Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jeremy Scahill, "Blackwater" (2007)

Advocates of widespread privatization seem to have triumphed in the US military. Prior to March 31, 2004, this was the Bush Administration's dirty little secret. It was on that date that the burnt remains of several private contractors were suspended on a bridge outside of Fallujah- an Iraqi city of 300,000 up the road from Baghdad. Technically these men had been civilians, but not in the eyes of the Sunnis that were unhappy with the American occupation of their city. The deceased had been escorting a convoy of flatbeds, on their way to pick up kitchen equipment. They wore wraparound Oakley sunglasses and drove in jeeps without armor. They could have been CIA agents, but they were actually employees of a company called Blackwater.

Blackwater was responsible for the protection of Paul Bremer (CPA head) and John Negroponte (US ambassador to Iraq). This certainly validated Blackwater executives' claims that they were a 'secret partner' of the US Government on the War on Terror. Regardless of the actual level of clandestine participation, there is no doubt that most Iraqis perceived these contractors as official representatives of the occupying forces. And thus whatever behaviors they displayed reflected not just on themselves, but on the entirety of the American people. Unfortunately for the US citizenry, Blackwater's soldiers-for-hire are cocky and often act as if they are above the law.

The fact is that (according to Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the Worlds Most Powerful Army, (2007)) these mercenaries are indeed beyond the reach of criminal prosecution. This was by decree of Paul Bremer himself. As Scahill notes in his extraordinarily informative work, "One of Bremer's last official acts was to issue a decree immunizing Blackwater and other contractors from prosecution for any potential crimes committed on Iraq (June 27, 2004)." That basically gave these mercenaries complete impunity... a license to kill and maim at will for any (or no) reason. The real consequences of their missteps were paid by the US Military, who were drawn into a rash campaign of revenge after the "Fallujah-Bridge" incident.

It doesn't necessarily matter that those doomed Blackwater agents were simply lost when they were ambushed and desecrated. They became a symbol of Bush's resolve in the war. At the same time, their company became super-wealthy with expanded government contracts after the grisly incident. Blackwater became the vanguard of the radical change in the role that private companies would have in the theater of war, and even flirted with actual combat. The story begins with the wealthy heir of a Christian Right fortune, and continues through the remarkable series of events that transformed a small arms shooting range facility into one of the most notorious private military contractors the nation has ever seen.

Scahill has obviously put a tremendous amount of research into this book. If it has any flaw, it is its almost overwhelming scope. Obviously this is an inordinately complex story. There are too many problematic aspects of the Blackwater phenomenon to present a comprehensive list here. Among the many things the American public should be concerned about most are: Erik Prince's ties to the radical Christian Right, private contractors overcharging on no-bid government contracts, private security companies siphoning off the best manpower from the armed forces, the lack of transparency in the activities of private military contractors, and the message that using mercenaries to fight the administration's battles sends to the rest of the world. This is a mind-bending and troubling work.

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