Depending on whom you talk to, the first contractors in history to armies were either mercenaries or prostitutes. In our more refined age we can still find ladies of the evening providing their support but mercenaries have been replaced with what have been dubbed “private military contractors”, or PMCs. These PMCs provide everything from food to security and provoked criticism for their extensive role in theatres which included Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the best known – or infamous – of these PMCs was Blackwater. Rarely has a company, regardless of its sphere of business, earned more vitriol and political attacks than did Blackwater and its founder and CEO Erik Prince.
Outside of occasional media appearance, congressional appearance and Blackwater press release, Prince seemingly rarely addressed his critics. With Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, Prince recounts the history of Blackwater and gives his version of events. Although his critics will doubtless view it as a self-serving attempt at redemption, Prince does offer an intriguing defence of his company and what it accomplished as a contractor to the U.S. military, State Department and, lesser known, to America’s intelligence agencies.
Blackwater came into being in 1997, staffed with former Special Forces personnel to provide training primarily to law enforcement unused to tragic events like Columbine. The company quickly grew as Prince identified other areas where the company could provide services, eventually leading it to provide security for State Department personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, logistical and training support for soldiers, mail delivery and even occasionally combat support. In five years that Prince served as CEO, the company grew from a lone training facility in a north eastern U.S. swamp to employing thousands of contractors, owning its own fleet of transport craft, transport helicopters and armoured vehicles.
That kind of success obviously brought critics who, already opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacked Blackwater as a mercenary army and its contractors as jackbooted thugs who had little difficulty murdering citizens in pursuit of profit. Prince and Blackwater were able to ignore those attacks for the most part – it had satisfied clients who had little difficulty extending or awarding new contracts – right up until an incident in Iraq. During a mission protecting a senior State Department official, Blackwater was involved in a shootout in Nissour Square, Baghdad where 17 civilians were killed. Prince maintains that his operators came under fire from insurgents – and there is physical evidence to support that contention – while his critics argue that Blackwater personnel instigated a largely one-sided firefight.
Prince addresses that incident and other charges brought by both critics and the American legal system by explaining the legal constraints that Blackwater was subject to as a contractor to the American government. Prince points out that his activities were heavily regulated by the terms and conditions of the contracts the company signed and American law imposed – to the point that every bullet needed to be accounted for after a mission concluded. He argues that the State Department and White House officials undermined Blackwater in public while heavily relying on its services in the ground. He argues that popularly reported stories – such as Blackwater being able to operate in Iraq without impunity – were completely false and lays out his version of the facts. Such was the drive to paint Blackwater negatively that even incidents that involved other contractors were assigned to Prince’s firm.
Even while Blackwater was facing enormous public and political pressure, Prince sought to expand his company’s services. Once area of particular interest to him was peacekeeping and aid missions. Blackwater demonstrated those services in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when it delivered tonnes of food and logistical support to first responders, leading Prince to believe that private companies would be able to more efficiently deliver aid to parts of the world struck by natural and manmade disasters. He also argues that an ineffectual United Nations proved unable to mount successful peacekeeping operations, with private security forces likely being better placed to maintain peace. Prince, however, was essentially forced out of Blackwater before being able to pursue those avenues.
Perhaps not surprisingly Blackwater’s contracts extended into other spheres, most notably intelligence. Civilian Warriors ends with a chapter written by journalist Max Boot – after the CIA essentially blacked out Prince’s version – which explored the company’s work with American intelligence agencies. Given the chapter was written utilizing only publicly available information, not much new can be gleaned from it but it does serve as an interesting codicil to Prince’s exploration of his company’s history. It is clear, regardless of what the American government has publicly stated – particularly the Obama administration – Blackwater was respected by a large number of people who were in the position to decide which companies would perform the services required during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the end the reader will have to decide for themselves whether Civilian Warriors has managed to right wrongs perpetrated by politicians, the media and anti-war activists or Prince is merely justifying a dubious expansion of the private sector into the theatre of war. What is inarguable, however, is that Prince was obviously passionate and proud of the work Blackwater undertook during his watch and many of the positive outcomes that he’s listed are grudgingly acknowledged by the government clients who continually awarded his firm billions in contracts. Regardless of where the truth lies, Prince has written an engaging and viable defence which deserves to be part of the record. More importantly, the men and women who served in Blackwater deserve thanks for their part in the war against terror – which thanks to Prince they’ve finally received.