(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Jeremy Scahill examines the rise of the powerful private military company, whose presence during the Iraq War would become a source of international controversy. The appearance of Blackwater and other security firms resulted from efforts under President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) to cut military expenses and increase efficiency. The driving figures were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (then secretary of defense), who applied the principle of privatization to the armed forces. The first outsourcing was in food services and other areas that were awkwardly large for peacetime military needs, then in the elimination of redundant bases and facilities. President George W. Bush would resume this outsourcing in order to increase the number of personnel in the fighting forces and to reduce the number in supply and services.

Blackwater was established in 1997 to train police and military personnel on real-life security problems. Traditional firing ranges provided little beyond targets at standard distances, with none of the confusion and surprise that policemen, soldiers, and Marines would actually encounteras, for example, at the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Erik Prince provided the money to buy a seven-thousand-acre training area in North Carolina near the Great Dismal Swamp and to construct an impressive site for visitors, including housing, classrooms, and training facilities. By September 11, 2001, Blackwater had a good reputation for training security personnel, a niche service that the military was not well prepared to provide: The armed forces trained to fight against similarly armed enemies in the field, not to be bodyguards or to secure strategic sites.

L. Paul Bremer III, the second American viceroy in Iraq, hired Blackwater to provide his bodyguards. Scahill describes Bremer as a terrorism expert, religious zealot, neoconservative activist, and egoist. Hiding in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, venturing out only when surrounded by bodyguards, with Blackhawk helicopters overhead, Bremer’s policies reminded many Iraqis of Saddam Hussein and, in effect, created a wider insurgency. The result was an even greater need for mercenaries. As the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tried to increase its number of operatives, the competition for qualified personnel became intense.

Because Blackwater could offer high salaries, it attracted superbly trained men; some were from countries where guerrillas, drug lords, and terrorists abounded, but most were Americans with experience in the Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) forces or Special Forces. Some were frustrated by the lack of action in the 1990’s, some were intensely patriotic, many were motivated by Christian beliefs, and all liked the prospect of good pay: $600 per day was a commonly mentioned figure. The risks were high, because Blackwater’s personnel operated in places that the U.S. military considered too dangerous. Blackwater’s employees, however, were experienced, confident, and not bound by the usual rules of engagement: If they felt they were in danger, they were empowered to defend themselves.

Such were the four men ambushed in Fallujah on March 31, 2004. Their deaths in a common resupply operation were a result of poor planning and poor judgment: There were only four of them instead of the minimum six; they were new in the country; they were driving unarmored sport utility vehicles through the most dangerous town in the country; and the insurgents had been tipped off when and where they were going. The American public was told that the four contractors had been ambushed, their bodies torn apart and burned, then two corpses hung from a bridge, to sway over the Euphrates River for hours. Fallujah had never been under control but had become a refuge for Hussein loyalists, Sunni insurgents, and foreign jihadists. The incident would change American policy profoundly.

The subsequent assault on Fallujah was unnecessary and poorly handled. Mosques were bombed and the hospital was captured, making it impossible for injured Iraqis to receive treatment. The Marines tried new tactics, such as using loudspeakers to bombard Iraqis with obscene words until, in one case, resistance fighters stormed out of a mosque, AK-47s in hand, to be shot down. The Arabic television network Al Jazeera...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Globe and Mail, March 24, 2007, p. D3.

Middle East Journal 61, no. 2 (Spring, 2007): 371-372.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 8, 2007): 26.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 9 (February 26, 2007): 75.

The Virginian-Pilot, April 22, 2007, p. E3.