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Book Review: Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill December 5, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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Before a friend of mine lent me Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, I knew very little about the privatised military sector and how much it has come to dominate the world we live in.

Written by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater is an epic expose of Blackwater USA, a private military company founded by right wing Christian evangelist Erik Prince.  Blackwater is one of the most powerful mercenary armies in the world, with billions of dollars of contracts with the US Government for “security” services provided in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’ve been getting into non-fiction a lot more recently, so this is definitely a book I would recommend to those who have a fascination with the “war on terror” and questions why anyone would want to voluntarily go into a warzone to risk their lives and, for lack of a better term, so they can shoot people.  Blackwater is a frightening, chilling, and often infuriating account of how Blackwater USA began as a rural shooting range and developed into a powerful international force with enough firepower to take down entire countries by itself (not to mention a well-oiled money-making and publicity machine) — and something the US Government cannot operate without.

And according to Scahill, this is where the problem lies (or at least use to lie), because the Government’s dependence on private contractors means that companies like Blackwater USA can do whatever they want and operate above the law.  On the one hand, they are given immunity from prosecution back in the US because they are considered military, and as such, given the same constitutional protections.  But on the other hand, because they are a private company, they cannot be subject to court martials like members of the US Army — the worst that can happen for killing innocent civilians is losing their jobs.

This is the core of Scahill’s argument — when you put a bunch of macho, trigger-happy mercenaries in a foreign country with a heavy power imbalance and give them immunity from prosecution, atrocities are bound to happen.  And they have.

So of course, Scahill is determined to paint Blackwater USA as the bad guys.  The soldiers are depicted as steroid injecting, muscle bound Schwarzenegger clones dressed in khakis, wearing wraparound sunglasses and armed with massive guns that they are willing to discharge at the drop of a hat.  They are former high school bullies and adrenaline junkies that always want to be “where the action is”.

The businessmen and politicans behind the scenes are extremely wealthy and well-connected right wing Christian extremists who genuinely believe every word of the Bible is literal and the United States and George W Bush were chosen by God to lead Christianity over “barbaric” Islam — by killing all of them.  They are men who make fortunes by sending others into battle in the name of God, patriotism, liberation and democracy — but have no problem skimping on protective measures for the soldiers for the sake of the saving a buck.

Given the “so crazy it must be true” material, Blackwater is, as expected, a cracking good read.  Scahill’s research is broad, varied and meticulous, creating a volume that is encyclopaedic in scope.  The best parts of the book are where Scahill describes in gruesome and cinematic detail the two biggest incidents in Blackwater USA history — the ambush, death and mutilation of four Blackwater USA contractors in Fallujah that sparked its ascension to prominence, and the Nisour Square massacre that saw 17 civilians gunned down without provocation by Blackwater soldiers in Baghdad which led to Blackwater USA’s Iraqi licence being revoked.

The rest of the 500+ page book (with small font and surprisingly few paragraph breaks) is mainly exposition that covers just about everything you would possibly want to know about Blackwater USA.  Apart from how it began, how it rose to power and how it got to where it is today, Blackwater provides several lengthy biographical sketches of some of the company’s key figures, such as its founder Erik Prince and former CIA hotshot Cofer Black.  It also goes into Blackwater USA’s shady recruitment business in countries with questionable human rights records in South America, including soldiers that fought in America’s “dirty wars” and were involved in “death squads”.  One aspect many people probably don’t know about is Blackwater USA’s involvement in non-war ventures, such as after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquakes in Haiti and in Dafur.  As Scahill suggests, these operations were all about money, even though Blackwater USA would make you believe that it was all about “stabilisation”, “peace” and “humanitarism”.

To me, while it was fascinating to read about all of these things, it did get a little tedious at times because there was simply too much information, especially in the second half where there was no clear progressive structure.  It was as though Scahill needed to throw in every single piece of information he uncovered about Blackwater USA, rather than picking out the most pertinent parts and sculpting it into a more compelling story.

The other thing I would have liked is a little more balance in the storytelling.  Scahill is consistently scathing in his portrayal of Blackwater USA — for good reason of course — but at times he came across as too cynical, too emotionally invested.  He was constantly pointing out the money Blackwater USA was making, the cronyism, and how the company continuously flouted the law — but surely Blackwater has done some good for the sake of doing good, and not merely for good publicity?  And even if we accept Blackwater USA as evil — what is a realistic solution?  What is the alternative?

These are the things I would have liked Scahill to explore more, but notwithstanding these criticisms, Blackwater is still a fascinating and insightful read that should appeal to enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike.

3.75 stars out of 5

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