Blackwater, the secretive private army now emerging into public view, is a perfect hinge linking two key elements of the Republican political base: America's war machine and a muscular form of fundamentalist Christianity.
Military contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater are the brainchild of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A major goal of Cheney when he was secretary of defense in the first Bush administration was to privatize as much military work as possible, ostensibly to make it more efficient. He commissioned a study by Halliburton, which predictably liked the idea and wound up as America's largest military contractor. Cheney was hired as Halliburton's chief officer, awaiting the return of a Republican administration.
When that occurred, Cheney and Rumsfeld enthusiastically promoted privatization, and went so far as to include private contractors in the "Total Force" of the American military, standing never before given to contractors. When Rumsfeld left the Pentagon in 2006, there were nearly as many private contractors in Iraq (100,000) as American troops (130,000). Contractors provided food, fuel, housing and, in the case of Blackwater, heavily armed soldiers with a license to kill and an aggressive attitude.
Blackwater operated basically without oversight since proconsul Paul Bremer gave it a no-bid $27.7 million security contract in 2003, with immunity from Iraqi law. In 2004, four of its soldiers were ambushed in Fallujah and their bodies desecrated, bringing retaliation that killed hundreds of Iraqis, leveled the city and fueled the insurgency. A month ago, Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians, in an incident that has drawn the attention of Congress and the FBI.
Blackwater soldiers, often with Navy SEAL or Army Special Operations backgrounds, are paid from $500 to $1,500 a day, far more than regular-duty troops. Their image is straight from central casting: young men, tanned biceps bulging from black T-shirts, wearing wraparound sunglasses and brandishing automatic weapons. For young veterans who loved military action but couldn't afford to stay in, Blackwater offered big money and plenty of opportunities to order people around. Blackwater's aggressive guards became the image of American cultural insensitivity, sometimes erasing the best efforts of our uniformed soldiers.
Blackwater is the private empire of billionaire Erik Prince, a major Republican fundraiser and bankroller of several fundamentalist Christian organizations. His private army employs some 2,300 active gunners and boasts a register of 21,000 ready to serve on call. He has the largest privately held arsenal in the country and the expertise and firepower to bring down a small country.
In 2006, Prince expanded internationally, forming a new subsidiary in Barbados, outside American taxes and regulation, to train foreign forces, often funded by American military aid. Elite Blackwater soldiers have conducted secretive "black jobs" for the CIA or other spy agencies.
Despite its financial success, Blackwater is under fire from two sides: Democratic critics who want accountability and families of the four men killed in Fallujah in 2004. The families have sued, alleging negligence.
Blackwater's lawyers assert it cannot be sued because it is part of the "Total Force." But, while Congress demands that it be subject to American military codes and international treaties, Blackwater takes the opposite view - it is not military, it's a civilian contractor. Big money has gone into D.C. lawyers, lobbyists and public-relations spinners to sell this apparent contradiction.
There have always been mercenaries, and a case can be made for limited use of contractors, but the Bush administration has erased the line between a national military and a private war machine. Iraq is our first outsourced war, siphoning billions of taxpayer dollars into the private war machine.
Military contractors have become an integral part of the American military, allowing the White House to understate troop numbers and avoid a military draft. Unpopular wars for oil or ideology can be waged without calling on middle-class families to send their children; mercenaries will fill the jobs if volunteers don't come forth.
In Prince, the Republicans' radical Christian base is wed to the war-machine base, the one providing votes and manpower, the other providing campaign funds.
The resulting combination is one of rigid ideology and eagerness to solve any problem with overwhelming force. The Bush administration convinced itself its views on Iraq were right, pushing aside contrary evidence, then failed to think beyond "shock and awe," with resultant horrors.
In a world of nuance and gray areas, ideological purity and bulging biceps will cause as many problems as they solve. Blackwater seems to epitomize a dark side of our psyche that should be troubling to all Americans.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at email@example.com
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