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Murder by Other Means

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Blackwater helicopter in Baghdad. / Ryan Lackey
Blackwater helicopter in Baghdad. / Ryan Lackey

In a recent New York Times op-ed on the murder conviction handed out to four former Blackwater guards charged with killing seventeen Iraqi civilians in 2007, former paratrooper and mercenary Sean McFate offers a chillingly nihilistic endorsement of large-scale contract killing via hired mercenary. McFate lays out the case for mercenaries with a confused mix of fatalism, false equivalency, and a touching faith in free market self-regulation. Sure, everyone remembers the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre, McFate dubiously contends, but who remembers the U.S. Marines convicted—and lightly punished—for executing civilians in Haditha in 2005? And besides, mercenaries were used a lot during the Middle Ages, and more and more countries are using them now, so to raise suspicions about the limits of their public accountability is, apparently, to be on the wrong side of history.

What’s more, any faint suggestion that something is amiss in the creation of a new caste of soldiers leased out to the highest bidder can be neatly effaced by market forces themselves, McFate assures us.  “The solution is to use market power,” he writes of the prospect of more mercenary forces going off the rails as the Nisour defendants did.  “Superclients, like the United States or the United Nations, could shape best practices by rewarding good firms with profitable contracts and withholding them from bad firms.” This is the sort of mindless neoliberal cost/benefit model of human behavior that can only exist in a vacuum, lovingly shielded from historical facts and moral considerations. 

A very different moral can and should be drawn from the background to the Blackwater case. The meteoric rise of Blackwater as mercenary workhouse during the Iraq invasion occurred mostly before 2007. The company, which became a near-ubiquitous supplier of personnel for peacekeeping missions in the private-sector dreamscape of occupied Iraq, rapidly lost its dominant market standing in the wake of the September 2007 Nisour Square massacre. The Iraqi police determined that the attack, which injured more than twenty Baghdad civilians in addition to the seventeen who were killed, was unprovoked. An FBI investigation seconded that finding, and noted that the Blackwater employees had no reasonable cause for resorting to deadly force. Later investigations by the US military also concluded that the security firm was legally culpable in the attack.

During its investigation the Iraqi government revoked Blackwater’s license to operate within the country, and it appears as if that license was never reinstated. By 2009, our own government opted not to renew its contracts with Blackwater. The company’s consignment to contracting limbo went largely unnoticed during the gruesome final days of the Bush era. After that, Blackwater was mainly in the news for its own clumsy bids to rebrand itself, first in 2009 as something called “Xe” and then, two years later, as “Academi.”

The other instructive and underreported facet of the Nisour Square case is the circuitous route that it took to trial. At the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, there simply weren’t laws governing the conduct of private security forces in combat zones. Blackwater forces were allowed to operate with seeming impunity. Indeed, Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, which went into effect  in December 2006, granted contractors operating in Iraq immunity from Iraqi law. It wasn’t until October 2007—one month after the Nisour Square massacre—that the Iraqi government passed legislation removing legal immunity for contractors. And it was only in 2011, after numerous investigations, failed lawsuits, and cases thrown out of court, that a federal appeals court panel urged the Justice Department to move forward with the prosecution of the four former Blackwater employees responsible for murdering civilians in Nisour Square.

This slow crawl toward accountability speaks volumes about the uneasy intersection of warmaking and civil society. It’s true, as McFate observes, that there’s a long tradition of hiring private armies in the West, but it’s a practice that waned with the rise of democracy—and for good reason. As Max Weber famously explained, the power of a state stems from its monopoly on the use of force. And since, in a democratic republic, we the citizens are the state, it stands to reason that we should take on the burden of doing our own fighting. It’s nearly a moral imperative. And in theory, our democratic involvement in our own defense should act as a safeguard to tamp down reckless interventions. It would just be too easy, morally and materially, to hire proxy armies to leave our bloody fingerprints around the world. That might be why the United Nations prohibited their use with the United Nations Mercenary Convention—a compact to which the United States isn’t a signatory.

And that’s because, well before the 2003 Iraq invasion, American strategic minds were already cannily sizing up the mercenary market. Paul Bremer, original viceroy of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq—who was guarded by a Blackwater security detail during his time in office—authored a revealing 2001 paper that served as a conceptual blueprint for Blackwater’s ugly reign. Titled “New Risks In International Business,” the policy document advanced a rather radical analysis: it argued that that opening new global markets leads to dramatic spikes in income inequality, which in turn cause the social unrest that leads to terrorism. But, after naming capitalism as a central driving factor behind the terror threat, Bremer goes on to cheerlead the risk-management opportunities that the situation presents. His argument is an exercise in myopic and opportunistic nihilism, but it’s also coldly rational: since global privatization is causing global unrest, it also represents a great opportunity to privatize our response to said unrest. The bottom line, in other words, is that companies like Blackwater have a vested interest in preserving a manageable level of global despair.

Which is not to say that private armies bypass the symbolic displays and rites of passage favored by the traditional, state-based kind. One of the more shocking anecdotes concerning Blackwater in its heyday occurred shortly before the Nisour Square shootings. The company’s founder, Erik Prince, gathered his employees at Blackwater’s North Carolina headquarters and forced them to take an oath of loyalty. As the New York Times reported it, “This was an oath for soldiers, not for employees of a private company, and many in the crowd were veterans who believed that it was being inappropriately linked to the company’s commercial prospects.”

No doubt Prince and his shareholders saw things differently. It might behoove mercenary corporations to temporarily placate or cozy up to the United States government. But that’s only a means to a much larger end: the transfer of vast amounts of public funds to private shareholders via the growing market share commanded by the violence-for-hire industry. In our new market-driven world order, loyalty is in the eye of the beholder.