Who should do the killing? Civilians or soldiers, government employees or private contractors? Does it even matter? Should it even matter? Does a decorated soldier become a villain when he performs the same actions in the same war as a contractor? Are some jobs, to use the standard idiom, “inherently governmental?”
This is the fundamental question posed in the new memoir, Civilian Warriors, by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. It may be buried under layers of legal defense and rationalizing and being “done keeping quiet” and setting the record straight, but it is a worthy one, and a debate worth having, if Prince could get out of his own way.
As a candidate twenty years ago, President Clinton made “reinventing government” part of his campaign platform, gave Vice-President Gore the task of making government more efficient via the National Performance Review. Competent public administration is never sexy, and the NPR had a mixed and mostly forgotten record, but one piece of it has endured: the drive to privatize government functions. And while cities and counties kept police and fire departments sacrosanct and argued whether trash collectors were “inherently governmental,” the federal government quietly contracted out military food service then transportation then building maintenance then training then security then killing. A great beneficiary of the last three, to the tune of $2 billion, was Blackwater.
Does Prince find any functions inherently governmental? He thinks the distinction quaint. “I’ve watched that line in the sand shift far too much for it to act as any sort of standard,” he writes.
Readers who care about such things will have plenty of material to start a new debate about what contractors should or should not be allowed to do. A book by the founder of a company like Blackwater could have been many things: creation myth, mea culpa, score settler, grandstand. What it has turned out to be is a full-throated defense of the contractor system as a whole.
On some level, all honest memoir is the public airing of the story we tell ourselves. It may be a ruthless self-recrimination or positive revision, but either way that revealed internal story tells us something of the character of the writer. So while there is far more promotion than soul’s dark night in “Civilian Warriors,” if nothing else we do get some sense of how Prince views himself.
He is a fighter and he wins, in combat or in the court room, even when he’s battling the families of his own slain employees.
He is a self-sufficient hard worker, and so is his family. His grandmother “sought no government handouts” when his grandfather died, his father started his multi-billion dollar company from scratch, his SEAL training class “had it even worse than many” but he persevered, he built Blackwater because of hard work and not inherited riches.
But most of all he is the great rescuer. He was a firefighter in college. When he was thirteen he and his father rescued the passengers of a crippled boat on Lake Huron. He rescues the US government when they cannot do a job for themselves. Blackwater airdropped supplies to stranded soldiers of the 82nd Airborne for free until the Air Force provided a contract.
Prince invested $6 million of his own money to open the Blackwater campus in Moyock, North Carolina in 1998. He was happy his first client (a SEAL team from California) paid the $25,000 bill with a credit card because they needed the cash flow. The company scrimped and saved, and the wife of one manager helped out with the accounting books. “Blackwater didn’t have some unlimited cash spigot to drink from,” Prince writes, but these challenges seem self-imposed, less financial reality and more a desire to his live up to his father’s example. Whatever the motivation, the hardscrabble myth would be more compelling if we didn’t know he and his family had not just made $1.35 billion on the sale of his late father’s company.
Plenty of well-financed ventures fail, though, and Blackwater was just a regional shooting school until the USS Cole was bombed in 2000 and the Navy determined it needed a new training program to teach sailors to guard ships in port. Up until that point Blackwater had only trained a total 3,000 students in three years, but it won the contract, and would go on to train 20,000 sailors in six months, a feat the company is justifiably proud of. More contracts poured in from there.
Business exploded during the Iraq War, and Blackwater made its reputation guarding State Department VIPs. Prince makes the credible argument (though he never quite says this directly) that security and contracting requirements were such that some company was doomed to have that reputation. That if it wasn’t his private contractor teams aggressively defending State Department convoys it would have been another acting the same way. That his company was hired to do a job that no one else in the world at that time could do, including the US government. That they rolled heavy in Baghdad because the State Department told them to. That if you’re mad private contractors kill civilians in a war zone, get mad at the government who hired them. Don’t hate the player, hate the game; Blackwater was just following the rules.
And what rules they are. The main portion of this book is dominated with legal proceedings, reviews of rules of engagement, defenses of actions and non-actions by his contractors in various situations and under the auspices of a variety of contracts. When four Blackwater employees were killed and their bodies hung from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004, Blackwater was accused of being too lax and poorly armed. When their contractors engaged in the infamous firefight that killed seventeen (Prince says eleven) civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007, Blackwater was too aggressive and heavy-handed. An exasperated Prince defends the specific, but in the general he points again to the rules of his employers.
Facebook would describe Prince’s relationship with the US government as complicated. He doesn’t have much good to say about presidents not named Reagan. He is quick to remind readers that he got his big start under President Clinton, and that despite the rhetoric, the Obama administration has continued to provide contracts. He thinks the witch hunt against Blackwater is a way for politicians to be against the war but not against the troops. He is a champion of private sector solutions but his clients are nearly all massive government agencies, calling the State Department, the CIA, and the Department of Defense, his “Big Three.”
Prince and his co-author David Coburn manage to make this a very readable tale, better written than many such memoirs that rely more on bravado or cliché than wordsmithing. The story picks up during firefights and dramatic rescues, though perhaps ironically such war stories are almost never Prince’s. He was turned down by the CIA, had a very short career as a SEAL serving in Haiti and Bosnia under unpleasant but comparatively quiet situations, and was present on few high profile Blackwater missions. For most of the book Prince is CEO not soldier, and regularly uses legal terms, like “discovery,” perhaps a consequence of being sued so often in the last decade.
A close reader might feel tempted to keep Google handy, either to fact check claims that are heavily referenced but feel incomplete, or because of distinctions such as this: Prince deflects charges that he counter-sued the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah. That’s preposterous, he says, he would “never have sued those families.” But he does countersue the corporations set up by the lawyers of the families that allow them to gain standing in North Carolina. It’s a legal maneuver and distinction that means little outside of a court, and is in direct contrast to the most genuinely human moment of the book: his initial grief in 2004 upon hearing of the news, and realization that with his father and wife dead, he has no one to go to for support. If Prince parses and compartmentalizes facts such as these, then what else is he leaving out?
But more than any complete factual picture, what’s lacking in this book is an appreciation of how Blackwater fits into the last dozen years of war except in the most narrow and legal way. Blackwater is part of the DoD’s “Total Force”—active duty, reserve, civilian, contractor—and considers itself the “sixth branch” of the military, but seemingly in money and manpower, not spirit. The US government’s mission was to stabilize Iraq, but Blackwater’s mission did not seem to extend beyond protecting the principals in their care, no matter the cost.
Prince is a patriot, no doubt, but one that seems to never have bought into the big picture beyond his slice of the pie. This failure to understand how Blackwater and companies like it affected the overall war effort is revealed in a small mistake on the first page of the introduction.
The book opens in December of 2003 with the story of an ambush of the convoy of Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer. Highly trained Blackwater contractors are guarding Mr. Bremer, and with a minimum of firepower and maximum of evasion, they elude the ambush and no one is hurt. Prince describes the route they were driving, the road between the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport, as the “Highway of Death,” and says “For years, insurgents had effectively owned the five or so miles.”
Except that this is only 2003, and insurgents had not owned anything for years. Months perhaps. And in news reports, the title “Highway of Death” doesn’t appear until 2005. The route Bremer traveled was unsafe for sure, but statistically would get much worse, after years of car bombs, American missteps, failed programs, and Sunni and Shia violence.
Rather than a small typo, this comment reveals a worldview. Some always saw Iraq, as Winston Churchill famously put it in 1922, as an “ungrateful volcano” predestined for backwardness and chaos no matter our actions. In this view, Iraq was a timeless Groundhog Day of pain, and America and her soldiers have always just done the best they could in a bad situation, managed a mess since the problem was unfixable. As a veteran of the war, I admit my gut finds instant unexamined sympathy here.
But others see cause and effect, say that violence was not inevitable, and that we collectively played creator. In this view, a company may succeed when principals are protected, but a country’s wars are lost by the accumulation of a thousand slights and mistakes. We reaped what we sowed. Blackwater is more symptom than disease, but a warning all the same.