The private soldiers who die for America: Tibor Fischer reviews Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill
Telegraph UK (2007-08-30) Tibor Fischer
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Tibor Fischer reviews Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill
His father was a self-made millionaire. He became a US Navy SEAL officer who served in Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East. He's a devout Catholic. He set up his own military facility in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina to provide five-star training facilities for special forces and law enforcement officers. He should be a character in a Tom Clancy novel, but Erik Prince is flesh and blood and is the creator, according to the author Jeremy Scahill, of "the world's most powerful mercenary army".
You know what's coming when you see endorsements from Michael Moore and Naomi Klein on the cover. Scahill doesn't like Prince at all. Prince's company Blackwater was established in 1997, and if it hadn't been for September 11 might well have remained a novelty; but the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq suddenly led to a demand for security personnel and Blackwater stepped up to provide the manpower.
George W Bush's foreign policy invites all sorts of reproach and criticism, and so do many of Blackwater's activities. However, Scahill is so keen to put the boot in, he undermines his own polemic. Prince's religious views (anti-euthanasia, anti-abortion), which Scahill meticulously dissects, aren't reprehensible. Similarly, the information that Prince has never given "a dime" to the Democrats doesn't really make him unspeakably evil or a threat to civilisation (Scahill mentions this failure to donate twice - indeed, many facts hove into view more than once).
There are a number of problems with this book. Prince hardly ever gives interviews, and neither he nor anyone else from Blackwater has talked to Scahill. If your company specialises in security matters and works with the CIA, you're not going to discuss your work openly.
So Scahill has set himself a tough task. Blackwater is 450 pages long, but it contains a lot of repetition. And most of the information can be easily found on the internet (to his credit, Scahill assiduously acknowledges his sources). There's relatively little about Blackwater and plenty of standard Bush-bashing and sniping at the Christian Right.
The "privatisation" drive in the Pentagon over the last few years and the legal status and regulation of contractors (ie mercenaries) are interesting questions. Scahill keeps on suggesting that there is something especially pernicious and dangerous about a company such as Blackwater, and while the firm does seem to have made mistakes, every armed force has, and there's one very easy way to solve the problem of a mercenary force that makes a mess: don't hire it.
In the preface, Scahill claims Blackwater "has more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries". This may indeed make them the "most powerful" mercenary army in the world, but superlatives can be misleading; vandalising a payphone could make you Hay-on-Wye's hardest villain, but you still wouldn't be much of a threat.
In 2004, four hapless Blackwater employees in Fallujah were ambushed and then torn apart by a mob; their gruesome deaths are repeatedly revisited by Scahill. This is partly because a lot of information is available about their demise (the families of the deceased are now lawyered up, holding Blackwater responsible for their deaths) and partly because Scahill argues that this event was a factor in the hostility between US forces and Sunnis.
The Fallujah four were unprepared and ill-equipped for their mission. To add to their misfortune, they were on their way to escort some kitchen equipment, not the most exalted cause for which to lay down your life.
Scahill uses this episode to suggest a slapdash, cowboy ethos in Blackwater, but then in a later chapter describing an incident in Najaf, when a handful of Blackwater mercs fought off hundreds of well-armed supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, he seems outraged that they are good at their job. One moment he criticises Blackwater for the jingoism of its management, the next for hiring Fijians and Bulgarians.
The Bush era has been a "gold rush" for firms such as Blackwater (and Britain's own Sandline) in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is down in part to the shrinkage in US military power in the previous decade (under both Republicans and Democrats) and the reluctance of Americans to see their soldiers in body bags. A dead contractor isn't quite as emotive.
Blackwater thoroughly berates the neo-cons and theo-cons, but doesn't give much insight into the company itself. It's a professional attempt to gather what material there is, but such an entity calls for the pen of a Tom Wolfe or a Hunter S Thompson.