Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Prince of Mercenaries -- Bush's private army

By Ken Hart
I’m nearly done reading a great book from last year, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. A few things pop right out:

1. George Washington was a goddamn two-fisted action hero. The first-person accounts of his leadership and valor in battle are amazing and fill you with patriotic pride.
2. My resident state of New Jersey is brimming with American history -- a fact unknown to many New Jerseyans.
3. The British sure used a LOT of mercenaries.

To bolster its own army in the early days of the Revolutionary War, England chose a familiar path: It hired soldiers from Germany, mostly from the state of Hesse-Kassel. They made up about one-quarter of the British forces. Most of the Hessians were professional soldiers; others were unwillingly dragged into service by press gangs.

Regardless, these men fought bravely, by most accounts. Even Washington thought so. But after winning its independence, the United States chose not to adopt the British model. Despite the many wars that followed, America – to my knowledge – has never hired thousands of mercenaries to take the place of its soldiers in the front lines of battle.

Until now. And that brings us to Iraq. There are approximately 10,000 “private security” people in that country. About one-tenth of those are from Blackwater.

I’m not going to go into the details of the disputed shooting of civilians by Blackwater personnel on September 16. (You can get the latest info here.) Let’s fast-forward to yesterday’s House testimony by Blackwater founder and chairman Erik Prince, who criticized the description of his soldiers-for-hire as mercenaries:

"A lot of people call us mercenaries," he added. "We are Americans, working for Americans, protecting Americans."

Here’s the Webster’s definition of “mercenary”:
one that serves merely for wages; especially : a soldier hired into foreign service

Hmmm, interesting. But you know, I should check with the British – after all, they have more historical experience than we do. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “mercenary” as:
a soldier who fights for any country or group that pays them

Wow, now that’s what I love about the British – no ambiguity! Blackwater’s Prince tried to push the distinction that his men are “contractors,” not “mercenaries,” but the English language – and common sense – show that he’s blowing gunsmoke.

Still, if Blackwater were following military rules of engagement and if they had fairly secured this lucrative gig of protecting State Department personnel (Blackwater receives $1.1 billion in federal contracts), then what’s the harm, right? Well, unfortunately, it seems they’re not beholden to any legal rules. The U.S. government says that Blackwater doesn’t have to answer to Iraqi “justice” (such as it is) for the incident, and neither do Blackwater and its employees appear to be in any legal trouble in America over the September 16 shooting. This is partially due to the fact that U.S. laws regarding merce... I mean, “private security contractors” are murky. That needs to change.

As for how it got the Iraq job in the first place, no surprises here: Like Halliburton, another heavy contributor to GOP coffers, Blackwater was given a no-bid contract. And like Halliburton, Blackwater is embarrassing the U.S. and causing problems for our troops with its arrogance. In addition to the political contributions, the Bush Administration put companies like Blackwater to work because then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was determined to win the Iraq conflict on the cheap, i.e., if fewer actual troops were involved, then he could juggle the numbers and his dream of a lighter, faster, cheaper (but not necessarily better) military would be realized. And that was fine with the White House, since fewer actual soldiers in harm’s way back then would mean fewer U.S. military deaths and less pressure back home.

It doesn’t seem to have worked out all that well.


Dave in Denver said...

Anyone thatf ollows history knows that the use of large numbers of mercenaries is a prescription for disaster. It was the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.

Carter McCoy said...

Excellent insights Mr. Hart.