By Thomas d’Evry. Translated by Leslie Thatcher of Truthout, from Liberation. 5/8/07

Blackwater is a prosperous multinational. Since 2002, it has been renting mercenaries to the American government, sent to Iraq or Afghanistan to complete the work of the US Army. In complete obscurity.

Americans love Technicolor images. Even more so when those images show their valiant soldiers on the front lines of the “war against terror,” in the sands of Mesopotamia or the mountains of the Hindu Kush: young, idealistic, with their eyes on the flag. But on March 31, 2004 the United States discovered another facet of its war. That morning, two jeeps went astray in the Falluja market. On board were four armed and civilian men who didn’t have time to understand their mistake. Hand grenades, machine gun fire, then an inferno that swallowed the men and the vehicles. A crowd pulled the remains of the blackened corpses from the ashes and dismembered them before hanging the remains from a bridge over the Euphrates. Everything was filmed by television cameras and broadcast worldwide, just as had happened eleven years earlier in Mogadishu. But, unlike the Somali precedent, in this case, the four men were neither GIs nor Marines; they had neither rank nor uniform. Nonetheless, they were armed and participated in the American war effort, and they were paid indirectly, but extremely well, by the Yankee taxpayer. Most charitably, they are called “service providers.” For most people in the world, these are mercenaries. Their age (in their thirties), their motivation (money) and their behavior (careless) do not correspond to the Technicolor image of the defender of the Star-Spangled Banner at all.

Ugly Duckling

That day in 2004, the great American public not only discovered the town of Falluja, future symbol of the Sunni resistance, but also heard about Blackwater for the first time. Extremely discreet until then, that company employed the four unfortunates who ended up hung from the bridge. Blackwater: according to its directors, the name comes from a swamp that lies next to company headquarters. But in the life of a military base, black water contains fecal matter; it is water that has to be separated from other used water to avoid contamination.

Several days later, Blackwater surged into the news again. Relating the story of the assault on the headquarters of the Iraqi Provisional Coalition in Najaf, the Washington Post noted that the building’s defense had been assured by men from Blackwater. At the height of the battle, the mercenaries had called for ammunitions resupply by three of their own helicopters. The next day, the general in charge of security operations in Iraq saluted the courage and the determination of the American fighters, without mentioning the fact that they were not part of the chain of command. Blackwater had become the indispensable auxiliary in the American war machine, but was, at the same time, an ugly duckling whose existence no one wanted to acknowledge. “When I heard about this story for the first time, I said to myself: ‘What is this nonsense?'” explains former officer and military issues specialist Phil Carter. “These guys gallivant around wherever they want to with enormous firepower and they don’t obey the military hierarchy. It’s dangerous and worrying.”

Up until the end of the 1990s, the mercenaries’ playground was Africa and several islands in the Indian Ocean, where hotheads like Frenchman Bob Denard and the South Africans of Executive Outcomes conducted their own realpolitik: coups d’Etat, protection of Western economic investments, arms trafficking, exploitation of mining concessions as payment for their services. But, with the end of the Cold War, with the settlement of a certain number of African conflicts and with a South African law prohibiting mercenary activity, it became much more difficult to operate with impunity. So, when Erik Prince – heir to a rich family of ultra-conservative Christians from Michigan and a former “Navy Seal” – created Blackwater in 1997, he was not looking in the direction of his African fighter predecessors. He founded a security company charged with facilitating permanent training activities for police and body guards. In 2002, simultaneous to the invasion of Afghanistan, Prince understood that the doors of an immense market had just opened before him. Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld was proclaiming his intention to restructure the American war machine: he wanted to develop special forces, high technology weaponry, and, above all, cut out the fat. Unlike his predecessors, the defense secretary wanted to subcontract services not performed by soldiers: supplying the troops, laundry, transport, maintenance…. But once outsourcing starts, where does it end, especially when one has a war – and pretty soon, two – on one’s hands?

Absolute Secrecy

Thanks to a good contact with the CIA’s No. 3, Blackwater obtained, without any bidding process, its first “War on Terror” contract in April 2002: a little over $5 million to supply strongmen to protect the Agency’s HQ in Kabul. Blackwater was launched. One year later, the firm hit the jackpot with the protection contract for the “Viceroy” of Iraq, American emissary Paul Bremer (once again, without any competitive process). Since that time, Blackwater has recruited its own private army on the Tigris and Euphrates and orders rain down. The company has opened offices in Baghdad, but also in Amman, Kuwait City and in McLean, Virginia: equidistant from the Pentagon, the White House, and the CIA. In a few years, Erik Prince’s neo-mercenaries company has gone from a handful of employees to 2,300 people deployed in nine countries, and it has developed a data base of 21,000 candidates: former American military and foreign soldiers, their mouths all watering at the idea of pocketing four to ten times their salary with fewer constraints. Income has jumped from a few million dollars to over a billion – all thanks entirely to contracts with the United States government. To grease the wheels, Blackwater has recruited the former inspector general for the Pentagon and the ex-counter-terrorism director at the CIA. Well-connected personalities exclusively from the right.

After balking for years, the Pentagon finally decided to count the numbers of these service providers in Iraq, to arrive at the astonishing figure of 100,000 people at the end of 2006. Four times all previous estimates. “Blackwater is not the only company in this PMC (“Private Military Contractors”) business, but it is at the leading edge of this operation to rehabilitate mercenarism,” explains Jeremy Scahill, author of a well-documented book about the firm. “Many companies like Halliburton and its subsidiaries supply food, services, logistical support, but Blackwater supplies combatants. Armed and answerable only to their boss.” In fact, Blackwater does not provide any public accounting of its operations: its contracts are classified defense secrets, and its operations on the ground take place in absolute secrecy. “It took us four years just to obtain an answer to this simple question: what mission were the four men killed in Falluja carrying out, and what was the government paying for it?” confides an assistant to Henry Waxman, the Democratic representative who is fighting to conduct public hearings on PMC. Moreover, it was during this Congressional investigation work that an incident was revealed that had up until then been surrounded in silence. Last December, a drunken Blackwater employee shot an Iraqi bodyguard dead in the Green Zone. Instead of being arrested and brought before a local or military justice court, the employee was sneaked out of Iraq to the United States by Blackwater the next day. An enquiry, it appears, is underway…

In the Waters of Katrina

The Bush administration’s savage desire to accelerate the privatization of the Army is not uniquely a function of its ultra-free-market economic-liberalizing convictions. It also serves its objective of distancing the war from public control. “Recourse to companies like Blackwater makes it easier to start and conduct wars: one no longer needs citizens’ consent, just money …” comments Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. So, the statistics concerning American victims in Iraq that the Pentagon communicates do not include the 770 dead and 8,000 PMC wounded (from end-2006 figures, considered understated, even though they represent close to a third of “official” military casualties). “It’s a total subversion of the concept of the nation-state,” objects Jeremy Scahill. “Blackwater has recruited Chilean soldiers for its operations in Iraq, although 92 percent of Chileans were against the war in Iraq, and the country, while it was on the UN Security Council, opposed the United States in 2003. Instead of building a coalition, as was done for the first Gulf War, they are paying soldiers from a country to fight in a conflict that their own government has condemned.”

The worst is perhaps yet to come. In September 2005, several days after the passage of Hurricane Katrina, a certain number of New Orleans residents were surprised to discover guys wandering around the streets of the inundated city, carrying high-caliber weapons and wearing T-shirts printed with the Blackwater logo. The society had – on its own initiative – sent two hundred goons, some of whom had been in Baghdad several days before, to “participate in rescue operations,” according to a communiqué. Very soon, these pseudo-volunteers were hired by the Department of Homeland Security – only too happy to find replacements for National Guard soldiers who were immobilized … in Iraq. Several weeks later, six hundred Blackwater employees were working from Texas to Mississippi, at a cost of $950 a day each at the taxpayers’ expense.

Today, company officials are negotiating with Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, to supply a “reaction force” in case of natural disasters. And, the cherry on the cake: Erik Prince and his associates have undertaken a vast lobbying operation to convince the Bush administration to grant them a contract to go play peacekeepers in Darfur. Should this effort bear fruit, Blackwater will have achieved its ultimate objective: to pass for a peace force as it profits from a world at war.