Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Waging war: Blackwater

Call me naive. Clueless, even.

Whenever I heard the words "government contractors in Iraq," I pictured American civilian engineers working on water lines; bridge designers; city planners. Turns out, they're mercenaries -- soldiers for hire in privately owned, parallel armies that are operated for profit and funded by your tax dollars. The biggest of them is Blackwater.

Bill Moyers Journal guest this week is Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist and author of the new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It's an eye-opening interview, and the link to the transcript is below. I highly recommend that you read it, or access the video from Bill Moyers Journal site.

Here are my own take-away items from the show:

So this is why there is no draft yet.

From my point of view, this is the good news. I have two draft-age sons, and my greatest fear when George Bush was reelected was that he would take my kids. We had a rapidly deteriorating and chaotic war; recruiters could could not meet their quotas; the National Guard was being deployed overseas; active duty soldiers were subjected to prolonged service and multiple deployments. At the same time, benefits for veterans were being cut. To me, that spelled an imminent draft. But only now are we hearing the first rumblings for "universal service."

Critics say that because there is no draft and the casualties among the contractors are not counted, the true cost of the war can be hidden from the public. I'm sure that's true, but when it comes to this, I am completely and unrepentantly selfish. God bless and protect the troops who have chosen to serve. But if hiring mercenaries in Iraq can keep more of our sons out of there, so be it.

Blackwater looks a lot like a kickback machine.

Branches of the military cannot contribute to political campaigns. People who own military contracting companies can. So who's first in line when the dollars are doled out? And exactly how much of the public money that politicians funnel to the contractors comes back as campaign contributions? I find those to be interesting questions.

The booty goes to whichever party holds the purse strings. The family behind Blackwater is staunchly Republican and right-wing, and makes heavy contributions to the party and its candidates. All nice and legal, of course, as politicians do make the laws. But it smells to high heaven.

Plus, contractors are employers of choice for ex-intelligence types and former office holders.

Add to it that Blackwater is usually the company providing security for our diplomats and politicians in really dangerous places, and you could see why few of our esteemed leaders would be enthused about launching any kind of investigation.

This can't be good for morale.

Payments to Blackwater per contractor are many times the pay of an enlisted service member. Blackwater's equipment and support is state of the art; troops' parents are running bake sales back home to buy the guys some body armor.

Worse, troops told Scahill that Iraqi civilians do not make a distinction between the army and private contractors. So, when contractors -- who are not accountable as the army is -- commit crimes or mayhem, it is often the enlisted troops who bear the casualties in retaliation attacks.

My, but that slope looks slippery.

In war, it seems, there are only bad choices and worse choices.

It appears that Blackwater and its brethren provide a needed service. In fact, according to military sources, there is no way America could sustain its effort in the Middle East without them. They seem to be the go-to guys for everything from staunching drug traffic in South America, to mob control in disasters like New Orleans, to corporate security off shore.

But here's the thing: If we privatize our military, and if that private army owns the government who pays it to operate, how much control do we as a nation have over our own war machine?

* Transcript, Interview with Jeremy Scahill. Bill Moyers Journal, October 19 2007
* Jeremy Scahill on Blackwater
* Blackwater's Beginnings
* Blackwater: Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

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