The government of Iraq has announced that the private security firm Blackwater will be banned from that country.
The news that the company’s license to kill will not be renewed has been accompanied by the triple assassinations in Iraq of three Sunni candidates in the upcoming elections, providing grim headlines. Blackwater spokesmen have immediately exploited the situation by stressing that their efficient enterprise could easily withdraw from the country, but that American security would suffer greatly as a result.
The firm, established in 1997, has evolved into one of the most prominent — and profitable — of a growing array of corporations that provide military services, including firepower. In the fall of 2007, rapidly escalating controversy resulted from allegations that Blackwater personnel opened fire and killed civilians in Iraq without defensible provocation. At that time, the Iraq government temporarily banned the firm from further operations in the country. As a result of the incident, five Blackwater guards face charges in the U.S.
Initially during the American occupation, Blackwater personnel were protected from Iraq government prosecution. That has now been changed, reflecting steadily growing tensions between the population and this and other such firms.
In contrast to the alienated marginalized men who became American mercenaries in earlier generations, for instance in the Africa wars of the 1970s, Blackwater ranks are populated with very experienced senior U.S. military veterans, generally quite highly paid. Retired career officers and noncommissioned officers are present in large numbers. Contractors include former Army Green Berets and Navy SEALS, men highly trained in very specialized aspects of warfare.
Recently, a Carthage College Heritage class included an impressive young U.S. Marine who had just returned from Iraq, including combat duty in Fallujah. His leadership qualities were self-evident, and he taught two sessions of the class, which dealt with the cultural differences evident between Muslim and Western societies.
In the course of class discussion, he noted military contractors create some of the biggest problems faced by our troops in Iraq. They often travel in heavily armed convoys, tend to be very 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 passing through.
The activities of the military contractors challenge United States foreign policy much more generally, in global terms reaching 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 MPRI involvement in Angola was generally regarded as helpful to United States foreign policy, in both Guinea and Nigeria the company assisted highly repressive regimes. This was directly contrary to U.S. policies and completely outside the review or control of our government. In each case, profits came first, whether congruent with or contrary to our nation’s interests.
In Iraq, Blackwater corporate arrogance continues to hurt the United States. If the firm leaves, U.S. military personnel should take up a security role they should have been fulfilling all along.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the American people warned of long-term dangers to our democracy represented by the "military-industrial complex." President Obama should move quickly to curtail and control the now enormous menace of companies that kill.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu