War Profiteers or Heroes – The Story of Blackwater

blackwaterA young American visited Nicaragua when it first had a Marxist government, and he describes what he saw..: 

The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights believed that Daniel Ortega, a Marxist who’d come to power when his militant group, Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, overthrew the Nicaraguan government in 1979, had been murdering civilian dissenters. In Managua, we had to shake a surveillance tail from a Sandinista in a Soviet-made Lada. Ninety minutes north of town, farmers led us to a secluded rolling hillside—and grim evidence of the atrocities. We found the remains of dozens of peasants who’d been bound at the wrist, shot in the head, and thrown into pits. I remember the shattered bones, the piles of broken skulls that stared up at me from the earth. 

The name of this American was Erik Prince.
Another young American also came to Nicaragua at this time – as an admirer of the revolution.  The name of this American was Bill de Blasio.
Bill became mayor of New York City.  Erik became the head of a company named “Blackwater” – which rose to the heights, and then became the target of a campaign to destroy it.

On “Blackwater”. 

My company held [many contracts]…bringing in some $600 million a year. We hired two thousand contractors at any given time for jobs in twenty different countries. Just ten years after a handful of us had cleared a swath of the Great Dismal Swamp, my company had grown to include a fleet of forty aircraft… the 183-foot repurposed NOAA ship—and we had plenty more ideas in the pipeline. We guarded everything from CIA bases in Afghanistan to the Missile Defense Agency’s anti-ICBM radar installation in northern Japan, while still training more than twenty-five thousand men and women …[including] not only this country’s most elite forces, but those of other countries as well, such as the Taiwanese National Security Bureau’s special protection service, which guards its president. 

“Blackwater” became very unpopular, castigated in the blogosphere, in the press, and by politicians, and in his book “Civilian Warriors”, Erik defends it, and his record.  It is a convincing defense.
Critics called Erik a “war profiteer”, a leader of mercenaries, etc.  The term “cowboys” was applied to his men.

As far as the “cowboy” designation,”one of our WPPS contractors in Baghdad told the Washington Post in 2005. “If anyone of them is a cowboy, he will . . . get everyone killed.” 

A good example of the use of mercenaries was the use of German Hessian soldiers who fought for the British against the Americans in the revolutionary war.  They were fighting for money, not for a cause they believed in.  They were not fighting for their country either. 

Yet considered in the terms of the Geneva Convention qualifications. Blackwater’s men were hired to protect civilians and buildings from insurgent attack, not overtly fight in an armed conflict; their engagements with enemies were purely defensive, as opposed to offensive action as a direct part of the hostilities; their motivations for being in Iraq were generally as patriotic as they were material; and perhaps most important, the men on our WPPS details were American citizens, working for US. agencies that were a lawful party to the conflict. 

… “In truth, whenever I hear someone call a PSC a mercenary I just roll my eyes,” David Isenberg, author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq and an evenhanded critic of the industry, wrote at the Huffington Post. “It is a sign of mental laziness.”

Erik also says: 

By 2009, more contractors were dying in Iraq than military personnel; that same bloody rubric flipped in Afghanistan in 2011. “Privatizing the ultimate sacrifice,” as one George Washington University law scholar described it. 

Blackwater got involved in defending State Department diplomats and others in Iraq, and things went wrong at times.  The final nail in Blackwater’s coffin was the events in Nisour Square, where Blackwater men claimed to be attacked, and shot back, killing 17 people, and wounding others.  You can see a description of this tragedy on Wikipedia (see sources)

The war was going badly, and the American left turned against it.  “The war in Iraq was becoming a viciously partisan issue.” And the left didn’t play fair: 

I’m still haunted by an incident that involved my accountant: As he escorted a veteran IRS agent around my farm during yet another tax audit, the officer mentioned how in twenty-five years of handling high—profile tax cases, he had “never been under so much pressure to get someone as to get Erik Prince.” I’m just not sure what good I gained from the path I chose, or what part of America it is that craves that sort of relentless political persecution. 

Why didn’t Blackwater defend its’ reputation? 

As it happened, the public affairs officer in Washington involved in managing Backwaters’ contractual nondisclosure policy was a career bureaucrat named Grace Moe. She had a fear of bad press that was extraordinary. Rather than allowing us to defend ourselves under proper official parameters, as we requested numerous times, …State threatened to terminate the contract if we did anything to halt the repeated slams by ill-informed talking heads. Not only would we have to take the bullets for their men in Baghdad, we were effectively told, we had to take the heat at home, too. And when we deviated from that role, the response was unequivocal.
… And suddenly, “A Blackwater spokesman declined to comment” soon became an incessant refrain in news stories. Each time it appeared, my team back in Moyock wanted to whip a computer against the wall.
 

Erik was proud of his company. 

I remember opening the newspaper one morning and seeing a photo of a US. soldier sitting alone on a desolate Afghan mountain ridgeline. He was reading his mail. I loved that Blackwater had delivered it to him. That single image seemed to sum up so much about what my company was capable of. 

It hurt to give it up.

Erik does not sound like a profiteer when he criticizes the government: 

I still regularly see examples of misguided big-war thinking today: In the decade after the attacks of 9/11, for instance, the DOD added a hundred new admirals and generals to its ranks—bringing the total to nearly a thousand. The Navy now has more admirals (331 as of May 2012, according to the U. S. Naval Institute) than ships for them to command (282). And in 2010, then defense secretary Robert Gates said that an internal DOD review found that “in some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as thirty layers.” ..
That sounds like typical DoD inefficiency to me. In everything we did, Blackwater demonstrated how an organization could achieve a maximum return on investment. We filled contracts the way auto manufacturers run production lines…
 

Erik appeared before congress to defend his company, and he notes in his book that: 

time and again I watched some congressional staffer dart into the room and slide a page of prepared questions in front of a representative who seemed to have no clue what he or she was about to read. What became clear as I corrected repeated misinformation was that not only were some committee members not grasping my answers, they didn’t even understand their own questions. 

“This isn’t just about broken laws or wasted tax revenues,” then presidential contender Barack Obama announced at a 2007 campaign stop in Iowa City. “This is about our claims to moral leadership in the world. We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors…”What types of people joined Blackwater? 

Some men and women came to Blackwater after injuries had curtailed their military careers and yet they still had the training, talent, and perspective to be tremendous assets in a war zone. …
The people who worked for my company were proudly patriotic. I could relate to the many contractors we hired for whom a military lifestyle no longer meshed with family obligations. Still others were retired from their previous DoD positions, but after the attacks of …9/11 felt compelled to rejoin the fight. ..
All told, Blackwater’s men in Baghdad, American or not, received far tougher screenings than most U. S. soldiers and law enforcement personnel undergo at home—as exhibited by a US. Capitol Police fiasco in 2008, when it was revealed that fifteen of the force’s new hires had actually failed criminal background checks and psychological examinations or had submitted false information on their applications.
 

Erik Prince realized he would have to leave the company he had built. He writes: 

Walking away from people who felt like family was hard enough; walking away when what we were building together seemed only half done was heartbreaking.
“For all the incredible things we accomplished, 1 can’t help but reflect on all that Blackwater never got to do on my watch: the humanitarian and peacekeeping work we could have revolutionized.

If he had to do it again, at the “very least, I’d be more selective in the federal departments I worked for. Otherwise, I might just send a note back to 1998 and tell myself to go start my own manufacturing business. Or do something else entirely in a different part of the world—anything, anyplace.”

And what about Obama’s statements about contractors? 

After early token gestures toward reforming transparency and oversight in the PMC industry, he promptly flooded Iraq with more hired guns in order to bring US. men and women in uniform home. “The last American soldier[s] will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success,” President Obama said in October 2011. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.” What he neglected to mention was that in their place the US. government left a contractor footprint the size of an Army division, which will remain for the foreseeable future. The United States hasn’t left Iraq; only the troops have. 

After reading this book I believe one lesson is that there is a dishonesty in the journalistic and political worlds – a willingness to pile on to scapegoats, and to follow appearances rather than reality. We should remember what President Theodore Roosevelt said: 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

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