Civilian Warriors: the Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror
© 2013 Erik Prince
In the 21st century, the line between public and private warfare has gotten a bit fuzzy. I realized this most fully when reading a few cybersecurity books early in the year, mulling over how natural security was imperiled by cyber attacks on private firms or networks, but this fuzziness is also expressed via the world of private military contractors. Flash back seven or so years ago, when my rage at the debacle in Iraq was white-hot, I would have never read a book about Blackwater, let alone a defense of it from its creator, Erik Prince. Back then, Blackwater was tantamount with evil. They were lawless mercenaries, the very image of what was wrong with the military-industrial complex. Finally released from confidentiality agreements, here Prince goes to bat for the company he created and guided through the rocky years of the War on Terror.
I purchased this book because I stumbled upon Erik Prince while listening to some podcast or another, and he sounded perfectly normal. He didn’t do an evil laugh even once. (It helped that the book was on clearance for $6.) Prince opens with an argument that private military contractors aren’t a novelty. His examples are convenient (he cites the Marquis de Lafayette, not the Hessians), but that’s to be expected. He also notes that military contractors been put to more use in the 20th and 21st centuries than at any other time, but then wars are a lot more complicated they used to be. There’s no more of this telling your peasants with pointy sticks to go stab the peasants with pointy sticks next door, there’s logistics and such. Prince’s original idea for Blackwater was to fill the need of the American military for training facilities, since budget cuts closed or limited their options. His training lodge not only provided rented space for shooting ranges, but taught courses to interested service organizations. Prince continually responded to the needs of the US as he saw them in the news, achieving rapid success after the Columbine assaults when he began training police in active shooter response scenarios. (Prince created a school mock-up for them to practice in.) After al-Queda bombed the USS Cole, Prince acquired a NOAA ship and turned it into a training ship for sailors to practice threat interdiction.
It was their work in Iraq that made Blackwater infamous, however. They entered the area as security guards for the United States’ top man in Iraq, Paul Bremer. Later on they would escort other State department officials, and as Iraq was a warzone, that entailed armored vehicles and M4 rifles. As Blackwater grew, it took on other tasks like handling airdrops in their smaller planes. Prince writes that he viewed Blackwater as a military force that had adopted the principles of lean manufacturing, a kind of Fedex to the government’s post office. If Blackwater’s security convoys drove aggressively, it was to satisfy their contract stipulations: no losses. Prince would have practiced more discretion than the government allowed him, but they insisted on ambassadors traveling in flagged SUVs, not beaten-looking Iraqi vehicles. Prince also reviews the several bloody incidents which turned Blackwater into a whipping boy for the Bush administration in the war, arguing that his men were merely defending themselves and that they made for effective scapegoats despite also using their resources in a few humanitarian causes.
I suspect Prince is correct in maintaining that military contractors aren’t going anywhere. In Afghanistan, there are more contractors than US servicemen, and I think it telling that Candidate Obama condemned Blackwater, and then — when the group served as his security detail in Afghanistan — President Obama commented that they were getting a ‘bad rap’. If citizens don’t want war, but the security state does, then the obvious thing to do is hire people to do the war bit on the state’s behalf, or even better to use drones. Although as a candidate Trump indicated that he was less interested in foreign wars than his competitors, I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever is in the D.C. water leads to military contractors operating discretely in Syria. They’re certainly in Iraq now, fighting ISIS — at least two thousand of them. They aren’t necessarily active combatants, but filling in a lot of the logistics holes that Prince noticed and started finding people to fill here.
I found Prince to be interesting as a man — rich boy turned volunteer fireman & Navy SEAL, then entrepreneur in his own right — and his apologia informative about the shifting nature of war as executed Even if war is a racket, the operation of that racket is worth noting as it changes.
- The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens. The memoir of a humanitarian turned Navy SEAL, one recently elected as governor of Missouri.