The Rise of the World's Most
Powerful Mercenary Army
By Jeremy Scahill
Nation Books, 452 pages, $32.50
On March 31, 2004, I was in Baghdad reporting on the growing Iraqi insurgency when the news broke that four American "contractors" had been brutally killed in the streets of Fallujah. Al Jazeera broadcast images of horribly charred bodies dangling from the bridge across the Euphrates River, and crowds of jubilant Fallujans cheering the deaths.
We unembedded journalists working in Iraq had long known that Fallujah was completely controlled by the insurgents at that stage of the conflict, and it was difficult to imagine what four American "civilians" were doing driving unescorted through the heartland of Iraqi resistance.
Five days later, the U.S. authorities in Baghdad announced they intended to arrest the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This sparked a violent response from al-Sadr's followers in the city of Najaf. Massed suicide attacks against the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of fanatical Shiites. On April 5, I visited Najaf, interviewed a number of al-Sadr's wounded fighters in a makeshift hospital, and toured the bullet-scarred CPA complex. The defenders of the Najaf CPA complex were an odd mix of well-armed American civilians and Salvadoran soldiers. The spent shell casings in their bunkers were about calf-deep, indicating the ferocity of the previous day's fighting. When I asked which unit they belonged to, the Americans told me to vacate the premises.
In his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, U.S. investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has provided the answers to those two questions, which even those of us on the ground at the time could not determine.
The unlucky victims of the Fallujah ambush were not civilian workers, as reported in the initial news stories, but security contractors working for Blackwater. Similarly, the defenders of the Najaf CPA were employees of this private army for hire, which at the height of the battle against al-Sadr's militia brought in their own helicopters with reinforcements to turn the tide. Those two incidents, occurring just days apart as the war escalated sharply, marked the first time that the widespread deployment of mercenaries in Iraq was brought to the public's attention.
Scahill uses this as a reference point to bring the reader back to the origins of Blackwater and its right-wing Christian founder. Erik Prince served as an intern for George Bush Sr. and was a U.S. Navy Seal before he inherited his family's $1.35-billion fortune. While contributing donations to the Republican Party and various extremist Catholic causes, Prince teamed up with his former Seal instructors and went into the business of private security. Purchasing several thousand acres of property near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, Prince established the Blackwater training compound in 1997.
Initially, this facility provided only limited training for law-enforcement and special-forces operatives, but opportunity soon came knocking. The shocking 1999 high school shootout at Columbine had police forces across the United States looking to upgrade their training at the Blackwater compound. In 2000, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole with a suicide bomber boat. As a result, the U.S. navy sought specialized weapons training for its personnel, and Blackwater provided the instructors.
Finally, the terror attacks of 9/11 proved a business bonanza for Prince's corporation. In 2002, as the U.S. military attempted to secure a post-Taliban Afghanistan and mobilize for war in Iraq, Blackwater branched into a new field of providing "soldiers for hire." This fledgling mercenary force was subsequently contracted to provide security for U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority in post-Saddam Iraq.
Since 2003, Blackwater has expanded rapidly, adding helicopters and aircraft to the corporation's impressive arsenal and hiring foreign mercenaries on an unprecedented scale. Defining the exact role of these legions of private security contractors on the modern battlefield has not been easy. Scahill uses the court proceedings of two separate incidents -- the Fallujah ambush and a Blackwater aircraft crash in Afghanistan -- to illustrate the blurred line between actual military units and gun-for-hire corporations.
In defending Blackwater from lawsuits filed by the victims' families, its lawyers argue that the company should be immune from any liability since it is part of a "U.S. Total Force that includes contractors." Since these mercenaries are not subject to U.S. military law and have been granted immunity from prosecution in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they literally operate outside the law, with a licence to kill.
The rapid increase in the demand for Blackwater's services and the corporation's profit-driven mandate has also led to contractual disputes with a number of foreign recruits. One group of Chileans was promised $6,000 per month, contracted for $2,700 and then told upon their arrival in Iraq that they would only receive $34 per day ($1,000 per month). If they didn't like the terms, the Chileans were free to head to downtown Baghdad and pay for their own return flights.
The book also profiles a number of the key players who have helped to elevate Blackwater to its present prominence. The former head of the CIA counter-terrorism centre, J. Cofer Black, and ex-inspector-general Joseph Schmitz share Erik Prince's right-wing religious beliefs, and since joining the company's executive team, describe themselves as modern-day knights.
For those who think that the deployment of Blackwater's mercenaries to far-off war zones is of no domestic concern, think again. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Erik Prince's operatives were dispatched into the storm-ravaged, chaotic streets of New Orleans. While U.S. Coast Guard officials dispute Blackwater's claims of rescuing victims, local law officials expressed concern over these guns-for-hire engaging in firefights with looters and "gangbangers."
Scahill's page-turning collection of intrigue and insight into the underworld of privatized warfare is well researched, thoroughly documented and, as a result, extremely frightening.
A former soldier, Scott Taylor has been the editor of the military affairs magazine Esprit de Corps since 1988. As a war correspondent, Taylor has made 21 trips into Iraq (including five days as a hostage of insurgents in 2004) and has just returned from Afghanistan. His books include Spinning on the Axis of Evil: America's War Against Iraq.