Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

By Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater is a private company that does the dirty work for America in various wars, both covert and those we know about all too well. It began only 10 years ago as a sort of cheerful paintball and shooting range in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, but these days it has some 20,000 mercenaries on its books (the “whores of war”), not to mention a whole bunch of quasi-military aircraft, a military base, lots and lots of guns and connections with precisely the right people.

It was brought into existence by Erik Prince, a somewhat right-of-centre Roman Catholic zealot who hails from a singularly unlikable, filthy-rich Michigan dynasty. Prince has the ear of the White House and his firm has been rewarded with plenty of extraordinarily lucrative no-bid contracts for security work in, for example, Iraq — where Blackwater’s most prominent task was to look after the idiotic and fanatical L Paul Bremer III during his term as US administrator immediately after the war.

Unfortunately, you might feel, they did their job rather well in this regard, and Bremer survived his term of office. Elsewhere, however, Blackwater was conspicuously catastrophic; it was four of its men who, during a singularly ill-advised sortie in unquelled Fallujah, found themselves ambushed, machine-gunned and hacked to bits in the most bestial manner by inflamed locals. Their dismembered bodies were slung above power cables on a bridge in the city — and their murder brought furious and deadly reprisals from the US military, aided once again by more Blackwater employees.

Jeremy Scahill, a journalist of some repute, is not quite sure if he should blame Blackwater for being incompetent and negligent in sending these men to what was almost certain death, or for playing a far darker game and (in cahoots with the Bush regime) effectively engineering an atrocity to which America had no option but to respond in the most stringent manner. This is symptomatic of a recurrent problem throughout this otherwise meticulously researched and fascinating book: we are in no doubt as to where the author comes from, politically, and his peacenik disposition sometimes distorts his judgment. Given the chance, Scahill would blame Bush and Blackwater for every conceivable crime, all the time (for both gross incompetence and the most astonishing Machiavellian cunning, for example), when a less partial observer might suspect such qualities to be mutually exclusive. Also, and I write as someone who thought the war and occupation of Iraq woefully misguided and criminal, Scahill seems to have much more sympathy for the vicious and medieval Islamists of Fallujah who wish to murder every American on sight than he does for his own people, who want to kill Iraqis only when they themselves are under attack.

Typical of the tenor of this book is the author’s pious opprobrium when a Blackwater soldier, alone under fire on three sides from 1,200 heavily armed and enraged Iraqis, dares issue the unfortunate exclamation “nigger!”. This undoubted contravention of etiquette merits a couple of pages of concentrated hand-wringing. Appalling though it might seem to Scahill, Blackwater’s mercenary soldiers do not always behave in the manner of Polly Toynbee. They instead comprise macho retired US grunts, former Pinochet guardsmen, pensioned-off members of the Israeli Defence Force, white South African soldiers, cheap-as-chips Colombians and so on. The armed mercenary business is of a distinctly rightish political hue, I think it’s fair to say — and Scahill spends far too long belabouring the point. Some Blackwater executive doesn’t have much time for homosexuals or abortionists — no, you’re kidding? There are bigger issues here and Scahill, good journalist that he is, does eventually get on to them.

First and foremost is Blackwater’s apparently cavalier attitude towards its employees and its utter lack of accountability. Scahill also does a fine job tying the firm, financially and politically, to the current Bush administration — despite Prince’s considered view that George W is a lily-livered liberal, all too soft on queers and commies. The contracts roll in, usually without competition, and Blackwater cleans up, bending the rules of engagement by occasionally using what is euphemistically described as “unapproved ammunition”, its euphemistically named contractors swanning around Baghdad and Fallujah armed to the teeth, wearing wraparound mirror shades, driving expensive SUVs.

Clearly, though, they love their work for the excitement, comparatively high wages and other sundry spin-offs: “The chicks dig it,” one cheerful Neanderthal mercenary proclaims of his high-risk, highly paid work. Scahill also discovers Blackwater “contractors” setting up bases in former Russian secret-service headquarters in Georgia and Azerbaijan, their guns pointed in two directions: towards Russia, towards Iran. Ready for the next conflagration. There’s some evidence in the book that the firm was also involved in the “renditioning” of prisoners, transporting suspects for interrogation to countries with an imperfect grasp of what is meant by human rights.

Blackwater operates in a deliberately hazy area, a private company beholden to the state for its work, yet free from those legal and moral responsibilities imposed upon the state, nationally and internationally. Scahill reports that the same mirror shades, big guns and SUVs were seen tearing around New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, the contractors charged with the task of keeping order and “confronting criminals”. If so, it is a scary development. You might hope that when the current US administration bites the dust, Blackwater might do so, too. But that would be a bit naive. The relationship between mercenary and government is now far too convenient and lucrative to be abandoned.