An American Tragedy

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and the author of “While Europe Slept” and “Surrender.” His book "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" is just out from Broadside / Harper Collins.


ht_civilian_warriors_ll_131115_4x3t_384In his fascinating new memoir, Civilian Warriors, Erik Prince – founder of Blackwater, the security firm that became world-famous for its pivotal role in the “war on terror” – tackles head-on the claim, often voiced by critics of his company, that the involvement of private military contractors (PMCs) in an American war is a radical and morally questionable departure from national tradition. On the contrary, argues Prince, Christopher Columbus, like Prince himself, was a PMC – an Italian who led his own military force under contract to Spain. Prince takes us to Lafayette Square, near the White House, where statues pay tribute to four Revolutionary War heroes – Kosciuszko, Steuben, Lafayette, and Rochambeau – all PMCs. Prince notes that John Smith, founder of Jamestown, and the Plymouth Company, of Mayflower fame, would today also be classified as PMCs – as would Miles Standish, “a military contractor hired by the Pilgrims to lead the defense of the colony.” George Washington himself, Prince reminds us, “volunteered to personally fund a military force to battle the British if the Continental Congress failed to create a standing army.” During both the Revolution and the War of 1812, American privateers were officially authorized to attack British vessels; during the Civil War, Lincoln hired the Pinkerton Agency to set up an domestic intelligence network; before U.S. entry into World War I, American aviators belonging to the Lafayette Escadrille fought alongside French flyers; before Pearl Harbor, retired U.S. Army captain Chaire Chennault formed a private air force to help defend China from the Japanese. When Blackwater contractors first went to Afghanistan in 2002, then, “we became part of a deeply rooted American tradition: private business supplying logistical, intelligence, and military support services that the government can’t provide on its own.”

That wasn’t how Blackwater’s critics saw it, of course. To Jeremy Scahill, author of a vicious 2007 book about the firm, Blackwater was “the frightening new face of the U.S. war machine.” For its enemies, no rhetoric about Blackwater was over the top: it was the very embodiment of malevolence and secretiveness, a shadowy and coldly destructive force that operated beyond the law and beyond all civilized considerations, routinely carrying out with utter impunity the dark designs of its evil masters in the Bush White House.

The company Prince recalls in this book (he sold it in 2010, and it now goes by the name Academi) cannot be recognized in the fevered descriptions that filled the media a decade ago. As he tells it, the founding of Blackwater is a classic American story: Prince, the son of a Michigan auto-parts manufacturer whose hard work and enterprising spirit took him from rags to riches, was a patriotic kid who became a Navy SEAL but who – recoiling at the military’s bureaucratic inefficiency and recognizing that base closings under Clinton had created a need for a world-class private military training center – left the Navy, bought a few square miles of North Carolina swampland, and built the Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, which opened in 1998. The timing was perfect: after Columbine, in 1999, cops from around the U.S. went to Blackwater’s training center to learn how to respond to school shootings; after the USS Cole attack, in 2000, thousands of sailors were sent there to prepare for terrorist attacks. Then came 9/11, after which Blackwater grew quickly from a domestic training facility into a provider of security, intelligence, and other services in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. His dad’s “Big Three” clients had been GM, Ford, and Chrysler; Prince’s were the CIA and the Departments of Defense and State.

One reason why Blackwater grew so fast was that it was a privately held company whose owner’s can-do, no-nonsense approach and contempt for sclerotic bureaucracy were hard-wired into its day-to-day operations. Major operations could be arranged quickly, and with a minimum of fuss or paperwork, by means of a single phone call to the boss himself. Another reason why the firm grew so fast was that its clients soon learned that it was eminently reliable – it delivered on what it promised. Over the years, Blackwater carried out some fifty thousand security missions, many of them in the most dangerous imaginable circumstances, and while many of its men did lose their lives, not a single one of the people they had been hired to protect was ever so much as seriously injured. It is a remarkable record. When Benizir Bhutto was planning to return to Pakistan from exile in 2007, she wanted Blackwater to provide her security, but the request was vetoed by President Musharraf, who felt that using a private firm would be an insult to the Pakistani military. Bhutto, of course, ended up being assassinated; it’s hard not to believe that if she’d been in Blackwater’s care she’d still be alive today. And what about Benghazi? Prince himself recently told National Review that he knows Blackwater could’ve saved Ambassador Christopher Stephens.

But Blackwater wasn’t there to save Stephens – or anyone – because Blackwater had already been destroyed. Its enemies in Afghanistan and Iran could not take it down with all the firepower at their disposal, but its enemies on the home front ended up annihilating it with a tsunami of bad press. Why did they hate it so much? Part of the answer is that Blackwater provided the ideal target for politicians and others on the left who despised the war but who knew that they couldn’t get away with criticizing American troops. Blackwater’s men were Americans, and they were putting their lives on the line in a war zone, but because they weren’t members of the uniformed military, they could freely be derided as mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, murderers for hire. Disgracefully, many higher-ups in the Departments of Defense and State, who knew very well that Blackwater was doing nothing other than following their own orders and keeping them safe, and who should’ve therefore been quick to defend the firm from unfair charges, found it convenient to let the company serve as a lightning rod, taking all the flak that otherwise might be directed at them. Prince, for his part, was obliged to sit silently by while politicians and the media spread lies, because confidentiality agreements barred him from revealing information that would have proven their accusations false.

The picture that emerges in this book, then, is one of a company that not only did its job splendidly but routinely pitched in during emergencies for which its services had never been formally contracted (and for which it never asked to be compensated) – but that was brought down by cynical and dishonorable politicians, journalists, government officials, and military bureaucrats who were not fit to polish most Blackwater contractors’ boots. Prince’s accounts of his critics’ opportunism and mendacity are countered by stirring stories of his own men’s selfless heroism – stories which go a long way toward convincing the reader that the firm was indeed, at bottom, far less about profit than about old-fashioned service to country. One such story concerns Poland’s ambassador to Iraq, Edward Pietrzyk, who, along with his Polish security team, was riding in a convoy in Baghdad when three terrorist bombs destroyed their vehicles and wounded them all seriously. Blackwater, which had no official responsibility in the matter, sent in helicopters at once and rushed the victims to safety. In his statement about the incident, Poland’s foreign minister didn’t mince words: Blackwater’s men had “undoubtedly saved the lives” of Pietryzk and his team. Although Prince’s contractors were ineligible for U.S. military medals, the Blackwater men who risked their lives to save Pietryzk were awarded Silver Stars by the Polish government – the first time it had accorded such an honor to non-Poles since World War II.

The history of Blackwater is a twenty-first-century American story of the first importance, rich in cautionary lessons about the times in which we live. It is a story about the best of America being torn down by the worst of America, about the relentless punishment of the noble and competent by the petty and incompetent, about the chilling power and treachery of the mainstream media, about the defeat of the entrepreneurial spirit by that decadent, dehumanizing, and destructive thing, big-government (and military) bureaucracy, and about the truly lethal nature of the pernicious poison that is left-wing anti-American ideology. What a sad commentary it is on the political developments of the post-9/11 era that Erik Prince now lives in Abu Dhabi and says that, despite his deep concern in recent years about America’s inept diplomacy, its betrayal of its allies, and the unrestrained growth of its government, he intends, “for now” at least, to remain a U.S. citizen. Like Blackwater itself, Civilian Warriors is an act of service to the country that Prince loved and served admirably – and that showed its gratitude by kicking him in the teeth.

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  • matrix

    Prince is in it for the money, not for the cause. His guns are for sale on the free market. At the moment, the islamofaschist Gulf Arabs pay him to defend their anti- Democratic, anti-Christian, anti-Semetic dictatorships. Next time it may well be an African dictator or South American drug cartells.

    Its not about values nor ideology, its about money.

    • Neo

      After fighting the good fight and being attacked by a scuzz bucket like Jeremy Scahill and venal politicians, it makes more sense to fight for however than a hypocrite politician.

      It is just easier on a person’s psyche to protect an Arab sheikh than an american politician, who in private say “Protect my azz”, but in public demonizes you.

      Is that a straight forward enough for you?

    • Neo

      Did you even read the article?

      Black water saved Poland’s ambassador to Iraq, Edward Pietrzyk, and his security team. Poland duly awarded them with Silver Stars.

    • popseal

      After four years a Blackwater contractor, I have to say my experience is different than your opinion. The charges you lay against Prince could be applied to many of your favorite Congressmen.

      • Drakken

        I am very surprised that Eric didn’t move the company to Dubai sooner, and avoided the witch hunt all together.

        • Jsjk

          According to a National Post article he now works for the Chinese to secure the continent of Africa.

          • Drakken

            We work for corporations that need the oil, gas and pipe lines to flow, the mines to be able to mine, and people to be able to work without being kidnaped, killed or blown up. So the news report is false, thought part of the Corp, that Eric is involved with does have Chinese investment, but not Chinese run.

          • UCSPanther

            People like to vilify the Pinkertons in a similar fashion, and they weren’t saints, but they did their jobs, and even established standard procedures in corporate security that are used to this day.

            The first “Rail Bulls” were Pinkerton Mercs who were hired to guard railroad property by the Illinois Central Railway on the advice of Abraham Lincoln back in his lawyer days.

          • Drakken

            Every body loves sausage, no body want to see how the tasty sausage is made.

          • Jsjk

            Yeah, I have no idea how deeply connected Prince is with the Chinese corp (identified as “Citic”). Here’s the Wall St journal article (re-published in the National Post).
            http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303465004579324650302912522

    • Barbaracvm

      Read the book! I did and it is PC crap why the US government bad mouths those men for doing their job.
      Those are former elite military men. They also come from various US police forces. This is a job for experienced men not wet behind the ear kids.

    • 1Indioviejo1

      I’d say you are part of the problem. People like you would destroy an outfit made up from American Patriots. Do they scare you? Do you wee-wee in your panties when you see guys like these? I’d say that is the Liberal nightmare, to have “Rough men with guns protecting your sleep.”

    • Drakken

      As a former BW contractor and a current contractor for a different company, let me explain some simple facts to you, since you have no bloody idea what you are talking about. Those Gulf states are either ruled by dictators or mullahs, and we keep the mullahs out of power and under control, otherwise if they get power and rule, it is jihad on a massive scale. I take great issue with your complete lack of knowledge, we come from all sorts of western countries and we all patriots, so stick you stupidity up your bloody azz.

    • gray_man

      “Prince is in it for the money, not for the cause.”

      Nonsense.
      You don’t have the foggiest idea why he does what he does.

  • UCSPanther

    The mercenary trade is not a well-respected occupation except within a few small circles. Not surprisingly, mercenaries are easy targets for demonization and scapegoating.

    Blackwater was practically painted as an all-powerful force of evil during the Iraq war, often being heavily slandered by assorted fringe conspiracy theorists who were extremely active at the time. As such, it was yet another victim of the frighteningly powerful anti-war propaganda machine that arose during that time.

    • Drakken

      The main reason it is demonized it that you cannot argue with success, and the military, state and physophant of govt cannot have an entity that challenges their supremacy. I could tell you numerous stories of where these incompetent morons got numerous people killed because they thought they knew better than us, the Army was especially bad in that regard.

      • UCSPanther

        It is actually quite reminiscent of how the French treated their mercenaries at the Battle of Crecy. They had hired a company of elite Genoan Crossbowmen to provide fire support for their army. Those men were said to be real good marksmen, and utilized effective tactics to defend themselves, and could have been a worthy challenge for the British longbow archers.

        Unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to prepare properly, and many got shredded by British arrow fire, and the rest were massacred by the French troops on orders of the king, most likely to avoid having to pay them. In the end though, it should be clear on how that battle ultimately ended for the French…

        • A Z

          I knew Genoan Crossbowmen were hired by the French but I never gave it much thought (everything but that). :(

          French kings had been known to kill moneylenders/bankers so they would not have to pay back debts so this is in line with French kingly behavior.

  • A Z

    Cynical and dishonorable politicians, government officials, and military bureaucrats are nothing new.

    Cynical and dishonorable journalists are something journalists of the Left want us to believe do not exist on the Left.

  • popseal

    I was a BW contractor for four years and will forever be thankful to Prince and the company he established. Obama used Blackwater contractors for his security detail while a senator.

  • hrwolfe

    This man and his company have my deepest sympathy and it is nice that for now he is keeping his citizenship but what about the rest of us that did not throw them under the bus. Are we going to have to save the Country and then he’ll come back? I tell people that leave California “What are you going to do when they take over in your new neighborhood?” At some point in time we have to stand and fight and folks that time is almost passed, could we not use this man in the trenches? Get people familiar with the truth and that might set them free.

    • NAHALKIDES

      Yes, at some point we will have to stand and fight if we cannot defeat the Left any other way, but some preparatory intellectual work must be done first so that honest people may see the rightness of the cause. Also, it is still just barely possible that we can defeat the Left democratically, if we can get the Republican Establishment out of the way first.

      • gawxxx

        the only way to deal with the left is as a plague , contain it then exterminate it all .

  • Wolfthatknowsall

    Personally, I think it makes perfect sense to use the demonstrable skills of military veterans in conflicts where American interests are at stake. I commend those who put their lives on the line in Blackwater. After Vietnam, if BW existed, I might have become a contractor with them.

  • 1Indioviejo1

    Thye demonization of Blackwater is just one more reason for the great divide in America. When the stupid ones ask about why our country is polarized everyone should know that people read and still, some of us make up our own minds. We have an unrestricted contempt for politicians and bureaucrats, and a clear hatred of Liberal/progressives/marxist/Democrats.

  • Jsjk

    It sounds as if the founder of Blackwater is bitter (and haunted) by the betrayals he has endured. That’s understandable. A recent article in the National Post says he is now working for a Chinese firm (Communist owned/controlled) in order to provide “security” for the Chinese exploitation of African mineral resources, etc.

    • Drakken

      That company is not Chinese run, it has Chinese investment, big difference, besides if it was Chin run, the chins would have their own people staffing it, not us westerners.

  • NAHALKIDES

    A shocking story about yet another betrayal of the good by the despicable American Left. Incisive, devastating summary by Bawer.

  • Lanna

    One can see how the MSM has hurt our national security. This is a very informative book.