Blackwater is bad news, currently quite literally. The sizable corporation, established in 1997, has evolved into one of the most prominent – and profitable – of a growing array that provide military services, including firepower.
Now, five Blackwater representatives have been indicted by the Justice Department for allegedly killing without sufficient provocation seventeen Iraqi civilians at a vehicle intersection last year. A sixth guard has pled guilty to lesser charges and is assisting federal authorities.
At the time of the incident, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly apologized, but otherwise the administration reacted with diplomatic doubletalk. The Bush White House stressed contractors did not fall under U.S. or Iraq laws. The new security agreement between the two nations addresses this point; in the future, such incidents are likely to be handled in Iraq courts. Early in the American occupation, a directive was issued insulating American personnel from such prosecution.
The ranks of Blackwater are populated with very experienced U.S. military veterans, many quite highly paid. Retired career officers and noncommissioned officers are to be found in large numbers. Contractors include former Army Green Berets and Navy SEALS, personnel extremely highly trained in very specialized aspects of warfare. They contrast markedly with the often troubled, relatively low-paid vets who populated mercenary ranks before the 1990s.
Last spring, a Carthage College Heritage class included an impressive young U.S. Marine Corps reservist who had just returned from a tour in Iraq, including combat duty in Fallujah. His leadership qualities were self-evident, and he was kind enough to agree to lead two sessions. The course dealt with cultural differences between Islamic and Western societies.
In the course of the class discussion, he volunteered that the military contractors create some of the biggest problems on the ground in Iraq faced by the U.S. military. Contractors travel in heavily armed convoys, tend to be nervous in strange territory and very quick to open fire, to devastating effect.
The Marine Iraq vet emphasized that he and his comrades had to deal with the carnage – and rage – left in the wake of these corporate killers. Neither Iraqi security nor American foreign policy was furthered by the actions witnessed by this Marine.
The activities of the military contractors challenge United States foreign policy much more generally, in global terms well beyond Iraq. Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), another very large well capitalized private security firm, since the 1990s has developed extensive involvement in Africa, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.
While the company’s involvement in Angola was generally regarded as helpful to efforts of our government to engage with the regime, in both Guinea and Nigeria MPRI assisted highly repressive regimes, contrary to U.S. policies and completely outside the review or control of American government representatives. In each case, profits came first, whether congruent with or contrary to U.S. national interests.
Little has been published about this important and very ominous phenomenon. Two notable exceptions are the books ‘Blackwater’ by reporter Jeremy Scahill and ‘Corporate Warriors’ by P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, as candidate and president, constantly addressed national security challenges in a manner which married ethical concern with practical realism and common sense. As part of his farewell address to the American people, he warned about the long-term dangers to our democracy represented by the phenomenon of the "military-industrial complex".
As citizens and voters, we should look for representatives worthy of Ike’s outlook on politics – and on life.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu)