Revolution #87, May 6, 2007


Book Review

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army

by Jeremy Scahill
Nation Books (452 pages)

“The often overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is their unprecedented scale of outsourcing and privatization,” author Jeremy Scahill writes in The Nation. “From the moment the US troop buildup began in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon made private contractors an integral part of the operations. Even as the government gave the public appearance of attempting diplomacy, Halliburton was prepping for a massive operation. When US tanks rolled into Baghdad in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of private contractors ever deployed in modern war. By the end of Rumsfeld's tenure in late 2006, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq--an almost one-to-one ratio with active-duty American soldiers.” ("Bush’s Shadow Army," The Nation, 4/2/2007)

In his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Jeremy Scahill traces the explosive growth of Blackwater, USA, a private and secretive mercenary company based in the wilderness of North Carolina. Scahill writes that “in less than a decade [Blackwater] has risen out of the swamp in North Carolina to become something of a Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration's global war on terror.”

According to Scahill, Blackwater has more than 2,300 soldiers deployed in nine countries. It maintains a database of 21,000 special forces troops and retired police that it could deploy at a moment's notice. It has a private fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gunships. Its 7000-acre headquarters is the world’s largest private military facility. It trains tens of thousands of law enforcement officials a year from the U.S. and other nations. It is currently constructing new facilities in California, Illinois, and a jungle training facility in the Philippines. Blackwater has over $500 million in government contracts – and that does not include “black budget” operations for U.S. intelligence agencies or contracts with private corporations or foreign governments. One U.S. Congressmember observed that Blackwater could overthrow many of the world’s governments.

“Blackwater is a private army,” Scahill writes, “and it is controlled by one person: Erik Prince, a radical right-wing mega-millionaire who has served as a bankroller not only of President Bush’s campaigns but of the broader Christian right agenda.”

Erik Prince’s father Edgar played a major role in creating and funding many right wing Christian political movements, such as James Dobson’s Family Research Council. Scahill documents that “Erik Prince has been in the thick of the right-wing effort to unite conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and neoconservatives in a common theoconservative holy war—with Blackwater serving as sort of armed wing of the movement. Prince says ‘Everybody carries guns, just like the Prophet Jeremiah rebuilding the temple in Israel—a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.’”

The book brings out the political climate among what Scahill calls the “theocratic movement” at the time Blackwater was founded in the mid-1990s. Many on the Christian right considered the newly elected Clinton administration illegitimate. First Things, a journal that Scahill calls “the main organ of the theocratic movement,” published a special issue titled “The End of Democracy,” which featured essays that predicted a civil war scenario or Christian insurrection against the government. Erik Prince’s close friend, former Watergate conspirator turned Christian fascist, Charles Colson, wrote in the issue, “A showdown between church and state is inevitable. This is not something for which Christians should hope. But it is something for which they need to prepare.”

Blackwater and Fallujah

Immediately after 9/11 Blackwater landed a $5.4 million contract to provide 20 security guards for the CIA’s Kabul station. But a big break for the company came when it landed a $27 million contract for providing security for Paul Bremmer, who was in charge of running the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The senior U.S. official in Iraq and the public face of the occupation, Bremer would not be protected by U.S. government forces or Iraqi security but by Blackwater. Scahill writes that the Blackwater soldiers sent to guard Bremmer “embodied the ugly American persona to a tee. Its guards were chiseled like bodybuilders and wore tackey wrap-around sunglasses. Many wore goatees and dressed in all-khaki uniforms with ammo vests or Blackwater t-shirts with the trademark bear claw in the crosshairs, sleeves rolled up…Their haircuts were short and they sported security earpieces and lightweight machine guns. They bossed around journalists, ran Iraqi cars off the road or fired rounds at cars if they got in the way of a Blackwater convoy” (p. 71)

The Blackwater company first came to public attention on March 31, 2004 when four of its private soldiers in Iraq were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. People in the city dragged the bodies through the streets, burned them, and strung two of the mercenaries over the bridge over the Euphrates River.

The press portrayed the incident as an Iraqi mob irrationally attacking “contractors”—not armed mercenaries—who were helping to rebuild Iraq. The headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “Iraqi Mob Mutilates Four American Civilians.” Scahill illuminates the situation in Fallujah before the attack on the Blackwater soldiers. During the 1991 Gulf War, Fallujah had been the site of a major massacre when a “precision bomb” hit a densely populated area smashing through a market and apartment complex killing over 130 civilians. After U.S. troops occupied the city in 2003, U.S. troops opened fire on a peaceful demonstration killing 13 and wounding 75.

The attack on the mercenaries was used as a pretext to launch a massive assault on Fallujah delivering a horrific collective punishment to the whole city. Thousands of U.S. troops invaded the city, 1000- and 2000-pound bombs were dropped, hospitals were closed so those injured could not get medical aid. Over 800 people died in the U.S. attack and tens of thousands were forced to flee. A reporter from Al Jazeera wrote, “I went to the hospital. I could not see anything but a sea of corpses of children and women, and mostly children…These were scenes that were unbelievable unimaginable. I was taking photographs and forcing myself to photograph while I was at the same time crying.”

Mercenaries from Titan and CAGI (two other mercenary groups) were involved in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. According to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Titan and CAGI conspired with U.S. officials to “humiliate, torture and abuse persons” to win more contracts for their “interrogation services.” (p. 157)

Not a single U.S. military contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed in Iraq. In fact the contractors operate in a legal black hole where they seem to be immune from prosecution. One of Paul Bremmer’s last official acts before leaving Iraq was to sign Order #17, which said that “contractors shall be immune from Iraqi legal processes with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of any Contract to sub-contract thereto.” (p. 163).

In addition, until very recently, contractors have been immune from being charged by the U.S. under military law that governs U.S. troops. Blackwater also claims that it is immune to civil suits filed in U.S. courts, because it is part of the U.S.’s “total force” in Iraq. In other words, the mercenaries in Iraq are literally above the law.

In late 2006 Congress added an amendment to a Defense Department spending bill that said that contractors could now be prosecuted by the military in military courts. None have yet been charged. If its mercenaries were brought in front of military tribunals, Blackwater would likely challenge the right of the military to prosecute them.

From Azerbaijan to New Orleans to the Border

Scahill’s book is filled with rich exposure of the role that Blackwater is playing around the world.

Azerbaijan: Blackwater received a government contract in 2004 to train an elite Azeri force modeled after U.S. Navy SEALs. “Torture, police abuse, and excessive use of force by security forces is widespread in Azerbaijan,” according to a Human Rights Watch Report quoted in the book. But, as Scahill brings out, the Bush administration wanted to build an oil pipeline through the country in order to get access to the large Caspian Sea oil reserves without going through Iran or Russia. They also wanted to use the country as a forward base of potential operations against Iran, which borders on Azerbaijan.

Honduras: At an army base used by the CIA during the 1980s to train Nicaraguan Contras and the infamous U.S.-backed death squad Batallion 316, a private U.S. company prepared Honduran soldiers to work as mercenaries in Iraq. Scahill reports that the trainees were told that “where we are going everyone would be our enemy and we’d have to look at them that way, because they would want to kill us and the gringos too. So we’d have to be heartless when it was up to us to kill someone, even if it was a child.”

Chile: Blackwater has relied upon mercenaries that had served under brutal military dictatorships. Nearly 1,000 Chileans, many of whom were part of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet have been trained by Blackwater and deployed to Iraq. Other recruits have come from members of the military of apartheid South Africa.

New Orleans : One hundred fifty heavily armed Blackwater troops in full battle gear including automatic weapons were deployed to New Orleans by the Department of Homeland Security. Scahill writes, “what was desperately needed [in New Orleans] was food, water and housing. Instead what poured in fastest was guns. Lots of guns.” A Blackwater mercenary is quoted as saying: “The only difference between here [New Orleans] and Iraq is that there are no roadside bombs.”

The Border: Blackwater has mounted a campaign and testified in Congressional hearings arguing that its troops should be deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The rise of Blackwater and the increasing use of mercenaries by the U.S. raises many important questions. In a period of political crises could such a private army be part of a military coup? Is deploying mercenary troops around the world a means by which a U.S. empire could manage a global war for empire and domination without instituting a draft? Would such an army feel even less compulsion to respect international rules against torture and attacking civilians, and would the use of such forces insulate the U.S. government from accusations that it is carrying out war crimes? Readers interested in finding out more should check out this important book.

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