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

largeIn Chapter XII of Nicollo Machiavelli’s The Prince he describes mercenaries as “useless and dangerous,” forces that are, in essence, “disunited, ambitious, without discipline, disloyal; bold among friends,” and “without fear of God”. Such a description is given a great deal of substance in Jeremy Scahill’s landmark study on mercenary armies Blackwater. Led by Christian extremist and international terrorist, Eric Prince, Scahill charts the rise of the corporate army Blackwater and the many crimes they committed along the way. Former war secretary Donald Rumsfeld can be blamed for this sea change in the military industrial complex. In a break from his predecessors, Rumsfeld was tasked with implementing what Scahill describes as “the most sweeping privatization and outsourcing operation in US military history–a revolution in military affairs.” This process of corporatization reached it’s zenith when the Pentagon decided to include Blackwater (and other mercenary groups) into it’s “Total Force”, a collection of armed units responsible for sustaining the occupation of Iraq.

Coupled with this dramatic change in the structure of the military was a complete evisceration of international law. In 2004 US proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, passed a decree called Order 17 which stated that mercenaries “shall be immune from [the] Iraqi legal process with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto.” Blackwater then used this Order to shield themselves from legal accountability. Under Order 17 Blackwater mercenaries are granted legal immunity for the war crimes carried out in Najaf where an intense gun battle with Muqtada Sadr’s resistance army led to a Blackwater mercenary calling Iraqis “fuckin’ niggers,” as he methodically shot them down. Fellow Blackwater mercenary Ben Thomas defended this racism, saying “when my friend stopped the advance cold, alone and under direct fire, the worst word his mind could muster to yell at the dead bastards was ‘nigger’. When he saw the video he cried. He isn’t a racist. What you hear is a man terrified and victorious.” Casualty estimates from this gun battle point to “twenty to thirty dead [Iraqis] with two hundred wounded.”

While Blackwater could get away with this excuse, other mercenaries hired to occupy Iraq on behalf of the US would find it more difficult to sell this interpretation. Rumsfeld’s “Total Force” also included mercenaries from South Africa’s white minority. In 2005 the South African government “officially estimated that four thousand of its citizens were employed in conflict areas across the globe, including an estimated two thousand in Iraq”. Joining these white South Africans were mercenaries who formerly served under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a US-ally that tortured Chile for nearly two decades.

Though the focal point of this text is the corporate military industry, crimes of the national military are also showcased. For example, Scahill notes the 2004  US helicopter attack on the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque. After the helicopter attack, a F16 warplane “swooped in and dropped a five-hundred-pound bomb on the mosque compound,” an act that Scahill correctly describes as “an alleged violation of the Geneva Convention that prohibits the targeting of religious sites.”

Scahill’s analysis is not only meticulously researched and incisive but it serves as a useful prologue to his study of Obama administration and the radical warlordism that has come to define his time in office. Take for instance the extrajudicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden.  In the 1990s CIA veteran, Cofer Black, shaped his career around a single objective: the murder of Osama Bin Laden. But Black was prevented from carrying out this kill because “at that time permissions to kill–officially called Lethal Findings–were taboo in the outfit”.

Compare this to the norm under the Obama administration where “Lethal Findings” are not only free from the “taboo” that characterized them in the 1990s but have been institutionalized as a “cleaner” alternative to ground wars in the killer drone program, a program that was given ideological reinforcement in a recent speech at the National Defense University.  Lesley Clark and Johnathan Landay of McClatchy news reported that the speech “appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed lethal actions”, another indication of how non-“taboo” such killings have become. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism currently estimates that between 2004 and 2013 369 drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan killing between 2,541 and 3,540 people (441-884 civilians; 168-197 children). The Obama White House also mirrors the Bush White House in the application of international law. In the same way Paul Bremer argued for legal immunity for Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq, Obama argued for legal immunity for US soldiers in Iraq or as Democracy Now! reported in October 2011 “The United States has signaled its willingness to stay in Iraq, but has insisted on immunity for troops as a precondition.”

With the publication of Scahill’s new book and documentary Dirty Wars we can gain valuable insight into the covert wars that the Obama administration has waged outside of any commitment to international law. Blackwater is an engaging introduction to the depth of Scahill’s investigative journalism and a reminder to citizens of imperial societies of the great moral and ethical responsibility we have to speak out against the illegitimate use of power.


Machiavelli, Niccolò, and Wayne A. Rebhorn. The Prince and Other Writings. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.


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