Our Mercenaries in Iraq
The president relies on thousands
of private soldiers with little oversight, a disturbing example
of themilitary-industrial complex
by Jeremy Scahill, Los Angeles
www.zmag.org, January 28, 2007
As President Bush took the podium to deliver
his State of the Union address Tuesday, there were five American
families receiving news that has become all too common: Their
loved ones had been killed in Iraq. But in this case, the slain
were neither "civilians," as the news reports proclaimed,
nor were they U.S. soldiers. They were highly trained mercenaries
deployed to Iraq by a secretive private military company based
in North Carolina - Blackwater USA. The company made headlines
in early 2004 when four of its troops were ambushed and burned
in the Sunni hotbed of Fallouja - two charred, lifeless bodies
left to dangle for hours from a bridge. That incident marked a
turning point in the war, sparked multiple U.S. sieges of Fallouja
and helped fuel the Iraqi resistance that haunts the occupation
to this day.
Now, Blackwater is back in the news, providing
a reminder of just how privatized the war has become. On Tuesday,
one of the company's helicopters was brought down in one of Baghdad's
most violent areas. The men who were killed were providing diplomatic
security under Blackwater's $300-million State Department contract,
which dates to 2003 and the company's initial no-bid contract
to guard administrator L. Paul Bremer III in Iraq. Current U.S.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who is also protected by Blackwater,
said he had gone to the morgue to view the men's bodies, asserting
the circumstances of their deaths were unclear because of "the
fog of war."
Bush made no mention of the downing of
the helicopter during his State of the Union speech. But he did
address the very issue that has made the war's privatization a
linchpin of his Iraq policy - the need for more troops. The president
called on Congress to authorize an increase of about 92,000 active-duty
troops over the next five years. He then slipped in a mention
of a major initiative that would represent a significant development
in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian
"Such a corps would function much
like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed
forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to
serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush declared.
This is precisely what the administration has already done, largely
behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional
input, with its revolution in military affairs. Bush and his political
allies are using taxpayer dollars to run an outsourcing laboratory.
Iraq is its Frankenstein monster.
Already, private contractors constitute
the second-largest "force" in Iraq. At last count, there
were about 100,000 contractors in Iraq, of which 48,000 work as
private soldiers, according to a Government Accountability Office
report. These soldiers have operated with almost no oversight
or effective legal constraints and are an undeclared expansion
of the scope of the occupation. Many of these contractors make
up to $1,000 a day, far more than active-duty soldiers. What's
more, these forces are politically expedient, as contractor deaths
go uncounted in the official toll.
The president's proposed Civilian Reserve
Corps was not his idea alone. A privatized version of it was floated
two years ago by Erik Prince, the secretive, mega-millionaire,
conservative owner of Blackwater USA and a man who for years has
served as the Pied Piper of a campaign to repackage mercenaries
as legitimate forces. In early 2005, Prince - a major bankroller
of the president and his allies - pitched the idea at a military
conference of a "contractor brigade" to supplement the
official military. "There's consternation in the [Pentagon]
about increasing the permanent size of the Army," Prince
declared. Officials "want to add 30,000 people, and they
talked about costs of anywhere from $3.6 billion to $4 billion
to do that. Well, by my math, that comes out to about $135,000
per soldier." He added: "We could do it certainly cheaper."
And Prince is not just a man with an idea;
he is a man with his own army. Blackwater began in 1996 with a
private military training camp "to fulfill the anticipated
demand for government outsourcing." Today, its contacts run
from deep inside the military and intelligence agencies to the
upper echelons of the White House. It has secured a status as
the elite Praetorian Guard for the global war on terror, with
the largest private military base in the world, a fleet of 20
aircraft and 20,000 soldiers at the ready.
From Iraq and Afghanistan to the hurricane-ravaged
streets of New Orleans to meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
about responding to disasters in California, Blackwater now envisions
itself as the FedEx of defense and homeland security operations.
Such power in the hands of one company, run by a neo-crusader
bankroller of the president, embodies the "military-industrial
complex" President Eisenhower warned against in 1961.
Further privatizing the country's war
machine - or inventing new back doors for military expansion with
fancy names like the Civilian Reserve Corps - will represent a
devastating blow to the future of American democracy.
Jeremy Scahill is a Puffin Foundation
Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute and the author of the forthcoming
"Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary
Army." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org