As reported in Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater (Nation Books), one of the largest providers of private security assets to the U.S. military is more than a business: It’s a well-armed and well-funded cog in the military-industrial complex led by a self-styled Christian warrior with deep ties to the right’s theo-con fringe. In short, the sort of thing to keep any right-minded, small‑d democrat awake at night. Although the book itself is essentially a magazine feature bloated up to book length without the additional research needed to justify the heft, the facts at its core are the eye-widening stuff of lurid conspiracy novels.
The Christian warrior described above is Erik Prince, son of auto parts multi-millionaire Edgar Prince, who, until his death in 1995, ran bucolic Holland, Mich., as a company town and provided seed money for, among other causes, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Although Erik, a stridently orthodox Catholic convert and former SEAL, wouldn’t take over the family business, he followed in Edgar’s footsteps in other ways. In 1997, Erik founded Blackwater USA, a private security firm based on several thousand acres of North Carolina swamp. A number of Blackwater executives are deeply conservative Christians, including corruption-smeared former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, who is also a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta, which Scahill describes as “a Christian militia formed in the eleventh century [to defend] ‘territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems.’” Blackwater makes hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts from the Pentagon and fields what might be the world’s largest private military force, with 2,300 armed men working around the globe, and a database with 21,000 more. As many critics have ominously noted, the company already has enough man- and firepower to take over a small Third World country.
Given all that, it’s not hard to buy Scahill’s charge that Prince, “who has been in the thick of this right-wing effort to unite conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and neoconservatives in a common theoconservative holy war,” has essentially created a modern-day Praetorian Guard that Prince envisions as the tip of the Christian right’s spear. This also seems to be exactly how the administration wants it.
The unholy admixture of extreme capitalism and right-wing political ideology has rarely been more perfectly realized than in the convenient marriage of the Bush era’s global war doctrine and the rise of freelance gunsels like Blackwater. Since the ’90s, Rumsfeld and Cheney had both been pushing the outsourcing agenda with evangelical fervor. (Rumsfeld once called for the military to behave more like “venture capitalists.”) As they saw it, the war on terror/Iraq/whoever would be better fought by flexible units of contractors. After the Pentagon spent some $300 billion on contractors between 1994 and 2002, it was hardy surprising that the Defense Department’s 2006 Quadrennial Review redefined “Total Force” to include contractors, essentially deputizing mercenaries into the U.S. military. One out of 60 U.S. military personnel serving in the Gulf War theater of operations were contractors; in the Iraq War by late 2006 that ratio was by some counts almost one to one.
Firms like Blackwater are so central to the administration’s war efforts that Paul Bremer’s last act before leaving Baghdad was issuing Order 17, “immunizing all contractors in Iraq from prosecution.” So if any of the thousands of contractors currently employed in Iraq or Afghanistan were to commit a Haditha-like rampage (Blackwater employs many ex-Chilean commandos from the Pinochet era), it wouldn’t be clear what, if any, justice they could possibly face. To make matters more muddled, it’s not even clear who all these contractors are even working for, even though almost 650 contractors had been killed in Iraq by September 2006. After the infamous incident on March 31, 2004 – when four Blackwater employees were ambushed in Fallujah, their bodies mutilated and set on fire – nobody could ever conclusively say what the men were even doing there, who they were working for and under whose command. The truth was buried in a mire of bureaucratic and subcontracting smokescreens. Representing Blackwater against a lawsuit from the dead men’s families (one of whom memorably referred to the company as a “whore of war”) was none other than Kenneth Starr.
Indeed, Scahill has a fantastic subject here in Blackwater. But having such a wealth of easy targets to lob stones at seems to keep him from digging deeper or casting a wider net in the manner of a Steve Coll or Jon Lee Anderson. The thinness of Scahill’s approach is most apparent in his habit of excessively repeating key facts, sometimes replicating entire sentences verbatim. That said, Blackwater raises a host of deeply disturbing questions about where America’s military is being led by this new breed of free-market mercenaries – merchants of death who see war as nothing more than a growth market.