I always get a satisfying chuckle out of large corporations with enigmatic bents to them that give themselves intentionally sinister names. Cerberus Capital Management, for example. Cerberus Capital is an example of a private equity firm, a category of companies known for the staggering wealth they command and their swelling market share. These firms are also infamous for their secrecy – since they’re not publicly traded, they don’t have to tell a soul what they’re doing with that money, how much of it they’re making, or how much they pay their executives. Private equity bosses make it a point to stay out of the financial and general media…they’re like the Pave Lows of capitalism. They fly in undetected, drop payload, and extract. Next thing you know, wham, KKR owns Geoffrey the Giraffe. So this can be a little intimidating to the average person. Now, as private companies who don’t sell anything, equity firms aren’t as beholden to public opinion as, say, Outback Steakhouse. Nevertheless, we live in a perception-driven world, good PR is lusted after by virtually the entire marketplace, so it is a little bit surprising when a company like Cerberus, whose activities make people a little edgy already, decides to name itself after the monstrous three-headed hellhound of Greek mythology who guarded the gates of Hades.
Blackwater USA is another great example. It’s one of those names where you read the headlines from the past couple days and go “Well yeah, what did you think was going to happen? They called themselves ‘Blackwater’! Their logo is a frigging crosshairs with a bear claw in the middle of it! You think these guys put much of a premium on diplomacy or deliberate problem solving?” The United States government may be calling these guys the more media-friendly term “private security contractors,” but “Blackwater” sounds like the name of an outfit whose stated aim is to capture, torture, and kill James Bond.
As you’re hopefully aware, some Blackwater boys got into a firefight in Baghdad on Sunday that left eight civilians dead. And since this is Iraq, what actually happened immediately dissolved into a sandy miasma of conflicting accounts, accusations, and rhetoric. Blackwater, for its part, said through a spokeswoman that “The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire. Blackwater professionals heroically defended American lives in a war zone.” Hairdresser Suhad Mirza, who was actually there, said she saw Blackwater personnel “randomly shooting at the people at the low level. Apparently, the guards wanted to make their way through the traffic jam made by Iraqi army checkpoint. There was no provocation and the guards were using their ammunition to move quicker in the street.” There’s also talk of a car bomb setting off the whole thing. Whatever happened, when the death toll includes a couple and their infant child shot in their car, somebody on the shooting side fucked up.
The result has been a direct condemnation of Blackwater USA by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (who must be relishing a crisis where it’s obvious even to him what to do) and the Iraqi government banning Blackwater from the country. There’s a problem with that though – Order No. 17. It’s a law issued by the American coalition authority in 2004, before Iraqi sovereignty, that gives private contractors something like diplomatic immunity from Iraqi law. So for now, Blackwater is sticking around.
No one seems to agree on exactly how many of these guys are running around in Iraq, but most estimates seem to put the number somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. They’re about to come under some heavy, heavy criticism, so I do think a word in their defense is in order: whether you’re a U.S. Marine, a shopkeeper, a diplomat, or a mercenary (that’s what I’m going to keep calling Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy), if you’re in Iraq, you are living in an environment of constant danger. This insurgency has been marked by an enemy that dresses like a civilian, acts to lull you into a sense of false security, and then detonates a suicide belt or a car bomb. If you’re not dead, the guy you were just playing cards with an hour ago and who sits next to you at breakfast is. I hesitate to pass judgment on the people who are in life or death situations on a daily basis and who don’t even have the luxury of knowing what the hell the enemy even looks like.
That said, there is a lot of evidence emerging that our mercenary army acts like assholes far more often than is necessary. There are allegations of mercenary soldiers opening fire on innocent civilians, or even crushing one under a supply truck. Mercenaries acting as bodyguards for high-value diplomatic and political personnel (that suit in the picture above is L. Paul Bremer) are known to barge through crowds of pedestrians in their SUVs when they can’t get through fast enough for their liking. Some of these allegations, by the way, aren’t coming from your Human Rights Watch peacenik crowd, either. Four guys who are retired U.S. military who joined up with Custer Battles to go to Iraq say they quit and left the country because what they saw so disgusted them. Things got so bad that in 2006, General George Casey had to issue a direct order from U.S. command telling the various companies to shape the hell up.
There’s a long list of shit like this. Each individual incident represents a policy failure on the part of the United States, and a moral, human failure on the part of the meatheads whose trigger fingers are more finely tuned than their brains are. But the collective effect of all of these incidents is a serious, serious problem. The United States armed forces are working their asses off to pacify that country, and part of their plan to succeed is a counter-insurgency strategy that co-opts Iraqi civilians, building their trust and getting them to make that phone call to a U.S. patrol when they see somebody planting an IED rather than letting the Humvee roll over it. That’s a damn hard job. What makes it harder is tens of thousands of private citizens who operate with heavy artillery and surprisingly little oversight deciding to plow through an intersection because the crosswalk isn’t getting cleared fast enough.
If we’re serious about the Iraqi government being a truly independent, sovereign entity who runs its own house, then telling them to kiss off because we’re sneaking Blackwater in-country through the Order No. 17 backdoor does nothing but undermine that goal. And these guys have put a track record together which demonstrates that having them in Iraq can really be more of a liability than a strategic advantage. So when the Iraqi government takes its backbone for a test drive this week, how about we do the decent thing and eject Blackwater. If we can’t bring the actual army home, at least we ought to send the shadow army to the end of the bench.