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

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. Nation Books, 2007, 378 pp.

Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist for The Nation, takes on Blackwater and the privatization of war and security with a vengeance. His fervor and intensity, no doubt prized characteristics in the world of investigative journalism, are on display in spades in this volume. Scahill deconstructs the legal, political, and moral issues which are interwoven with the use of private security contractors like Blackwater Lodge & Training Center, Inc., in admirable fashion, pointing out the substantial and vexing concerns which are presented by corporations engaging in activities formerly and traditionally reserved for the armed forces of nation-states.

Regrettably, his passion generates stray voltage as his manuscript degenerates into an attack on the Bush administration’s entire Iraq war policy and further regresses into an assault on the Bush administration in general, political conservatism, and the Christian Right. By the final pages, Scahill’s vitriol discredits him and any reasonable argument he otherwise presents regarding the dangers posed by Blackwater and its sister companies. An otherwise rational contention ends up failing because of the obvious distraction of Scahill’s clear political agenda. The manuscript takes on the negative tone of a literary attack ad, dominated by anti-Bush, anti-Republican, anti-Christian Right sophistry. This is too bad, because the author’s meticulous research and willingness to take on an administration patsy is commendable and necessary.

A cursory review of Scahill’s online postings, blogs, and testimony before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee reveals his clear and evident bias. Hardly a reasonable military professional would argue that the actions of companies like Blackwater have not harmed the Coalition forces’ counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. Security companies’ contracts frequently are structured with a single tangible deliverable: protect the principal asset. Downstream and third-order effects of these sometimes-reckless and frequently arrogant mercenaries are not part of the calculation—they get paid for keeping the principal alive and unharmed, not for advancing operational or strategic imperatives. But Scahill’s pursuit of private security companies as a concept leaves little room for the possibility that companies like Blackwater could be useful in the national security apparatus if future administrations and Congresses could muster the political will to bring them under the control of an effective and feasible system of accountability. Moreover, while there is plenty to condemn about Blackwater’s legacy, tactics, and management, that is only half of Scahill’s story. That Blackwater founder Erik Prince is a deeply and evidently religious conservative is prima facie evidence, according to Scahill, that he and his business should be discredited. Any connection with the Religious Right or a traditional Christian heritage is somehow substantiation of political corruption and an absence of trustworthiness.

Finally, Scahill laments that Blackwater has been able to recruit seasoned intelligence and operational professionals, such as Cofer Black, without acknowledging that it is a common practice for corporations to recruit talent from the government and vice versa. He paints Black, in particular, as a sellout, when Black’s hiring by Blackwater follows the typical pattern of Washington professionals across many vocations—lifelong government servants who spent years underpaid for their hard work, talent, and sacrifice that look to the private sector to compensate them adequately prior to retirement. Generals, congressmen, and senior civil servants make this leap every year, but somehow Scahill singles out Black for criticism for engaging in this practice. Scahill’s fixation on Black as a symbol of “good guys gone bad” is almost creepy. Black alone must live with himself for becoming affiliated with a company that in some ways works counter to US security interests abroad, but faulting his decision to move to the private sector is shallow and naïve.

The bottom line on Blackwater is that it is worth reading to obtain a well-researched, articulate account of Blackwater’s charge to the front of the pack in the private security industry—so long as the reader can take the author with a grain of salt. The book is a useful medium to take stock of the myriad problems which confront policy makers as they choose to introduce private players into leading roles in what has historically been a public undertaking: war and national security. Scahill’s antipathy toward all things Bush, Republican, and Christian Right ultimately takes over the book and couples with untidy organization and the author’s tendency to repeat himself to render it less constructive and credible than it otherwise might have been. The final evaluation of Blackwater is that it is more rant than tome, yet the book represents a lucid, if subjective, assessment of the dangerous phenomenon of war privatization.

LTC R. G. Bracknell, USMC

Regimental Combat Team 5, Al Asad, Iraq

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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