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Members of a private security company pose on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad, September 2007. (Photo: Getty)

Iraq War Anniversary: Remembering Blackwater

Memoir by Blackwater founder serves as a blueprint for how to make a killing off killing.

"My company's history is a proud tale of performance excellence and driven entrepreneurialism."

So writes Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of history's most notorious private security contracting firm, in his book Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.

Twelve years after the launch of the war on Iraq, it's hard to find a better illustration of the business of war, sanitised for us here by Prince in entrepreneurial jargon.

What Prince would have us see in his company is a true American success story, thanks to hard work, innovation, and the wonders of the free market.

Founded in North Carolina in 1998 and quick to capitalise on the war on terror, Blackwater - now called Academi and keen to disassociate itself from Prince - was awarded a plethora of contracts in the Middle East and elsewhere by the US government, including a hand in the CIA's controversial drone strike programme and a number of classified operations.

By 2009, Prince writes, the company had received over $1 billion from the State Department alone in Iraq.

God bless the free market

But isn't profiting from conflict just making a killing off of killing?

As is the case with so many tiresome neoliberal acolytes, Prince's concept of "freedom" in the world means one thing: freedom for capital.

Conveniently for the former CEO, a hyper-religious Roman Catholic, it seems God is also neoliberal.

Recalling how he "wanted to battle the Soviets myself", Prince describes finding inspiration in Ronald Reagan's free market fetish and "aggressive military policy that publicly supported anticommunist insurgencies". The alleged rationale for all this was, in the president's words, that "freedom … is the universal right of all God's children".

But "freedom", apparently, does not include things like the freedom to drive a car in Iraq without being shot by private military contractors raking in dough for an American corporation.

Regarding one such incident in 2007 in Baghdad's Nisour Square, Prince defends the shooter, who - had he had "more time to investigate the potential threat" posed by a car that didn't stop as directed - might have noticed that the motorist "wasn't a bomber, but rather a medical school student driving his mother across town".

In the end, both the student and his mom were slaughtered along with 15 others by Blackwater personnel in the square, the youngest victim a boy of nine.

The incident occurred during a Blackwater mission to protect a USAID director working to "bolster the Iraqi private sector".

See? Freedom!

Mercy for mercenaries

Of course, the dead in Nisour Square aren't the real victims of Prince's story. Nor are the 220 to 700 civilian casualties he says were incurred during the military's April 2004 offensive in Fallujah, which took place partly in retaliation for the killing of four Blackwater contractors - lest there be any doubt as to the discrepancy in value between American and Iraqi lives.

No, the real victim of the story is none other than the billionaire Prince himself, the target of "relentless political persecution" and a "witch hunt" by vindictive Democrats "hungry for blood" and "rabid-left pundits and politicians". He complains: "We were branded mercenaries and murderers, and were made the whipping boy for the public’s fury over the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East."

Prince insists that Blackwater's men don't fit the Geneva Conventions' definition of "mercenary" because, among other reasons, "their motivations for being in Iraq were generally as patriotic as they were material".

Never mind that you can't divine the individual motivations of tens of thousands of people, many of whom were making $600 a day.

Prince also argues that the American citizenship of the men on Blackwater's "protective details" disqualified them from mercenary status, a factoid Jeremy Scahill neatly deconstructs in Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Quoting Blackwater president Gary Jackson on the company's habit of "scour[ing] the ends of the earth to find professionals", Scahill reveals that the "first batch of non-US mercenaries Blackwater would hire [were] Chilean commandos - some of whom had trained under the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet", another fellow who understood quite well the link between violence and free market propagation.

The roots of tradition

Prince's book, a testament to the lucrativeness of the war industry, is also part of a memoir industry of sorts, in which unsavoury folks are given the opportunity to make themselves and their publishers a pretty penny while simultaneously rehabilitating their image. (Even better when you can get someone else to write it for you.)

It's a bit like the "corporate cleanups" Prince says were periodically undergone by "Blackwater's branding", such as advertisements on the company's website "featuring starving infants being spoon-fed" - supposed proof of the "humanitarian work we were capable of".

But no amount of rebranding can erase the facts, despite Prince's fervent contentions that he has "dedicate[d] his life to being a force for good in the world". In a chapter titled "Inherently traditional", he even pays tribute to Christopher Columbus, his "favourite" private military contractor, who was "far more entrepreneur than seafarer" and worked to "expand Spain's global footprint in the name of Christendom".

What this little history lesson implies is that imperial plunder and the destruction of civilisations is nothing but good old tradition - like sending fruitcakes at Christmas.

In the aftermath of the Nisour Square massacre, US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) argued that Blackwater should be held accountable for "creating a culture that breeds this type of reckless and illegal behaviour".

But if one thing can be said in Prince's defense, it's that he's a symptom rather than a cause of a diseased system - one that strives to make the world safe for money, and in the process makes life cheap.

© 2021 Al-Jazeera English
Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández is the author of  "Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World" and "The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work." She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

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