02 October 2007

Our Mercenaries (Yet Again)

Photo © Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

Meet Erik Prince ~ rich kid, right-wing extremist, U.S. Navy vet, successful war profiteer, and Mercenary-in-Chief at Blackwater USA. I lifted this photo and the following graphic from this story in The New York Times reporting on the testimony Prince gave before a Congressional Committee today. It shows what stellar work Blackwater is doing for you and I in Iraq.

I am not partial to mercenaries like Prince and have made that plain here before (see this post and the links it contains). Today Prince complained that just because his employees are trigger happy yahoos we should not "rush to judgement" because they are working in a dangerous, stressful environment. A couple of things spring to mind. First, no one is making any of these guys take jobs in Baghdad. Second, they are a lot less stressed with no accountability for their actions than they will be if the Congress gets some backbone and starts to inquire into their activities. And third, they are making a ton of money shooting up the town.

Mr. Prince seems not to get it: given that Blackwater is in Iraq under contract to the U.S. Government, it it the duty of the Congress to judge the company's activities. Hence Prince was testifying today before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Seems plain enough to me. My advice to the Congress is that it examine the inheritance laws because those are the main source of Prince's riches. He took money from Dad to launch his company even before he learned to take no-bid contracts from BushCo. That is the dire problem rich kids face ~ they don't have to work for a living. Instead they're forced get by on inheritance, neptoism, and corporate welfare. How unseemly!

All of that said, I always try to be fair. The graphic here is a bit misleading. First, Blackwater has many more employees in Iraq than the other big mercenary firms. So we might expect them to be involved in more 'incidents.' Second, Blackwater operates mostly in and around Baghdad and that too would likely inflate our expectations of their 'incident' proneness (is that a word?). So Blackwater may not be worse that the other mercenary companies we employ. Those points aside, the graphic indicates that our mercenaries were involved in 300+ shootings in a 28 month period. You do the math. And then notice that in more than two-thirds of those 'incidents' our mercenaries started the shooting. So, not being worse than the competition hardly makes Blackwater competent.

On that note the story in The Times reveals that several Republican Congressmen seemed sympathetic to Mr. Prince's predicament. He is, after all, a big time Campaign contributor. Among the concerned Congressmen was Patrick McHenry (R-NC). According to The Times reporter:

"Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina
elicited from Mr. Prince that 27 Blackwater employees
have been killed in Iraq, but no State Department staff
members. 'Your client is the State Department,' Mr.
McHenry said. 'The State Department has a contract
with you to provide protective service for their visitors.
And you’ve had zero individuals under your care
and protection killed.'"

Unfortunaately The story does not reveal that Blackwater is headquartered in North Carolina. And it provides no indication whether Rep. McHenry bothered to note the number of Iraqi civilians Blackwater employees had killed in establishing so fine a record. Dead Iraqis seem not to count in his calculations. Coincidently, the latest issue of The Nation arrived today with a cover article by Jeremy Scahill on Blackwater. Scahill notes:

"“[T]his is a four-year pattern that goes beyond Blackwater.
The system of "private security" being paid billions in US
taxpayer dollars has not only continued despite rampant
abuses; it has flourished. Blackwater and its ilk operate in
a demand-based industry, and with US forces stretched
thin, there has been plenty of demand. According to the
Government Accountability Office, there are as many as
180 mercenary firms in Iraq, with tens of thousands of
employees. Without the occupation and continued funding
for the war, these companies would not be in Iraq.

Even though this scandal is about a system, not about
one company or "a few bad apples," Blackwater does
stand out. While it has no shortage of US and British
competitors in Iraq, no other private force's actions
have had more of an impact on events in Iraq than
those of the North Carolina-based company.
Blackwater's primary purpose in Iraq, at which it
has been very effective, is to keep the most hated US
occupation officials alive by any means necessary.
This has encouraged conduct that places American
lives at an infinitely higher premium than those of
Iraqi civilians, even in cases where the only Iraqi
crime is driving too close to a VIP convoy protected
by Blackwater guards.”

Scahill is right - while Prince et. al. are mercenaries, they are our mercenaries. This is one more aspect of the fiasco the Bush administration has created in their misguided war on terror.

P.S.: (Added the Next Day) On npr this morning I listened to Diane Rehm interview several people about this issue. At one point there was a discussion about whether it is proper to refer to Blackwater, et. al. as mercenaries. I clearly have my own views on this. The conversation seemed so much hair-splitting insofar as the "private military contractors" are performing essential tasks and that the obvious substitution effect is that the "real" military can be sent off to do other things. That said, it seems clear too that Blackwater, et. al. neglect the 'rules of engagement' or the 'rules for the use of force'(a very fine distinction made by some of the guests) when it suits them. They do so too with impunity. This last point was made by Deborah Avant, whose research on privatized military I have mentioned here before. The discussion seemed Orwellian because one of the guests, Mr. Douglas Brooks, is President of "the International Peace Operations Association" which is the professional organization that represents outfits like Blackwater.

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Blogger stanco said...

And guess who's gonna provide security for the FBI investigation of Blackwater in Iraq. You got it-- Blackwater!

03 October, 2007 13:27  
Anonymous trane said...

David Luban has made a good review of the legal issues at

The conclusion is... not encouraging.

03 October, 2007 19:05  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

trane - Thanks! Yes, it is depressing. But this sort of analysis is useful ... Jim

03 October, 2007 20:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Islamic mercenaries? - the scum that held the school hostage, and murdered innocent children?

There are plenty more like that, far more grievous and offensive than what happens in the relatively civilised West.

04 October, 2007 16:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

ANON! I thought you might've slinked off permanently. How disappointing that you are back again ranting and raising irrelevant points. Just what is your point here?

04 October, 2007 19:33  
Anonymous trane said...


The issue here is how to hold private security contractors to account in the same way as regular troops. It is not the only important issue, but it is nonetheless a very important one.

Under the rule of law - what 'we', allegedly, are trying to help establish in Iraq - the idea is that people are held to account before the law. Whether you are a civilian or soldier, there are things you cannot do without being questioned about it, such as shooting at people. If you are soldier, you attempt to defeat the enemy and protect innocents. So you have a problem if you kill innocent people. You are questioned by your colleagues, superiors, and, ultimately, by a court.

The problem that Jim is bringing to our attention with this post is that some of the people that are paid by the coalition forces are not held to account for their actions when some of them occassionally do something very wrong, such as killing innocents.

The post brings out different aspects of this problem; How many innocents have been killed by private security operators? How many cases have been filed against them? What are the strategic problems involved? What is the effect on Iraqis’ sentiments towards coalition forces? How does this affect the overall goals of the coalition forces? And so on.

04 October, 2007 19:40  
Anonymous trane said...

Sorry Jim, you got there first... had not seen it.

04 October, 2007 19:42  

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