detail Blackwater, and also point out through a comparable example, the Haditha killings in Iraq nearly two years before, that the line between private and official/public has broken down, America’s so-called military contractors (the euphemism for mercenaries) and regular service personnel are in the field of operations practically indistinguishable. Blackwater is America, Haditha and Nisour Square, along with our other killing fields and atrocities, emblematic of a nationhood tarnished by aggression, imperialism, and capitalism (as manifested through the extremes of corporatism, environmental degradation, and the widening of class differences).
Let’s begin with Blackwater, creator of a surprisingly extensive private army wholly antithetical to the principles of democracy, an inner core of fascistic intent that by its very existence denies to the US its democratic status. Whether it intimidates the government so that it acts with impunity (while enjoying lush contracts) or reflects such a close ideological meeting of minds, is a moot question; nevertheless, closeness there is, the pool of warriors from one—CIA, SEALS, etc.—transfers effortlessly to the other. From Blackwater, to Xe Services, to Academi, and now, Constellis Holdings, an American Success Story of unusual magnitude in which a ceaseless stream of militarism for hire finds a ready market for hegemonic growth: killing on a contractual basis, in which the Obama administration has given it $250M for services rendered the CIA and another $92M for the State Department. Security guards are worth their weight in gold because some “services” are better not disclosed.
The name-changes represent, not ducking adverse publicity for murders committed, although probably that, too, but because the security industry is “hot” in investors’ eyes and the object of acquisitions, the smooth melding of patriotism and profit. Blackwater was established by Erik Prince, who created in NE North Carolina a 7,000 acre private training facility replete with every sort of range, an artificial lake, all to simulate battle conditions, special ops missions, etc. This blossomed into Blackwater Security Co. in 2002 and the proliferation of special divisions, nine in number, including Blackwater Vehicles and, for its first Iraq contract, a Personal Security Detachment (with two helicopters) to protect Paul Bremer. In toto BSC made over $1B in government contracts. We’re not speaking of a few Brinks trucks, but a private army in the country’s midst. It also jumped into Katrina’s aftermath to protect government facilities and private parties to the tune of $240T/day. Then came the contract for diplomatic security in Iraq (1,000+ contractors), and we see executives like Cofer Black, out of CIA, and Robert Richer, ditto, as perfect examples of the revolving door.
By 2007, we have Blackwater Worldwide, 2009, Xe Services,2010, Academi, 2014, Constellis Holdings, at each step enlarging its “products,” gaining more influential supporters combined with more ambitious projects (such as United States Training Center for weapons training and tactics). There is maritime force protection training, dog training, expanded security consulting—as one goes through the list, it is as though an inner army outside of public view and not accountable to the public. Special assignments such as working with CIA to track down bin Laden in Afghanistan cemented working relations with USG. An airline, Presidential Airways, called for a base in Melbourne, Florida.
I believe the picture is clear—Blackwater in its various guises was not a cast-off orphan, but at the heart of American intervention activities, such as Nisour Square. Since it executed official policy, rather than being a rogue outfit, USG stood behind it, to the extent that even the present trial and verdict appears suspect, to be undone when no-one is looking or, in light of the enormity of the offense, no more than necessary damage control. In addition, the stage was set for Nisour Square by what American forces did in Haditha in which 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by US Marines, Nov. 19, 2005. Like Nisour, Hadithra had no explicit justification from victims’ actions; rather, shooting pell-mell, here, unarmed men, women, children, the elderly, shot at close range—with justice meted out American military style. By June 17, 2008, cases against six Marines dropped, a seventh found not guilty. The exception, in the Article 32 hearing, Frank Wuterich, was charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of two women and five children, murder charges being dropped, as were those of assault and manslaughter, leaving one count of negligent dereliction of duty. He received a reduction in rank and pay cut, no jail time.
This was customary, yes, par for the course, Marines in the area (Al Anbar province) routinely raiding houses committing multiple executions, the rule of thumb (as in Nisour Square) being, don’t get too close to military (there, Blackwater) convoys and traffic, people stopped, ordered out of their cars, shot, or in house-to-house searches for I.E.D.’s, 19 killed, three adjacent houses, grenades thrown in followed by semi-automatic fire. One nine-year-old: “I couldn’t see their faces very well—only their guns sticking in to the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.” Several investigations were launched to the, now, myriad incidents, with the same old, same old: lawless law on a rampage.
That was Iraq; no wonder the arrogance and sense of impunity among our Breakwater warriors when they plowed through a busy intersection, machine guns blazing, merely to clear the way, Embassy folks late for an appointment cross-town with AID officials. Uniforms, civvies, what’s the difference, the line erased when the status-of-forces agreement ensured the avoidance of local trial and punishment. Victors are victors and have to behave as such, lest Occupation prove a failure. What happened, as also with My Lai in another theater, is that murder is inscribed in the DNA of Intervention, massacre the unit of coinage for ensuring social control. So, Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater security forces enter the Square, kill 14, injure 20 more, and seven years later, four are convicted, one for murder, three for manslaughter and firearms charges. Even the FBI investigation, one of five, found that 14 of 17 were shot without cause. The intricacies of judicial denial are unfathomable, that is, if one still believes in justice; e.g., one district judge dismissed charges because other guards’ testimony was given in exchange for immunity and therefore (presumably) inadmissible. The merry-go-round of delays, botched government procedures, whether deliberate or not, witnesses brought over from Iraq under FBI supervision (which I wrote about in an earlier CP article), consuming SEVEN YEARS, and then, finally, justice be done, which, given the enormity of the crimes, suggests its discouragement, denial, disparagement. Ah, that poor woman and her son, driving in a Kia toward the convoy, and blasted out of existence, the signal for promiscuous firing in all directions. One excuse put forward: the civilians were mistaken for insurgents.
As the UN stated in Oct. 2007, private contractors performed military duties, calling their use a “new form of mercenary duty” in flagrant violation of international law. However, not surprisingly, the US is not a signatory to the 1989 UN Mercenary Convention banning use of mercenaries. (As I recently wrote, the US also is not a signatory to the Torture Convention—the pen runs dry at odd moments.) To the locals, Blackwater guards were the real terrorists, one telling AP Television News, “We see the security firms… doing whatever they want in the streets. They beat citizens and scorn them.” And Obama lavishes multimillion dollar contracts on them and Hillary, as Secretary of State, hires them to protect the Baghdad Embassy, largest in the world, a superb honor guard for her putative inauguration in 2016, dead bodies, like so many roses, strewing the landscape.
Let’s come up to the present. First, Matt Apuzzo’s close, often excellent, New York Times’ coverage of the trial and verdict, culminating in his article, “Blackwater Guards Found Guilty in 2007 Iraq Killings,” (Oct. 22), in which he maintains the convictions “represented a legal and diplomatic victory” for USG that as a result “urged Iraqis to put their faith in the American court system.” Right and wrong: a victory in that any convictions were found, wrong, in that the government is using the verdict as testimony of the health of the rule of law in America, opportunistic usage, for what still remains a long-drawn out appeals process and punishment hardly fitting the seriousness of the crimes committed. Also, the status of private mercenary armies and their collaboration with the CIA have not changed, including the status-of-forces agreements insulting to and binding the hands of the so-called “host” countries on matters of legal accountability for crimes committed by US personnel, armed forces and private.
The charge of murder, against Nicholas Slatten, was brought only because the statute of limitations had run out on the other charges (there is none on murder). He “faces possible life in prison,” the others, “convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime,” carried fewer years. Apuzzo notes, “While the company’s security guards were involved in scores of shootings in Iraq, it was the 2007 incident in Nisour Square that helped cement Blackwater’s image as a company that operated with impunity because of its lucrative contracts with the American government.” Of the Iraqi witnesses who traveled to America to testify, “an Iraqi traffic officer described watching a woman cradle her dead son’s head on her shoulder, shortly before her own death.” Other testimony was equally heartbreaking, and even those “inside the Blackwater convoy described their former colleagues as firing recklessly on innocent people.” The defense would have none of it, brazenly defiant to the end and gearing up for appeal.
Dan Roberts, writing in The Guardian, Oct. 23, covers some of the ground and quotes Federal prosecutor Anthony Asuncion’s moving closing statement: “These men took something that did not belong to them: the lives of 14 human beings. They were turned into bloody bullet-ridden corpses at the hands of these men…. There was not a single dead insurgent on the scene. None of these people were armed.” Then his voice shaking he was asked to repeat a key line the court stenographer had missed: “’[The witness] opened the door and his brains fell out at his feet,’ Asuncion shouted the second time.”
Spencer Hsu and colleagues on The Washington Post, Oct. 22, treat similar ground, reminding us that the trial had lasted eleven weeks, “jurors reject[ing] the guards’ claims that they were acting in self-defense and were the target of incoming AK-47 fire.” (Elsewhere we learn that Blackwater cartridge shells were picked up from the scene to avoid incriminating evidence.) The reporters note: “The contractor shootings and the U.S. government’s refusal to allow the men to be tried in Iraq sent relations between the two countries into a crisis, and the Blackwater name became shorthand for unaccountable U.S. power.”
Few have had the stomach to take on the mercenary industry: “In Congress, lawmakers denounced the Blackwater shootings as recently as this summer, but legislation that would provide clearer jurisdiction to prosecute criminal wrongdoing overseas by private contractors has languished for years.” Leahy, they write, has been the exception. Chair of Senate Judiciary, and “author of the proposed change,” he “applauded the verdict Wednesday [Oct. 22], but added, ‘It should not have taken this long for justice to be served…. Ensuring that our government has the ability to hold government contractors accountable should be a bipartisan issue, and I hope senators of both parties will work together to pass this important reform.’” Dream on, for not even his Democratic party has shown the necessary will, and may in any case applaud this phenomenon.
Also writing in The Post, Terrence McCoy, in his article, “Why the Blackwater convictions won’t slow America’s ‘shadow armies,’” (Oct. 23), uncorks a real specter, the rise of private armies like Blackwater increasingly to perform military functions in maintaining world leadership. The concept, the “shadow army,” should be enough to make us catch our breath, a privatized armed force waving the twin banners of privatization and hegemony, in fact and intent, places lack of unaccountability and of governmental transparency on the track to incipient fascism (if not there already). He starts with one absent from the courtroom—and, of course, from arraignment—who was “a man synonymous with the United States’s infatuation with contractors. He is Erik Prince—billionaire, former Navy Seal, ex-CIA spy—the founder of Blackwater.”
Personalities do count; Blackwater is not an inexorable creation of capitalism-militarism (although ably suited to both). McCoy writes: “Prince is a man accustomed to drama. Numerous agencies have interrogated him. Members of Congress and reporters have hurled accusations against his company…. He has been called a ‘war profiteer,’ a ‘mercenary’ and a ‘right-wing crusader.’ He has sold his company and started a new one under a different name.” This time, presumably though, he is discomfited: “But he has never had to deal with something like this [the four guilty verdicts]. Still, McCoy exaggerates, for Prince, beyond war profiteer, etc., (all of which are true), is a superb entrepreneur, private armies the growth industry of the future, the trial no more than a blip on his radar screen. ISIS awaits, as does lush contracts, private armies to the rescue!
Excellent analysis: “[Prince] has never shed the ethos of the military contractor. Even now he thinks the United States should start enlisting contractors in the fight against the Islamic State.” Prince wrote in a blog post this month, “’If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job.” Capitalism is not for the squeamish or soft-of-heart. And Prince knows whereof he speaks, or rather, diagnoses the situation perfectly. As noted, there has been no legislation, despite the unlawful behavior, to curb contractors or push for “industry reform,” and, perhaps more basic, “with an army staffed by volunteers, contract firms such as Blackwater are an ingrained aspect of the American warrior class—whether there’s peace or not.”
How can Obama, in fighting ISIS, avoid the wider deployment of contractors, given that air strikes do not appear effective and deploying US troops seems presently unacceptable? Voila, the “shadow army.” One who had done “contract stints in Somalia and Afghanistan, told the Daily Beast: “’Iraq this time around is not going to be as big as it was before. That said, this new war will present an opportunity for the companies that have a resident train and advising capability to contribute to this new effort.” The view of another military contractor in Iraq: “I can tell you the contractor-expat community is abuzz thinking this will lead to more work.” Economic growth through military conquest, now, if not fully before, is coming into its own. That is why I see Tisour Square as being so significant, stripping the lid from the , if you will, dialectically intertwined militarization/privatization of the American political economy in the direction of recognizable fascism.
My New York Times Comment on the Apuzzo article, Oct. 23, follows:
Nisour Square stands out vividly in my mind, the gratuitous spraying of an intersection so that Blackwater could go through. The verdict is laughable given the enormity of the offense. More, America refuses to face the fact of hired mercenaries licensed to kill AND exempt, by forced treaty, from local criminal jurisdiction (Hillary’s insistence on diplomatic immunity).
“Reckless” is inadequate: the record is one of systematic killing with IMPUNITY. So now, sentences which will no doubt be commuted, USG throwing a protective shield around those it hires to do its dirty work. Has The Times the editorial courage to look at the whole phenomenon of private mercenaries–and call for their removal?
Blackwater is inseparable from intervention, drone assassination, paramilitary missions of regime change. America never looked worse.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.