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

Now, mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and any ruler who keeps his state dependent upon mercenaries will never have any real peace or security, for they are disorganized, undisciplined, ambitious, and faithless. Brave before their allies, they are cowards before the enemy. They show no fear of God, no faith toward men.

That comes from my old copy of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was assigned reading in the summer between my eighth and ninth grade. Despite its being published in 1513, I think Machiavelli’s ideas on mercenary and auxiliary forces provides some handy background regarding Blackwater’s role in one of the greatest debacles of our ongoing War in Iraq.

Founded in 1997, Blackwater USA (1997-2007) and, later, Blackwater WorldWide (2007-2009) is the mercenary outfit—sorry, Private Military Contractor—is best known for carrying out the 2007 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, which took the lives of 17 Iraqi civilians, including at least two women and at least two children under 12 years old. (I say this is “one of the greatest” debacles of the War in Iraq only because there are so many to choose from: the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the Haditha Killings in 2005, our Armed Forces’ inability to find even a trace of biological, chemical, or nuclear WMDs, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, etc.)

Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army details not only the Nisour Square massacre and the circumstances that led to it but also the nihilistic zealotry (masquerading as a brand of Catholicism most Catholics wouldn’t recognize) of Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder. The book won the 2007 George Polk Book Award and became a New York Times bestseller, which isn’t surprising since it’s a journalistic masterwork.

I read Blackwater somewhere around 2010. Looking it over now, its pages yellowed with age, I kind of can’t believe I made it through the whole thing. First of all, it’s 500-plus pages long, and I don’t usually make it through something that long unless it’s one of those groundbreaking novels one feels compelled to read for the purpose of being able to say you read it.

Aside from that, as I’ve skimmed through it over the past couple of days, practically every paragraph leaves me feeling outraged to the point of nausea. Check it out:

What Blackwater has done since it first opened for business in the late 1990s is to build up a privatized parallel structure to the U.S. national security apparatus. As of this writing, it continues to receive major contracts for its various divisions, and the U.S. government remains the greatest consumer of its services. In December 2007, it registered a new high-powered lobbying firm, Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice. The disclosure form, filed with the U.S. Senate in January 2008, indicated the firm would be lobbying for Blackwater on a wide range of contracts in: defense, homeland security, aerospace, disaster planning, foreign relations, and law enforcement.

“OK, so a private military contractor whose top client is the U.S. government has the ear of lawmakers who make decisions concerning our foreign policy,” one might say. “Sounds a little fishy, sure, but how much money are we really talking about here?”

Two paragraphs later:

The U.S. government pays contractors as much as the combined taxes paid by everyone in the United States with incomes under $100,000, meaning “more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to [contractors] rather than to the [government],” according to a 2007 investigative report in Vanity Fair.

“OK, so we’re talking serious money. But what’s in it for lawmakers? Why would they hire military contractors when we have our own military, which is the best in the world? It’s not like lawmakers have any stake in the profitability of private military contractors, right?”

Eight pages later:

The often-overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is the outsourcing and privatization they have entailed. From the moment the Bush team took power, the Pentagon was stacked with ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Stephen Cambone and with former corporate executives—many from large weapons manufacturers—like Under Secretary of Defense Pete Aldridge (Aerospace Corporation), Army Secretary Thomas Whit (Enron), Navy Secretary Gordan England (General Dynamics), and Air Force Secretary James Roche (Northrop Grumman). The new civilian leadership at the Pentagon came into power with two major goals: regime change in strategic nations and the enactment of the most sweeping privatization and outsourcing operations in U.S. military history—a revolution in military affairs. After 9/11 this campaign became unstoppable.

This is all in the intro, by the way. I don’t think I can bear diving into the details of this “revolution in military affairs,” or Blackwater’s starring role in it. Again, I started wondering how I managed to get through this book in the first place until I remembered, oh yeah, when I first read Blackwater, Obama was president. That’s not to say Obama was some bringer of everlasting peace to the Middle East (far from it; the guy ordered drone strikes like you and I order pancakes, and in my recollection it seems like every other drone strike wound up blowing up a wedding), but back then one could assume that Erik Prince was no longer skulking around the halls of power, what with Blackwater WorldWide unable to recover from the public relations fallout of the Nisour Square massacre. (The company underwent a down-to-the-studs restructuring in 2009, starting with Prince’s resignation as CEO.)

But now, with President Cheeseburger (that’s my little nickname for him; use it if you want) in office, Prince appears to be back and better than ever, launching new businesses in Iraq, lying to Congress about his role in Russian election interference, infiltrating the loyal opposition, and no doubt making bank on all of it. Oh, and his sister is Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education. Awesome.

But I digress. Let me just say this: the pitfalls of privatizating the military is a major theme of my novel, We Take Care of Our Own (available later this year from Montag Press). Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army bestowed on me invaluable insight in my development of that theme. It also showed me that, no matter how far over-the-top I might go regarding the depravity of my fictional characters, nothing I come up with tops the reality in which we’re living.