In a James Bond film, viewer credulity gets its toughest workout with the hero’s tour of, and subsequent escape from, the villain’s lair. This power-crazed evil genius, this smug gentleman in a tightly tailored suit posing as a bold entrepreneur: how was he able to construct a paramilitary base over a dozen square miles in the middle of, say, the United States, without its raising an eyebrow among the local constabulary? How did he get the zeppelin hangar past the county planning board? Such vast amounts of concrete. Such tunnels, such golf-carts, such fleets of helicopters armed with machine-guns. Such tours of firing ranges where hired muscle in beige boiler suits incinerates cardboard targets with grenades and automatic weapons. ‘What do you think of our little playground, Mr Bond?’
Even in this privatisation-hardened age, even in the United States, the notion that military installations are a monopoly of government remains so ingrained that in 2003, when the Chilean-American arms go-between José Miguel Pizarro Ovalle first saw the real-world mercenary processing centre run by the private firm Blackwater in North Carolina, he had to reach for the imagery of Cubby Broccoli. ‘It’s a private army in the 21st century,’ he gushed to Jeremy Scahill.
It was like out of a Dr No movie … It’s a gigantic facility with a military urban terrain. It’s a mock city where you can train with real-life ammunition or paintball, with vehicles, with helicopters. Gosh, impressive, very impressive … I saw people from all over the world training there – civilians, military personnel … Wow, it was like a private military base.
It is a private military base, spread over seven thousand acres, near the town of Moyock and the Great Dismal Swamp, with firing ranges, tactical exercise areas and an armoury (containing more than a thousand weapons, according to the Virginian-Pilot, the local newspaper, though there is no law preventing Blackwater stocking as many as it wants). There are also the 21st-century equivalent of barracks (convention-style hotel rooms), an office block in which the door handles are fashioned from machine-gun barrels, and a memorial rock garden to the 25 Blackwater employees and one Blackwater dog killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The centrepiece of the memorial is a bronze sculpture of a pensive boy hugging a folded American flag to his breast. Since Pizarro visited (he later recruited hundreds of Chilean mercenaries to work in Iraq for Blackwater, some of them amnestied for their deeds under the Pinochet regime), construction has continued apace. Blackwater is building a 6000-foot airstrip and facilities to house its aviation wing of 20 transport planes and helicopters, as well as a large hangar for the construction of airships and a plant to make an armoured vehicle called the Grizzly.
The founder and owner of Blackwater, Erik Prince, the 38-year-old heir to a fortune made by his father (a Michigan entrepreneur who invented the illuminated car sun visor), is not, legally, a villain. It doesn’t make him a villain that he is a privately educated, avowedly devout Roman Catholic, a former member of US Navy special forces and the father of six children. It doesn’t make him a villain that he has declared: ‘Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the postal service.’ It doesn’t make him a villain that he is part of the right-wing Republican DeVos-Prince dynasty of Michigan, which has bankrolled radical Christian evangelical movements that campaign against homosexuality, abortion and stem-cell research. The fact that he was an intern in the administration of the elder President Bush, but found him too liberal and backed the extreme right-winger Pat Buchanan to replace him, doesn’t make him a villain; nor does the fact that he has given a quarter of a million dollars in campaign contributions to Republican politicians. It doesn’t make him a villain that he donated half a million dollars to an organisation set up by Charles Colson, a felon convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, to get prisoners to become born-again Christians in exchange for better jail conditions (in 1996, Colson floated the possibility of a Christian coup against the re-elected President Clinton). Nor does it make Prince a villain that, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when survivors were desperate for food, drinking water, shelter and medical supplies, his company flew ammunition into New Orleans to supply the groups of heavily-armed mercenaries it had rushed to the disaster zone. It is true that he helps fund campaigners against high taxation and welfare spending, while the hundreds of millions of dollars Blackwater has taken in fees since 2001 have come almost exclusively from the US taxpayer. Yet this does not make him a villain.
A man who hires a squad of elite lawyers to fight to protect his company from liability for anyone’s death, foreign or American, anywhere overseas, despite at least one incident of Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq shooting dead an innocent man; despite the death in Fallujah of four Blackwater mercenaries to whom the company hadn’t given proper armoured vehicles, manpower, weapons, training, instructions or maps; despite the death of three US servicemen in Afghanistan at the hands of a reckless Blackwater aircrew, who also died: well, casual observers might think this would render Erik Prince a villain. Yet it would make him a villain only in some liberal, humanistic, ethical sense. In the eyes of American law, Prince has done nothing villainous; on the contrary, he is a patriot and a Christian, which is to say, a good man.
Prince – who declined to be interviewed by Scahill for his book – set up Blackwater in 1998 with the stated aim of offering bespoke firearms training to government agencies. Al Clark, an early mentor of Prince’s in the navy who collaborated with him in establishing the centre, told Scahill that the concept had, in fact, been his, and added: ‘One of the things that started happening was Erik wanted it to be a playground for his rich friends.’ One of the other things that started happening, however, was that each time there was a terrible event in which large numbers of people were killed, Erik Prince saw a way to apply guns to the problem, and so to make money. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Blackwater built a mocked-up high school for police SWAT teams to practise in. It was called R U Ready High. Loudspeakers relayed a soundtrack of students screaming. It was a commercial success (though more than 70 students and teachers have died in shootings at American schools and colleges since). When Arab jihadis in a fibreglass fishing boat nearly sank the guided-missile destroyer Cole in Aden in 2000, Blackwater won a $35.7 million contract from the US Navy to train sailors to defend their Cold War behemoths with small-calibre weapons.
But it was the al-Qaida attacks of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent US intervention in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, that turned the taxpayer cash flow from a dribble to a high-pressure jet of dollars. It also gave Blackwater the chance to transform itself from a company that trained government employees to shoot into a company that supplied its own, private shooters for service anywhere in the world. The colloquial term is ‘mercenary’ – one who fights for money. Practitioners prefer the cleaner-sounding acronym ‘PMC’, or private military contractor. Which means the same thing.
In April 2002, with no other company offered the chance to bid, Blackwater was given a $5.4 million contract to provide 20 guards for the new CIA station in Kabul. At $270,000 per guard, for six months, they didn’t come cheap. A pattern of high value, no-bid mercenary contracts was set, leading to a current contract portfolio Scahill estimates at more than half a billion dollars. When the government first put Blackwater on its approved list of contractors in 2000, it anticipated doing $125,000 worth of business with the company over five years. In fact, it did well over $100 million. Much of the increase was due to Iraq. One of Blackwater’s contracts was to protect the US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer. Just before leaving Iraq, Bremer promulgated a decree giving the occupation’s private contractors immunity from Iraqi law ‘with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a contract’.
By the time Donald Rumsfeld was sacked as US defense secretary, there were around 100,000 private contractors working for the US government in Iraq, more than ten times the number in the 1991 Gulf War. Although fewer than a third are in the security business, various US government departments have estimated that security costs during the post-invasion attempts to repair the effects of sanctions, war, looting and insurgency account for between 15 and 22 per cent of the cost of contracts. Scahill’s conservative estimate of the price of private security during Iraqi reconstruction so far is $5.6 billion. The figure is frightening, and the apparent creeping privatisation of the US military is, on the face of it, disturbing. Yet does any of this mean that Blackwater has earned the sonorous epithets Scahill bestows on it: ‘the world’s most powerful mercenary army’, ‘striving to be an independent army’? At times Scahill holds his rhetorical torch under his chin. ‘In less than a decade,’ he writes of Blackwater, ‘it has risen out of a swamp in North Carolina to become a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration’s “global war on terror”.’
About halfway through Scahill’s book, the texture of his reporting alters for a stretch, becoming richer, more thoughtful and thorough, less reliant on secondary sources. This is the section that owes most to Scahill’s work as a reporter for outlets such as the Nation, and in it he recounts the story of the death of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah; the subsequent public desecration of their bodies by an Iraqi mob; the pointless US assault on the city that followed; and the legal struggle between the mercenaries’ families and Blackwater.
As the families’ lawyers dug, they discovered the rat’s nest of intertwined contracts and mutual buck-passing which is an Iraqi contract gone wrong. The men who died in Fallujah were working for Blackwater, sure. But Blackwater was under contract to Eurest Support Services, which belonged to the Compass Group in the UK. The Blackwater team was supposed to protect a delivery Eurest was contracted to make on behalf of Kellogg Brown Root (which belonged to Halliburton then, but doesn’t now) to the US military. After Blackwater was sued, Kellogg Brown Root said they’d never hired Blackwater for the delivery; that they hadn’t had anything to do with the delivery; and anyway had such a delivery ever in fact taken place? Blackwater pointed to the general contracts the dead men had signed, which warned that they could be
shot, permanently maimed and/or killed by a firearm or munitions, falling aircraft or helicopters, sniper fire, landmine, artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenade, truck or car bomb, earthquake or other natural disaster, poisoning, civil uprising, terrorist activity, hand-to-hand combat, disease, poisoning, etc., killed or maimed while a passenger in a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, suffering hearing loss, eye injury or loss; inhalation or contact with biological or chemical contaminants (whether airborne or not) and/or flying debris etc.
As the lawsuit got under way, George Bush was re-elected, and Blackwater executive Gary Jackson sent out a round robin email with the subject line: ‘BUSH WINS FOUR MORE YEARS!! HOOYAH!!’
Scahill is right to identify the death of the four Blackwater men and the subsequent US revenge attack on Fallujah as one of the sharper downward lurches of America’s dismal journey in Iraq. Yet in striving to prove the truth of his subtitle, he pads out his chapters on Fallujah and the aftermath with a narrative that is tendentious, repetitive and prone to some of the flaws manifested by his ideological foes. It might be considered a trivial error for Scahill to get Turkmenistan mixed up with Tajikistan, as he does when talking about a pipeline deal in the 1990s. It is less trivial to mischaracterise Donald Rumsfeld as being first and foremost an eager advocate of privatising the military, when his priority was to make it nimbler, more high-tech and easier for politicians to use. In an article by Rumsfeld that Scahill cites (‘Transforming the Military’, which appeared in Foreign Affairs in 2002), Rumsfeld doesn’t mention private military contractors once; he says Pentagon bureaucrats should act ‘like venture capitalists’, not that they should be venture capitalists.
Scahill states as if it were an accepted fact that the US – ‘the mightiest empire in history’ – has imperial ambitions in Iraq, whereas so far its behaviour has indicated that it is something even worse: a mere conqueror. Scahill riffs speculatively on the notion that the US has deliberately fostered and protected Shia death squads in Iraq, in Central American style. There was a stage of the occupation when this seemed a likely scenario, but now this degree of control and influence over Shia factions is something of which the occupiers can only dream, as shown with heartbreaking clarity by the recent PBS documentary Gangs of Iraq.The film, which tracks US attempts to train and harness a new Iraqi army and police, suggests that there are no Iraqi military or paramilitary units Washington can rely on to implement the American agenda of a docile, pan-sectarian Iraq, and few it can rely on not to bite the hand that arms it. In one sequence, PBS records a raid by US and Iraqi troops on houses and a parking lot where, according to a tip-off, there is an arms cache. Sure enough, there is: they find artillery shells, copper plates used to make the deadliest roadside bombs, and a car with a boot full of explosives. The American soldiers are delighted with their success, but they don’t hear what their Iraqi comrades are talking about over to one side. A PBS cameraman captures this exchange between two Iraqi officers, who don’t realise the camera has a microphone:
OFFICER 1 (murmurs): I know where it is. It’s not here. It’s with the Sheikh.
OFFICER 2: Who?
OFFICER 1: It’s with my Mullah.
OFFICER 2: Ah.
OFFICER 1: I’m telling you, there’s nothing here. This is just kid stuff. (looking round, seemingly amazed by the pointlessness of it all) The big stuff is not here.
OFFICER 3: Sir, the video camera has a microphone.
The Iraqis never told their American allies about the real arms cache; PBS found out about it months later, when they translated the soundtrack of the film.
There is a danger, in the arena of big-picture geopolitical reporting, of what might be called double-hyping. This occurs when two apparently opposing sides – the investigator and the investigated, the liberal and the conservative, the capitalist and the Communist – actually have an interest in exaggerating the same line in a story. Most famously, this occurred during the Cold War, when the Pentagon and the Kremlin shared an interest in exaggerating the capabilities of the Red Army. As much as Scahill’s book is a sincere attempt to investigate an organisation with a vested financial interest in America’s being at war for as long and as widely as possible, it has the unintentional side effect of hyping Blackwater in a way not so different from the way Blackwater hypes itself. We don’t know how Prince feels about being described on the jacket of Scahill’s book as head of ‘the world’s most powerful mercenary army’, but I suspect the answer is: very pleased.
Blackwater couldn’t fail to be gratified by the way Scahill downplays the strength of its rivals. ‘The world’s most powerful mercenary army’ has, by Scahill’s own report, only 2300 private soldiers deployed around the world, the size of a small brigade, and of that number only about a thousand are in Iraq. Blackwater has to jostle with companies like DynCorp and MPRI from the US, and a horde of British competitors. One of these, Erinys, reportedly has 14,000 private soldiers in Iraq, most of them Iraqis, guarding Iraqi oil installations. Scahill’s argument that Blackwater is a uniquely powerful force takes a bad knock from the fact that another British company, Aegis, won a contract from the US in 2004 worth almost $300 million to co-ordinate all PMC activity in Iraq. A third British firm, ArmorGroup, was reported by the Washington Post in June to have a 1200-strong force in Iraq, with 240 armoured trucks. ArmorGroup is engaged in constant warfare as it goes about its main business of escorting supply convoys; it was attacked 293 times in the first four months of 2007, the Post reports.
The narrow focus on a single US private security firm has prevented Scahill writing what could have been a more useful and important book about the private military phenomenon in general. He fails to distinguish clearly between the private military contractors, the Blackwater-type minority of highly paid, heavily armed, kit-obsessed ex-servicemen carrying out clearly soldierly tasks of escorting convoys or guarding administrators, and the majority of non-military private contractors doing jobs which, nonetheless, a hunkered-down American army cannot do without. Not so much the dogs of war as the dogs of laundry; but still, in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking great risks. He ignores the recent debate in Britain – source of so many soldiers of fortune – and within the International Committee of the Red Cross about PMCs. He passes quickly over the two signal mercenary moments of recent times, neither of them involving Blackwater. One was the hiring by the Sierra Leone government of the South African PMC Executive Outcomes to defeat rebels in 1995 (three years later a firm run by the man who later founded Aegis, Tim Spicer, was said to have flown 28 tonnes of weaponry to Sierra Leone, in breach of a UN embargo). The other was the alleged 2004 attempt by a group of South African mercenaries, led by the British ex-SAS officer Simon Mann, to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Even within the confines of Scahill’s theme, there are frustrating omissions. He writes about how much higher the daily pay of Blackwater guards in Iraq is than the pay of regular US troops, and the staggering sums Blackwater as a company is paid by the US government. But he fails to analyse the more difficult and more important issue about the money: is the government getting extra soldiers on the cheap, or not? The cost of a long-service professional soldier is reckoned not only in his daily pay but in how much it costs to train him, the cost of lifetime medical care (whether he is injured or not), and the cost of his pension if, as many do, he retires in his forties. Blackwater and other mercenary firms don’t pay to train their recruits: they hire ex-military men, and if there’s extra training, the recruits pay for it themselves; nor do they offer the same health and pension benefits as the military.
The most unfortunate thing about Scahill’s book is the way that, in serving its narrow subject, it manages to make the careless, callous US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq sound like a vicious plan that partly succeeded, rather than a monument to political incompetence such as the world has rarely seen. There is a telling sentence on page 344: ‘Despite the unprecedented level of private sector involvement on the battlefield, the US military has seldom been stretched more thinly or faced more perilous times.’ The sentence could and, I would argue, should be altered to read: ‘Stretched more thinly than ever, and facing perilous times, the US has been forced to embrace an unprecedented level of private sector involvement on the battlefield.’ To suggest that Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have fulfilled in Iraq a long-cherished goal of part-privatising the US military is to allow these failed men to snatch an unwarranted consolation from the ruins of their hopes. The simple truth is that they never thought they would need as many soldiers as they do and have had to rush out to hire stopgaps.
At heart, the difference between the modern professional soldiers of the US or British armies and the PMCs is not that great. They are volunteers. They join up for the money, to test their courage, for the kit, for the guns, to find out what it is like to kill and to have somebody try to kill you, for the camaraderie, to impress women and to get away from them; patriotism, too, is an element, and a desire to belong to a team. In respect of Iraq and other messy world conflicts, Blackwater and its US military counterpart are still on the same page, one that stresses firepower over cultural awareness, negotiating skills or civil administration. Prince’s comments two years ago about how Blackwater could solve the Darfur problem show how firmly stuck in this Magnificent Seven world he is: ‘You talk about Darfur. I don’t think you need an 8000-peacekeeper force,’ he said. ‘If there’s an atrocity in progress, it’s the Janjawiid that has to be stopped, and we have to move and stop the problem, and solve the immediate threat.’ Blackwater represents in miniature what the US military represents on a grand scale: a muscular, atavistic entity whose razor teeth and scimitar claws tear in vain at an enemy too scattered and diverse for the senses evolution has given it.