The word "mercenary" evokes unsavory images—first of individuals who care only about money—as much money as they can wheedle out of whatever job they perform, no matter how repulsive; second of hired guns—professional killers who do the lethal work of soldiering not out of patriotism or honor, but, again, for the greenbacks. No wonder, then, that the Bush Administration and its Pentagon have been so careful to describe the current incarnation of the type as "contractors." The implication then becomes: Iraq needs American know-how, and our 130,000 "contractors" are doing the necessary and dangerous work of nation-and-infrastructure building.
Trouble is, it’s all a sham, a cover story we wouldn’t know much about were it not for Jeremy Scahill’s recent book, Blackwater. Blackwater is a name familiar to many Americans, but again, with connotations of innocent Americans, "contractors," four of whom were viciously attacked, killed, mutilated, and strung up from a bridge in Fallujah. This outrage became an instant cause celebre, an act for which the whole city was righteously punished, destroyed by righteously vengeful American marines. Yea for our side! Only that Jeremy Scahill explains that the cruelty and disproportionality of that response really marked the beginning of the full-scale insurgency that has turned Iraq into a graveyard of American hopes. In doing so, he portrays a reality that most Americans would rather deny.
America is, after all, the good guy nation fielding not just a good guy military, but one so lean and efficient and high-tech that it can conquer an entire country with only 140,000 troops, all volunteers, not a draftee among them, hence no need for complainers, no need for big mouth, pampered, college-educated draft dodgers with pampered parents and friends to demonstrate against the good and just wars that must be fought.
Except that, once again, the "good boy lean mean military" sham fails. It fails because there’s Blackwater, Scahill tells us, one of more than 100 private "security forces" operating in Iraq. And these are decidedly not volunteers, or patriots. These are mercenaries—paid thugs, as many as 100,000 of them, who do the sensitive jobs the military either cannot or will not do. Guarding the VIPs who come to see Iraq’s progress themselves. Guarding, when he was our bumbling pro-Consul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. Guarding, even today, the Commanding General in charge of the surge, General Petraeus.
Wait? Is this a joke? The head of our vaunted military, the putatively most powerful military machine ever assembled, being guarded by private mercenaries?
That’s right. The land of the free, the land of the liberty-loving patriot willing to die for his country, the land distinguished by a military which is, because of its control by civilians and its corps of citizen-soldiers, the fairest and most intelligent and inventive armed force in the world—that land has become the land of the mercenary. Where once our revolutionary founders condemned the nations of Europe as despotisms headed by cruel monarchs who led their huddled masses into war and death for their own profit and glory, now our putative leaders betray that tradition by "privatizing" their vicious little wars for profit and glory. And they privatize for the same reasons monarchs once did: citizens soon grow sick of dying for the exclusive benefit of their rulers. Only by paying their troops can kings and emperors maintain their military machines. Hence the term, "mercenary." It was, and is a term of opprobrium, a term that conjures up images of cold-hearted killers engaging in slaughter purely for the money.
So we have Blackwater. An army for hire. An army of ex-special forces, green beret, navy seal rejects who now command salaries many times that of a poor volunteer in our all-volunteer army. And they have roamed free of oversight and accountability not only in Iraq, though that is their defining mission. They also showed up on the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, strutting their stuff as self-defined protectors of property allegedly endangered by the riff-raff rendered homeless and desperate. According to Scahill, these Blackwater guards were making $350 a day, while their blackguard company was picking up $950 a day from the United States Government for their services.
A nice little windfall for their founder and CEO, Erik Prince—as well as for George W. Bush, one of Prince’s major beneficiaries, along with the Christian Right’s Gary Bauer and James Dobson. All of which makes for a nice circular windfall. Because it’s not only that our American empire now hires mercenaries to bilk the public into thinking its military’s losses are less than they are, its footprint smaller than it is, its war expenses orders of magnitude less than they really are. It’s that the circle of nepotism and collusion and privatization and political payoffs runs deep into the heart of the entire crooked, putrefying enterprise. Including the fact, Mr. and Mrs. America, that this private mercenary army includes not just the profiteers siphoned from our own military, but also gangs of imported killers trained by our infamous allies in places like Colombia and Chile. Chile, which refused to participate in our disastrous venture into Iraq, but whose support is secured through the back door by the now-rejected military spawn of Disgusto Pinochet—all hired and cozy with Blackwater.
So beware. When a republic is transformed from a citizen army to an army of mercenaries—as Rome was late in the days of its rotting empire—the end is near.
PS: a late news story on Friday April 27 in the McClatchy newspapers reported that "House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Rep. David Price of North Carolina, both Democrats, asked the Government Accountability Office to provide details on the use of private security contractors in Iraq," this because Congress has literally no idea what these people are doing.