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The New Mercenaries

By December 16, 2007 No Comments

“Mercs, Skipper?”
“Mercenaries, man! Bloody hell. What did you think they were? Cars? Thought you could do military.”
“And PMC, Skipper?”…
“Private Military Company… Where the hell have you been all your life?”
–John le Carré, The Mission Song

The Skipper’s indignant question, “Where have you been?”, surely applies to the American media shocked by the spectacularly reckless killing of Iraqi commuters by the hired guns of the Blackwater corporation on the streets of Baghdad this past September 16. “Shocked” the media were into discovering that the United States government maintains some 30,000 to 50,000 mercenary soldiers in Iraq under tax-paid contracts with private military companies (PMCs). Before that, the most sensational episode involving PMCs occurred with the lynching of four American “civilian contractors” and the gruesome display of their burned body parts in Fallujah in late March, 2004. The media at the time little noted that the slain were actually hired soldiers; rather, the focus was on the “terrorists” who killed them. By now, however, everyone has “noticed” the PMCs and come to realize that these militias have been integral to the American occupation of Iraq virtually from its beginning.

For all the indignation now focused on the mercenaries, most of the “solutions” being offered to repair the situation are quick fixes, like ordering mercenaries to behave by the rules of enlisted soldiers. This assumes the killings are episodes of aberrant behavior, not symptoms of a flawed system. BlackwaterYet the Baghdad episode really serves as testimony to fundamental changes in the way the United States has conducted its overseas military ventures since the Vietnam War. Thus, even if Blackwater is expelled from Iraq, its contracts will simply be given to other PMCs.

The books under review tell us indeed “where we have been.” They reveal the structural faults with PMC outsourcing and the ominous implications that this practice holds for the American polity. Jeremy Scahill’sBlackwater treats the issue most thoroughly, while also bringing into bold view the connection of PMCs with the personal background of many Perspectives readers.

From Holland to Fallujah

Scahill tells the story of the meteoric growth of Blackwater using a dramatic narrative that focuses on the major actors and proceeds with a reporter’s flair. Whenever a new character is introduced Scahill interrupts the action for a detailed briefing on the person’s role in recent events leading up to his (there are no women in the story) involvement with the company. Entire chapters are devoted not only to the prior careers of Blackwater personnel like Erik Prince, Cofer Black, and Joseph Schmitz, but also to the careers of major recipients of Blackwater services, like Iraq’s American “governors,” Paul Bremer and John Negroponte. This biographical collage at first seems to get in the way of the main story, but from it emerges an insightful personality typology of those behind the rapid buildup of the neo-mercenary industry in the United States, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Blackwater is thus almost as much the story of Erik Prince as it is of the company itself. Scahill traces the path Prince followed from his family roots in West Michigan to his role as CEO-owner of one of the most successful PMCs in the business. Because he was denied personal interviews, Scahill is unable to convey the mercurial dynamics of Prince’s personality which drive his passion for military business. Likewise, his book provides no section of systematic critique of the mercenary industry. His point of view is manifest instead by his tone of exposé and scattered critical comments throughout.

Blackwater was born in the minds of two Navy SEALs, Prince and Al Clark. Clark originated the idea that a commercial facility for training in special-forceslevel weaponry and fighting skills would be marketable to government agencies overseeing military operations abroad and police functions at home. Prince, who had served under Clark in the SEALs, embraced the concept and provided the money to buy over 5,000 acres at Moyock, North Carolina, where in 1998 the “Blackwater Lodge and Training Center” was established. It quickly developed into a state-of-the-art military training base for close-up fighting, such as urban combat in Fallujah and fugitive pursuit at Tora Bora. That is, Blackwater at Moyock became a privately incorporated equivalent of the infamous assassin-training school formerly known as the School of the Americas.

His Navy SEAL ideology and connections combined with Prince’s copious funding sources (both his inheritance from the family’s auto-parts manufacturing company and from his own prior enterprise) enabled Blackwater to grow rapidly into a world leader in the mercenary industry. Its training business broke into the big time in 2000 with a U.S. government General Service Agency (GSA) contract, which opened the door to a stream of no-bid contracts with the Pentagon and State Department. While the first GSA payment in 2000 was a mere $68,000, by 2006 the contract had yielded $111 million. Blackwater has recently opened training facilities in Illinois and California, provided public and private security on the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans, and offers protection to U.S. Fortune 500 executives through a subsidiary called “The Black Group.”

Blackwater’s move into the security business, made so visible by the September shootings in Baghdad, began with an open-ended State Department contract to protect high-level Green Zone officials in Baghdad, starting with Paul Bremer. From 2004 to 2006 the contract yielded Blackwater over $321 million. From its core activities of training and protection, Blackwater has since branched into military air service (possibly including “renditions” of suspects to torture-friendly locations) and mercenary troop deployment (through its Greystone subsidiary) to serve international agencies as diverse as the United Nations, foreign governments, and international oil companies. Since publication of Scahill’s book, Blackwater USA has morphed into Blackwater Worldwide to sell these services to any comer.

What accounts for Blackwater’s astonishing success? A lot hangs on Prince’s own contributions: his copious funds, entrepreneurial opportunism, love of military tactics and techniques, and family links in conservative echelons. Prince has cultivated Washington connections by hiring veteran officials like Cofer Black (former operative and coordinator of counter-terrorism at the CIA) and Joseph Schmitz (former corporate-friendly Inspector General) and by resort to aggressive lobbying.

These resources lined up with dramatic shifts towards privatization in American political culture so that by 2003 it seemed natural for Paul Bremer to be guarded by black-shirted mercenaries rather than by the usual U.S. Marines. Privatization, in turn, was part of the ascendancy of neoconservative ideology. Blackwater’s neo-con compatibilities include emotive patriotism (its American hires pledge to “defend the Constitution”), belief in the myth that military action trumps diplomacy for peacemaking, and, in the case of Prince and Schmitz, a muscular Christianity rooted in Catholic-Evangelical right-wing extremism.

The triggers for the PMC growth-spurt were the Columbine and 9/11 massacres and the subsequent military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. As anti-occupation violence intensified in Iraq, increasing portions of the federal funds allocated to reconstruction contracts were spent on paramilitary protection of, say, construction workers rather than on the construction itself. Further, as the American occupation forces were stretched beyond their limits, the U.S. increasingly hired private militias to protect senior bureaucrats and even generals, on the model of Blackwater’s contract to protect Paul Bremer.

How significantly all this has altered the nature of the Iraq occupation is clear from an update Scahill wrote this past August. The U.S. summer “surge” raised its formal troop presence in Iraq to 160,000. However, the number of private contractors was close to 200,000, including many Iraqis and third-country nationals besides Americans. Thus the total of all personnel on the USA’s Iraq-occupying payroll is roughly 400,000. Most of the private military contractors are engineers, dishwashers, etc., but as many as 50,000 of them are fully armed soldiers providing security via a hundred or more mercenary firms. Given a daily pay-rate of $600-1000 per person, the collective payroll for these private soldiers is billions of dollars a year, and that without calculating the huge overhead costs hidden in layers of corporate subcontracts. By August 2007 Blackwater had accumulated $750 million in income on its State Department “diplomatic security” contract begun in June 2004. (Jeremy Scahill, “The Mercenary Revolution,” www., 15 August 2007.) By now, closing down just Blackwater’s operation in Iraq would freeze the USA’s occupation administration.

Warrior Salvation

Scahill’s book also visits the political implications of this presence. The image created by machine-gun-toting thugs in wrap-around sunglasses flanking officials on their public sorties has reinforced Iraqis’ impression of Americans as uncouth occupiers with bad intentions. The image is worsened by their indiscriminate shooting at Iraqi automobiles while standing immune from prosecution under either Iraqi or American law. While American soldiers can at least be brought to trial for unwarranted violence, the mercenaries have not been. The military posturing and callow violence amount to a racist disregard for Iraqis as people, for their culture and their safety. Besides, the desperate priority on protecting American officials makes every approaching Iraqi an “enemy,” a legitimate target and expendable life.

Military companies can also take advantage of their own employees with impunity because they operate beyond the formal rules of military engagement and American labor laws. The signal episode was the murder of the four Blackwater employees at Fallujah–on their way to deliver refrigerators to an outlying American base. This gruesomely tragic story alone makes the book worth reading. It brings together the failed strategy of occupation, the Iraqis’ deep resentment of it, and the naïve commercialism of the PMCs. The victims were four personally innocent Americans, their burned bodies desecrated and photographed for the media, but also some 800 Iraqis killed in an American retaliatory raid on Fallujah the following month. That these “civilian contractors” were improperly briefed and outfitted for their journey are charges in the lawsuit for negligence being brought against Blackwater USA by relatives of the American victims. Blackwater’s countersuit claims that the soldiers signed away their right to sue upon hire.

Modern mercenaries work hard at making their preferred label of “contractors” stick, an effort Scahill aptly dubs the “neo-mercenary re-branding campaign.” The goal is to be recognized as respectable professionals rather than crass mercenaries who serve the highest bidder. Until recently Blackwater belonged to a PMCmember organization called “International Peace Operations Association”–re-branding indeed.

More than mere naming is involved. While South Africa has outlawed mercenary companies, Blackwater and others have campaigned successfully for recognition in the United States, not only to enhance marketability but also to create a legal shield against civilian liability suits like the courtcase over the “Fallujah Four.” The PMCs have campaigned hard for recognition that its services are a militarily essential component of the USA’s “total force,” a euphemism for accounting mercenary actions in the overall national defense responsibilities previously reserved for the military services. Ironically, the current cry for legal accountability may effect exactly that goal.

This argument is suffused in ideological symbolism. “Embrace the Warrior Spirit!” is the battle cry of one Blackwater fan. And a warrior culture it is, complete with professional conventions, weapons fairs, and competitions like the “Swat Olympics.” If warrior spirit is the ideological yin, fear is the psychological yang. “We” (Americans and their way of life) are under attack; those with the “warrior spirit” are our only salvation. A still deeper rationale comes from conservative Christian militancy. Scahill details the odyssey of Erik Prince from West Michigan Christian Reformed to Richard Neuhaus-style conservative Catholic, where he joined “theo-con” Roman Catholic Joseph Schmitz, a proud member of the militarist Order of Malta.

Behind the ideology, however, the business of neo-mercenary firms like Blackwater is business–the “free enterprise” of military capitalism. The bottom-line argument for selling mercenary services is higher efficiency and quality for less money. Scahill struggles to determine actual costs of the protection services in Iraq. By the end of the Bremer term in 2004 the U.S. had already paid $2 billion for security contracts, and these expenses have risen astronomically in the three years since. With much of the security cost hidden in subcontracts paid out by major military contractors like KBR, the we-do-it-better-for-less argument, however effective as a re-branding strategy, seems highly counter-intuitive, the bluster of a used-car salesman. On the ground in Iraq, American soldiers see their neo-mercenary counterparts performing the same duties as themselves but for much more money and with poseur recklessness.

Blackwater is rich in detail and fascinating from beginning to end. That approach has its limits. The book’s narrative style keeps information from being presented systematically, and the connections it implies sometimes seem little more than coincidence. In the end, however, the rich background it provides is helpful for placing Blackwater in the larger context of the profound changes that have taken place in America’smodus operandi in the world–and in the very underpinnings of American culture.

For Perspectives readers Scahill’s detail is most pertinent in establishing Erik Prince’s connections to the Prince and De- Vos families of West Michigan. I know that some readers who hold fond associations with those families never made it beyond the first chapter of Blackwater where these connections are laid out. For their benefit I wish Scahill had put much of that material in an appendix to let the main story of Blackwater’s neo-mercenary culture be heard. It is true, of course, that these West Michigan families do not market military services and goods; Erik Prince does. One could object, “Don’t suppose that other members of the family are militarists just because Erik is!” Still, one would like to know what made Erik leave home and the family business to become a Navy SEAL, a Roman Catholic, and eventually the cofounder of a private army, even as the family enterprise was sold to an outside corporation.

As sensitive as the subject is, it is fair to say that some who have influenced Prince and his family with their particular versions of Christian political theology– James Dobson and Charles Colson, for example–have been staunch backers of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is also fair to say that Erik Prince has translated that theological militancy into military activism in support of the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration. All these interconnections help explain the distinctive character of Blackwater and open the prospect that American society is adapting alarmingly militaristic tenets into its Christian political ideology.

Empire and Apocalypse

Blackwater and Erik Prince represent hundreds of similar firms, a growth industry that is entrenching itself into the American economy. A systematic study of this ascendant culture is P. W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors, which analyzes the entire industry as it had evolved to 2002. Singer draws important distinctions often only implied by Scahill and writes from a conservative perspective inspired by his mentor, Samuel Huntington. Though he provides a helpful history of mercenaries from antiquity to the present, he abandons the term for the official label of PMF, “Private Military Firms” (synonymous with PMC). Instead of saying, as I would, that they are a danger in principle, he condones these enterprises and deems their faults correctible with better regulation. Robert Young Pelton’s very readable Licensed to Kill gives a broad insider history of the movement. He writes as a reporter and includes an extensive interview with Erik Prince, on which he bases perceptive character analyses. Like Singer, Pelton mostly approves of the industry, says he has yet to meet a basically bad character among military contractors, and pleads for better standards and regulation.

Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine discusses the economic implications of outsourcing war to paramilitaries in the context of the booming war-zone and disaster reconstruction industry dominated by giants like Halliburton and CH2M Hill. For this corporate conglomerate, catastrophe is so profitable that even huge natural disasters now trigger upswings rather than downturns in stock markets. Klein calls the phenomenon “disaster capitalism” and uses Blackwater as its type. She argues that disaster capitalism’s spiraling growth has ballooned into a privatized “disaster bubble,” a for-profit “shadow state” that is not only claiming previously state-run operations as its rightful turf but also regards traditional non-profit relief programs as infringements on its terrain. Reading Klein raises the creepy feeling that the dystopian future of Blade Runner is very near, a fractured world in which central government has given way to thug-dominated corporate rule by franchises, with neighborhoods suffering perpetual turf battles among private militias.

For a broad overview of America’s military lock-hold on the globe I urge the reading of Chalmers Johnson’s “American Empire” trilogy: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis. Johnson gives a grim portrayal of the USA’s growth to military dominance signified by its current spread of 750 bases around the world. Given this huge overseas presence (some 200,000 soldiers and the same number of dependents, not including those deployed in Iraq, around the Persian Gulf, and in Central Asia and Afghanistan), one can foresee an exponential growth in American neo-mercenary firms to protect the denizens of these bases from increasingly angry locals.

The growing militancy of the Christian Right exemplified by Erik Prince is elaborated in Chris Hedges’American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Hedges’ prior career as a war correspondent, most recently in Sarajevo, led to his writing War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Anchor Books, 2002). In American Fascists he turns from warfare itself to the militant, male-dominant culture born of fascination with the biblical apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation and fabricated by the likes of John Hagee and Timothy LaHaye into a war-filled end-time myth. These preachers have prepared the ground for Christians to accept the reality and rectitude of perpetual American militarism, in which peacemaking itself becomes associated with the coming of anti-Christ.

Defenders of the neo-mercenary industry claim that using private soldiers-for-pay rather than public citizen-soldiers is not intrinsically wrong, and that such armies have played major roles throughout history. (Joseph Schmitz has made Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian mercenary who fought with George Washington, a virtual Blackwater mascot.) As a historian I would counter that in the Persian, Greek, and Roman Mediterranean empires mercenary armies enabled rulers to amass autocratic powers and fabulous fortunes for themselves at the expense of the populace.

For example, Antiochus Epiphanes’ famous plundering of the Jerusalem Temple epitomizes the robbing of subject peoples to fund expensive mercenary armies for frivolous aggressions. This one helped set up Antiochus’ “anabasis” into Parthia, i.e., his invasion of ancient Iraq, which came to grief, as had his father’s before him. An earlier Anabasis, Xenophon’s, models another flaw. When 10,000 Greek mercenaries lost their source of pay after a failed regime change, they simply marched out of ancient Iraq and left the Persian Empire to cope with its own disintegration. These events reverberate in the present. As one Iraq War veteran observes, American mercenaries in Iraq “can simply drop their guns and go home” when it suits them (quoted in Frank Rich, “The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us,” New York Times, 14 October 2007, 13).

As a believer in a Gospel of peace and reconciliation I am greatly disturbed by the exponential growth of militarism in America. Since the end of the draft the United States has already built a form of privatized military in the formal services. From its founding the CIA has carried out covert military operations at presidents’ bidding. Now we find over half the American military occupying Iraq staffed by neo-mercenaries. The works of Scahill, Johnson, and Hedges together help us to fathom the depth of this transformation from a democratic civil society to an undemocratic militarist one, a transformation frequently defended under the guise of Christian principle.

With Scahill I believe that the emergence of Blackwater and its kind is a threatening force in our political and religious culture–a threat to both the viability of the republic and the sensibility of the Christian Gospel. I like his term “neo-mercenary” for its exact rendering of similarity and difference with traditional mercenaries. I dislike the term “private military contractor” for its pretense that a sword is a plowshare. Finally, if you crave some fictional relief from all this serious reading, I suggest a turn to John LeCarré’s The Mission Song to see what a Western neo-mercenary coup in Africa could look like. You will, of course, never in your wildest dreams imagine it could happen here.

Books Discussed in This Essay

Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 452 pp.

P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 304 pp.

Robert Young Pelton, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 358 pp.

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 576 pp.

Chalmers Johnson. Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire; The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic; Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000, 2004, and 2007), 288, 400, and 368 pp.

Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2007), 272 pp.

John LeCarré, The Mission Song (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 352 pp.

Bert deVries is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.