An American Tragedy

A personal account of the rise and fall of Blackwater.

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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Tags: Military