With Erik Prince’s recent op-ed in the NYT arguing in favor of largely turning the US presence in Afghanistan over to private military contractors, now seems like a good time to review Jeremy Scahill’s “Blackwater,” a detailed expose of Blackwater’s (now merged with Triple Canopy and known as Academi) actions during the first decade of its existence, from 1997 to 2007.
Scahill makes no pretense at “objectivity,” in that he is openly on a mission to reveal what he sees as Blackwater’s misdeeds and makes no attempt to “see their side of the story,” so to speak, although he does present copious amounts of information about Blackwater and the Prince family, and has numerous interviews with people connected to Blackwater in one capacity or another. If you are pro-Blackwater or pro-private contractors, you are likely to find Scahill’s firmly staked position irritating. If, however, you are on the fence or just don’t know very much about Blackwater and the world of private contracting, which is the modern version of what used to be known with euphemistic romanticism as soldiers of fortune, this is an eye-opening read about the profound changes the US military and the way it conducts operations have undergone in the past 20 years.
During the Gulf War of 1991, Scahill tells us, the ratio of private contractors to regular troops was 1 in 60. During the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate rose to something like 1 in 3. Following the downsizing of the military in the 1990s under Clinton, and the aggressive privatization of everything, especially military actions, promoted by Cheney and Rumsfield during the W administration, the US found itself outsourcing a considerable portion of its military activities to private for-profit firms like Blackwater, CACI, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy, who provided services ranging from security for high-ranking US officials to rendition and interrogation of high-value prisoners, frequently at “black” sites in countries with abysmal human rights records.
Scahill discusses the problems surrounding the involvement of these mercenaries in national or international conflicts, which often center around the fact that they are largely exempt from both military and civilian law. Using mercenaries, including large numbers of non-citizens, rather than regular soldiers who are citizens of the country they represent, also frees a government from heeding the public will: citizens are much less bothered by the deaths of foreign mercenaries than they are by the deaths of “their” soldiers, especially draftees.
Which gets us to what may be the biggest concern that Scahill has about these companies, a concern that I and many others share. In his op-ed, Prince argues, as he has argued elsewhere, that private contractors are more efficient and more cost-effective, and can get the job done much more quickly for a fraction of the price. But that ignores a critical point about war, which is that it is not just a job. War is not–or should not be–business: it is the response of last resort to desperate circumstances, and should be carried out only by will of the people, and by the very people whose will has sanctioned this grave step. Profit(eer)ing off of war can only lead to more war, conducted by people whose main stake in the game is to prolong the conflict and killing as long as possible. There are no doubt many reasons why the current war in Afghanistan is the longest-running war the US has ever conducted, but the fact that this is a profitable business venture must be a significant contributing factor. Prince and a number of his cronies are supposedly devout Christians who believe they are doing God’s will. May God and posterity judge their actions justly.