Blackwater Nation

Contracting soldiers of fortune is only one example of our recent philosophy of government

BY Brian Cook

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Those seeking to pinpoint the date that propelled the private military firm Blackwater into its prominent (and disastrous) position in the U.S. military apparatus might look toward Sept. 11, 2001. Al Clark, one of the company’s co-founders, once remarked, “Osama bin Laden turned Blackwater into what it is today.” And two weeks after 9/11, Erik Prince, the company’s other co-founder and current CEO, told Bill O’Reilly that, after four years in the business, “I was starting to get a little cynical on how seriously people took security. The phone is ringing off the hook now.”

However, in her new book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein suggests that we should turn the calendar back one day and read the speech that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave to Pentagon staffers on Sept. 10, 2001. The day before 19 hijackers flew passenger flights into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Rumsfeld darkly warned of “a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. … With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.” Who was this dastardly adversary? “[T]he Pentagon bureaucracy.”

Declaring “an all-out campaign to shift the Pentagon’s resources from bureaucracy to battlefield, from tail to the tooth,” Rumsfeld told his staff to “scour the department for functions that could be performed better and more cheaply through commercial outsourcing.” He mentioned healthcare, housing and custodial work, and said that, outside of “warfighting,” “we should seek suppliers who can provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively.”

As Jeremy Scahill has reported, the implementation of that plan has been wildly successful, with at least 180,000 private contractors currently employed in Iraq, outnumbering U.S. troops by 20,000, even after the “surge.” (In the first Gulf war, the soldier-to-contractor ratio was 60:1.) But the results have been disastrous, from the deplorable conditions at the recently privatized Walter Reed military hospital, to the contaminated food and fecal-soiled bathing water that Halliburton provided to U.S. troops, to the gung-ho Blackwater contractors who prefer to shoot Iraqi hearts rather than win them.

This outsourcing of the military’s core services is in keeping with the Bush administration’s philosophy of government. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that we’ve seen the same dynamic at work in the IRS, with the agency outsourcing debt collection of back taxes to private companies, which then receive a share of the return for their work.

But to lay the blame solely at the feet of the Bush administration is to overlook the complicity of Democrats in accepting a neoliberal agenda that has gutted government services and redistributed its wealth into the hands of private interests. After all, the Clinton administration first expanded the use of military contractors, deploying them in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti and Colombia.

In fact, in late September, as the most recent Blackwater massacres started to gain mainstream press attention, hundreds of corporate luminaries joined Bill Clinton in New York City to extol the charitable efforts of the Clinton Global Initiative. The former president said his humanitarian endeavor is needed to tackle education, poverty and global warming because these are issues the “government won’t solve, or that government alone can’t solve.”

That might be true, but only because we’ve undergone 30 years of a political ideology that has robbed government of needed revenues, derided regulation that might impinge on corporate profits and sneered at the idea that a public spirit could be preferable to private motives. Rather than rely on the charity of those who have so handsomely profited, it’s time we alter the perverse arrangement.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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