I just finished listening to the Audiobook version of Civilian Warriors, The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror. Most people by now have heard of Blackwater, usually in connection with the private military contracting (PMC) arm of the business that garnered so much negative press for highly questionable things they did while in Iraq. This book was written by Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater as an answer to the criticisms that have been leveled against Blackwater for the past eight years . . .
Prince sees this book as an opportunity to tell his side of the story – a chance that was unavailable to him due to contractual obligations during the worst of the attacks. Prince doesn’t insult his reader by trying to claim that Blackwater did nothing wrong – rather he acknowledges the problems the firm faced and takes responsibility for some of them. His story however is a mix of “things weren’t as bad as they were made to sound” and “other PMCs were doing similar things, but you never heard about them.”
He claims that Blackwater was made the scapegoat for the unpopular Iraqi war by Democrats on a witch hunt, greedy trial lawyers, and liberal newspaper editors. While you may have some preconceived notions going in, his tale is compelling and very educational.
The book is roughly divided into four parts. The first part covers Erik Prince’s early life and formation of what would later become the Blackwater empire. This information is offered primarily as background as one needs to understand from where Prince came to understand what influenced his decisions when creating Blackwater. This early section focused on growing up in Holland, Michigan as the son of Edgar Prince, a man who rose from making 40 cents an hour to being the largest employer in Holland.
He covers his initial foray into the Naval Academy and his eventual departure for Hillsdale College where he studied Economics. While at Hillsdale, he served as a volunteer firefighter and rescue diver. From there it wasn’t that big a step to one of the coveted officer billets in BUD/S.
Unlike some of the other autobiographies on the market, Prince doesn’t dwell on his time as a SEAL. If you want to learn about what BUD/S or life as a SEAL is like, go read another book. Prince covers a few highlights and shares some anecdotes, then moves on. His SEAL experience is important as not only did it shape his character, but it was during his time as a SEAL that he identified the problem that Blackwater would initially be set up to solve.
The second part of the book focuses on the early development of Blackwater. Prince and his co-founders initially envisioned the company to be in the business of training. While a SEAL, Erik saw how much time was wasted by military units traveling to and from training locations. The problem is that the military didn’t have that many dedicated training locations for all of the training that needed to be done and different units from different branches had to share the limited facilities available all over the country.
Prince recounts one time when his SEAL unit had to share a long-distance rifle range with another military unit. While the other unit took the left side of the range and shot from around 400 yards, Erik’s SEAL team was on the right side of the range at the 200 yard line — not an ideal safety arrangement. What Prince and his colleagues realized is that if someone could create a state-of-the-art training facility within a few hours travel of a large number of military bases, they could provide something really valuable to the armed forces. Prince purchased a large tract of land in North Carolina and the Blackwater campus was born.
Things were going okay, but the expected massive military embrace of the training facility failed to materialize, at least until the U.S.S. Cole incident happened. Suddenly the armed forces woke up to the fact that their people weren’t trained in the principles of asymmetric warfare that would come to dominate military conflicts in the 21st century. They subsequently went looking for a company that could move quickly to get soldiers and sailors up to speed. Blackwater dropped a barge in their man-made lake, fitted it out like a ship and began to cycle thousands of sailors through training, month after month. This flexibility and ability to adapt to changing government needs would become the hallmark of Blackwater.
In the book’s third section, Prince covers the expansion into the role of PMCs. As a primer, he traces the history of the PMC back to the birth of the United States. He lays out the case that Christopher Columbus, an Italian by birth who operated under the flag of Spain in his cruise of discovery was for all intents and purposes a PMC. He wasn’t a member of any military (Spanish or Italian) yet he was contracted by the Spanish Crown to pursue its interests.
This reliance on contractors continued during the nation’s early wars. Due to the disparity between the British and Colonial Navies, private ships were contracted during the Revolutionary War to harass British shipping. This was repeated again during the War of 1812. In just about every major conflict, there have been non-military personnel in support roles from the mail carriers to the laundry staff to the commissary workers.
Prince argues that aside from the fact that PMCs in security roles are armed and can shoot back, they really aren’t that much different in principle from the non-combatant contractors. After all, the reason that the military contracts so many non-combatant roles out to civilians is cost control. A fully-trained soldier has an expensive skill set, so having them wash dishes or service engines is a waste of their skills in a combat theater.
By extension, soldiers of often ill suited for the close-in protection role that PMCs like Blackwater filled. Soldiers are trained to engage enemies on the battlefield while Blackwater for example hired people who already had some sort of special operation training and then subjected them to eight weeks of close protection school.
One question that has often been raised is whether paying for a PMC is more cost effective than simply deploying soldiers. In truth, when compared man to man, a PMC will cost the government more on a per-day basis, but looking purely at a man to man comparison misses some vital points.
First of all, say you need to procure 1000 armed soldiers for a particular mission. You will need to recruit, train, arm, and support these 1000 soldiers, not just for the duration of the mission, but usually for some standard period of enlistment (four years give or take). PMCs on the other hand can be contracted to start on a particular day and when the mission concludes, fired immediately. The government only has to pay for a PMC while that PMC is performing the service. This gives the government flexibility to adjust manpower requirements as needed. Furthermore, as many PMCs have prior military backgrounds, often in Special Operations areas, the quality of soldier you get from a PMC organization will be higher and have more experience than a freshly trained recruit.
One thing that really gets Prince’s ire up is when people use the term, “mercenary” to describe Blackwater and other security contractors. Commentators here on TTAG have done this as well. One may think that there’s no real distinction, but then I could argue the same whenever a commenter takes a writer to task for using the terms, “clip” and “magazine” interchangeably. Language often has very precise meanings and we should not misuse terms out of laziness.
The term, “mercenary” has a specific definition per the United Nations Mercenary Convention of 2001. While I won’t bother you with the details (you can read them here), there are three elements to the official definition of a mercenary that Blackwater’s personnel don’t meet. First of all, a mercenary cannot be a resident/citizen of a party to the conflict. Since the vast majority of Blackwater’s personnel were from countries that were part of the coalition, that element is failed. Secondly, a mercenary is recruited specifically to fight on behalf of another. The U.S. government never authorized Blackwater personnel to pursue offensive action. They were hired as security and any combat was defensive in nature. Blackwater personnel didn’t go looking for fights (but were more than happy to oblige insurgents who were).
Finally, one can be considered a mercenary if one has not been specifically sent by a state on official duty. Blackwater was contracted to protect State Department personnel in Iraq and were operating under an official U.S. Government contract. For this reason, to characterize Blackwater personnel as mercenaries is incorrect and using that term to describe them comes out of either ignorance or malice.
This third section of the book focuses on the protection work that Blackwater provided on contract to various elements of the U.S. government in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Prince details some of the specific missions Blackwater conducted, highlighting both their successes and terrible losses including the four contractors who were killed in Fallujah and hung from a bridge. This portion of the book is very interesting as it goes into a lot of detail into the day-to-day operations and thought processes of security contractors.
It also serves as a powerful counterpoint to the media image of Blackwater; that of a bunch of gun-toting yahoos. While this criticism has been levied from all fronts including military and political leaders, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Blackwater’s typical security contractor was a veteran of either a military special operations unit or police SWAT team. The average age was mid to late 30’s with at least 10 years of experience. More than half of the contractors had actual experience under fire.
Often, the Blackwater contractors were better trained and had more experience than the military units in theater. In some cases such as the battle to prevent the overrun of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Najaf, U.S. military personnel who were trapped with the Blackwater contingent in the building wisely ceded command to the Blackwater contractors (former Navy SEALS) for that specific engagement. It was a Blackwater chopper that managed to evacuate a critically wounded U.S. service member when the Army refused to send in a medivac unit due to the intense firefight.
Prince acknowledges that as demands on his company grew and he was forced to ramp up quickly, some people slipped through the screening process. People like this were in a large part responsible for the bad press that Blackwater got, but as in other sections, Prince doesn’t try to dodge responsibility for these mistakes.
In the final part of the book, Prince gets to the really controversial issues that have hounded Blackwater. The picture he paints is that in the years leading up to the infamous Nisour Square incident, Blackwater had become a target for anyone with an axe to grind concerning the war effort. Democrats, anti-war people, and others opposed to the Iraq action realized that attacking our service men and women would not serve them well, so instead they targeted the concept of armed contractors in general and Blackwater in particular.
All manner of allegations were leveled at Blackwater which, since it was still under contract to the U.S. government, was contractually prohibited from issuing any statements defending themselves. Lawyers arguing various cases against Blackwater, made all sorts of outlandish and factually incorrect statement to the press (and were protected from libel laws due to the court proceedings) while Senators and Congressmen did likewise. By late 2007, the court of public opinion was heavily stacked against Blackwater and it would not take much to overturn the whole apple cart. Unfortunately, applesauce was made on September 16, 2007.
Prince stands behind the version of what happened in Nisour Square as told by the Blackwater contractors. While it certainly would be easy for me to say that the contractors screwed up, that would be cowardly given the fact that my ass wasn’t on the line that day. The unfortunate thing is that by 2007, things had become so unstable in Iraq that an incident like Nisour square was all but inevitable. Even if the people guarding the convoys had been U.S. soldiers, it’s possible that the outcome wouldn’t have been much different.
As part of his explanation, Prince addresses two major criticisms of Blackwater. The first is the concept that Blackwater operatives had some sort of immunity from any prosecution. This was simply not true and a mischaracterization of certain facts that journalists ignored out of either laziness or because it didn’t fit their intended narrative.
The claim has its roots in Order 17, issued by Paul Bremmer in the closing days of America’s administration of Iraq’s day to day affairs. Order 17 dictated that in accordance with international law, military forces and the civilian contractors accompanying them are not subject to the jurisdiction of local (Iraqi) courts. They shall instead remain under the jurisdiction of the state that contributed them.
Order 17 however only applied to actions undertaken while performing specific duties authorized under a contract or subcontract. For example, if a Blackwater contractor returned fire during an attack on a convoy and accidentally killed an innocent person, that action would not be subject to local Iraqi laws. On the flip side, if a contractor got drunk then got into a fight with a local, killing him in the process, even if that local later turned out to be a suspected insurgent, the contractor could be prosecuted for the murder under Iraqi law as the fight was not one of their official duties. Even when performing authorized duties, contractors remained under the legal code of the parent nation and could be prosecuted under those laws.
The second criticism is that Blackwater personnel acted like cowboys – driving fast and aggressively in Iraq and doing whatever they felt necessary to secure their protectees. While that part is true, the reason isn’t what you would think. Blackwater contractors had two main objectives – first and foremost, protect their charges at all costs and second, survive. Neither task was especially easy in post-war Iraq.
Blackwater did an excellent job of accomplishing the first objective. No protectee under Blackwater’s care was ever killed or seriously injured. Prince is very proud of that fact and attributes that success to the reason why customers kept coming back to Blackwater. After all, if Blackwater could keep Paul Bremmer, at one time the most targeted man in the country alive, they could do the same for just about anyone.
Things were made much more difficult due to State Department mandates that required State Department officials to travel in high profile style all over the country. Blackwater contractors would have been just as happy using unmarked sedans and subterfuge to get people from place to place, but State wanted no part of that. They insisted that their people travel openly which in turn magnified the security risk. Forced into this situation, Blackwater did whatever they felt was necessary to ensure the State Department personnel safety.
In the end, the reader is left with a series of compelling arguments that paint a very different picture than what is considered the popular viewpoint of Blackwater. Prince is unapologetic concerning his people’s actions and while it may be as much for legal reasons as anything else (given the fact that litigation is ongoing), it does tend to cost Prince some credibility. Given the fact that at the peak of Blackwater’s contract fulfillment, it had over 1,000 armed contractors in the field, it is not that unreasonable to assume that there may be some truth to at least some of the accusations leveled at the company. That said, one can hardly consider their reputation to be any worse than, say, the Army’s after Abu Ghraib. Iraq was (and is) a war zone. The U.S. Army blew the country apart then left reconstruction in the hands of the State Department. State had to ensure their personnel’s safety and PMCs were the way to go.
I really ended up liking Prince by the end. He’s definitely on my list of people I’d like to meet one day. Is he arrogant and massively self-assured? Yes, but as the saying goes, it’s only arrogance when you can’t back it up, and Prince certainly is capable of doing that. After all, how many people do you know who made it through SEAL selection, went onto the teams, then built a very successful company from virtually nothing?
Could it be argued that running a private army like Blackwater was a major ego trip? Absolutely, but at the end of the day, the Blackwater personnel were successful in the only metric that mattered — they delivered what they promised at or under budget. No protectee in Blackwater’s care was ever killed and even the injuries that were sustained were relatively minor when one considers how dangerous the environment was. I can’t think of too many other government or military organizations that can claim to have the same level of accomplishment.
This book was a good read and full of some very useful information. Furthermore, Prince’s description of the carefully-planned and executed pillorying of the company by politicians, lawyers, and the press carries the ring of truth. The tactics used against Blackwater are eerily similar to the ones being used against gun rights activists today.