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Hired Guns

The Blackwater trial presents an opportunity to reflect on the way we make war

By James M. Larkin, None

A mercenary is a mercenary, whether or not we call him a contractor. And the trade of the firm once called Blackwater USA—today re-branded as Blackwater Worldwide—is to provide soldiers of fortune (or security specialists) to whoever may need them. As Americans and Iraqis both try to process one of the most horrific happenings of the war thus far, they might be thankful for the clarity a little candor can bring.

In the wake of the 2007 incident in which six such guards were responsible for the murders of 17 innocent Iraqis on a drive through Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, company spokespeople and the Pentagon have endlessly reminded the American public of the special exigencies of war, and the vital role that entities like Blackwater have in filling the gaps that an overstretched military cannot plug on its own.

These institutional attempts at deflection have been drowned out of late, as the facts of the incident float to the surface and the shadow of guilt extends over the men in question in anticipation of their upcoming trial. The outraged families of the dead and injured that day may, it would appear, be vindicated; as part of a plea bargain, one of the guards has confessed that the suspicious sedan and “small arms fire” conjured in the gunners’ debriefings presented nothing of a threat to the convoy. This was less a firefight than a chaotic massacre of civilians, featuring bursts of turret fire and the senseless use of grenade launchers.

While we may not know the verdict in the case of the remaining five guards for days or weeks, it seems likely that they will be prosecuted, even made into examples, given the current strength of the prosecution. But will justice have been served if these five men, once proven guilty, are imprisoned? Or does that constitute another displacement, another failure to diagnose a systemic disorder underlying its most egregious symptoms?

The very fact that Blackwater guards like the five being presently indicted for voluntary manslaughter are, along with the almost 200,000 other defense contractors currently employed in Iraq, technically outside Iraqi jurisdiction until Jan. 1 of next year, should start to provide answers to these questions. Unfettered by the chain of command and court-martial and outside the reach of the nascent Iraqi government, these mercenaries, specifically commissioned to provide security instead of standard U.S. armed forces, went about for years almost totally free of accountability. It’s almost surprising that the 2007 shootings and the few ugly and baseless murders that preceded it were the anomalies they seem to be.

But as long as the investigation of the mercenary problem isn’t allowed to proceed upward, beyond the bad split-second decisions or the personal failings to which it has been limited thus far, we have learned little. The inward complicity of the military-industrial complex in creating a situation in which hired guns, American and otherwise, were allowed to operate free of repercussions in a war zone bespeaks the destructive logic and the hubris that have prevailed since the invasion.

The employment of Blackwater’s soldiers of fortune is problematic not only at those rare intervals when the contractors commit violent crimes against civilians, but always and inherently. As the architects of the war in Iraq maintained that they would respect the sovereignty of the elected Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki and insisted that economic motives could not be further from their minds, the massive army of legally immune private contractors that war effort came to require visibly undermined their every claim.

The Blackwater incident in 2007 was no My Lai, and we can be grateful that no such massacre has apparently occurred in Iraq. But the ‘war on terror’ ought always to have been conducted as much a cultural, humanitarian, and moral campaign as a military conflict. What President Bush’s White House never recognized is that the roots of militant Islam could always be traced back to the very sort of careless and baseless military intervention that it ended up endorsing. The war in Iraq may not be the imperialistic oil-grab some on the left have evoked, but the indignation and dissembling with which its leaders have responded to the mercenary problem certainly does little to combat that perception—at home or in the nurseries of anti-American agitators.


James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

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