The Murky Waters of American Mercenaries
February 27, 2015
by Spencer Santilli

Prior to my reading of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill the only other time I had heard the word “contractor” was referencing the guy who remodeled my parent’s kitchens while forgetting the valuable purpose of a belt. I do however remember one of my friends, when we were teenagers, telling me that one of his father’s friends was in Iraq – contracting.  In my youthful ignorance I could only assume this man was framing and sheet-rocking destroyed homes in the Middle East.  Only recently did I make the connection between modern military “contractors” and Blackwater – the private mercenary army that was born in the fires of Iraq.  Led by self-proclaimed Christian “crusader” Erik Prince, Blackwater rose to worldwide recognizance due to it’s use of controversial military tactics, quickly-covered up tragedies, and millions of dollars in classified “black contracts” from the United States government.

This is one of those rare articles where I genuinely do not know where to start unwinding the horror – as there is a never-ending treasure trove of disgusting black marks in the history of Prince’s company.  I suppose the logical place to begin would be with Blackwater’s heralded leader.  Born in 1969, Prince was raised in a strict and extremely wealthy Christian household in a suburban Dutch community in Michigan.  It was through his father that Prince would develop many of the powerful connections he would so gladly use later in his life.  After stints at the U.S. Naval Academy, Hillsdale College, and as an intern for George H.W. Bush, Prince joined the Navy Seals.  He was soon after deployed as a part of the elite Seal Team 8 to places like Haiti, the Balkans, and the Middle East.  Prince dealt with the death of his father Edgar in the late 90s and sold the rights to the sprawling Prince Corporation, a manufacturing firm, for a whopping $1.35 billion in 1996. (Scahill 76)  This substantial immediate capital allowed Prince to manifest his own private military company – Blackwater USA.

Although Blackwater has mutated, evolved, died and been reborn in the years since Scahill published his book – one thing has remained the same.  Blackwater has, and always will be, a gun-for-hire private military.  That said the company goes much further than just providing some of the world’s most well-trained Special Forces to the highest bidder.  Their main complex  in Moyock, North Carolina is home to arguably one of the most advanced, well-designed, and respected military training facilities in the world.  Dwarfing even some branches of the American military, the Moyock compound has hosted several high-profile shooting and tactical competitions.  It should come as no surprise that American police forces have paid heavily to be trained by Prince’s employees.  Among these departments are the NYPD, LAPD, and the recent headline grabbing St. Louis Police Department.  Recently, Blackwater has also begun to build and distribute its own heavily armored infantry vehicle, the Grizzly APC, among other products.  So, it would appear that Blackwater was never about providing circumstances for a safer world, but rather the perfect conditions for those who vouched for war to make big bucks on their services.

Among the contents of Scahill’s Blackwater is a staggering laundry list of the who’s who of deplorable money-hungry corporations, politicians, and CEOs who stop at nothing to make a buck.  Now, anyone who has even done a marginal amount of research into the Iraq War should know that while the taxpayers came out nearly $1 trillion in debt, there were plenty of politicians and CEOs who came out billions richer.  Companies like Blackwater, Enron, Halliburton (Dick Cheney was CEO here before his stint as VP), DynCorps, and Boeing were among the dozens that made untold millions on the backs of American taxpayers and at the expense of the Iraqi people.  Not to mention the usual suspects within our own government who raked in piles of cash – Donald Rumsfeld, ex-Iraq Ambassador Paul Bremer, controversial CIA spy Cofer Black, as well as Prince.  (Scahill 29) Truthfully the list is far too long and far too depressing to recount bit for bit here, but if you would like to know who reaped financial benefits from orchestrating the immense chaos of Iraq, I urge you to read this book.

Prince grew the power of his private army through the burgeoning trust George Bush and his administration put in Blackwater and their contracts.  As time went along in America’s Middle Eastern campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of actual conscripted American soldiers dwindled and the number of private contractors grew vastly.  There are dozens of reasons that contractors began to grow in Iraq and the surrounding countries – but primarily it was because they were making money from huge government contracts, and these mercenaries can operate outside the standard rules of engagement of the American military.  This was by design, as Prince routinely worked with Congress to absolve any of his contractors from possible wrongdoing while “serving” overseas.  Many of these select codes of conduct are at odds with the Uniform Code of Military Justice – which binds all members of the U.S. military to the same legal framework.  It was Paul Bremer, then leading the occupation of Iraq, who decided that since Blackwater was such an asset to him while he was “re-building” the country that he would grant immunity for any Blackwater contractor involved in illegal military activities, like executing civilians. (Scahill 214) This would come in handy for the Blackwater contractors in 2007 who slaughtered a handful of Iraqi civilians in Nissour Square in Baghdad.  In fact, as Scahill writes, “Even though tens of thousands of mercenaries have deployed in Iraq, private security forces faced no legal consequences for their deadly actions in the first five years of the Iraq occupation.” (Scahill 9)  If we examine that profound statement further, it says that while American Military members can be held responsible for an accidental death of a civilian in a foreign war zone, a private contractor often cannot.  Instead of facing a court martial and jail time – these Blackwater murderers get a plane ticket back to America and what amounts to a paid vacation.

If you’re wondering, no, Blackwater’s murky history isn’t just limited to protecting the oil interests of America or murdering civilians over “valuable military kitchen equipment.” In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked widespread havoc on the Louisiana coastline, leaving New Orleans in chaos.  With thousands homeless, powerless, starving, and at risk of disease – the US government decided that instead of sending aid as soon as possible, they would instead send their new found best friends from Blackwater to “establish security and provide protection to rescue officials.” Scahill points out that, “By June 2006, the company had raked in some $73 million from its Katrina work for the government – about $243,000 a day.” (Scahill 395) For the same amount the United States government was paying glorified thugs with automatic weapons to patrol the streets of New Orleans, they could have easily repaired a dozen homes and rebuilt the French Quarter.  Should this surprise anyone?  That crooked politicians and CEO’s were more concerned about how to make a buck in a disaster zone instead of how to provide relief, aid, and shelter for the thousands of those affected by one of the deadliest storms in US history?  The answer is no – and Prince has used Blackwater to completely alter the game of “guns for hire” in today’s society. 

-Spencer James

Scahill, Jeremy. Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Pbk. ed. New York: Nation Books, 2008.