Blackwater Incident: A (Spineless) Taxpayer’s Rant

This is not a political blog. And I am not trying to make a political statement. But the Blackwater incident in Iraq from last weekend just doesn’t sit well with me. So, here is my rant. Do with it what you wish.

Here is what bothers me – Blackwater employees who are just regular citizens of America like you and me, shot and killed the citizens of another sovereign country Iraq, on their own soil. Now, since Blackwater is not part of the military, those responsible cannot be court martialled under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Since they are not on US soil, the US laws do not apply to them. They cannot be tried by the Iraqi legal system due to the provisions of the Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 in 2004. [source1, source2] And who paid for this mercenary operation that is above and beyond the reach of any law? You and me – the clueless, hapless, (spineless) taxpayers!

Blackwater was founded in 1997 by an ex Navy Seal with a keen entrepreneurial bent of mind. As a for-profit private organization that trains and provides security to diplomats, Blackwater has supposedly increased its profit by over 300% during the past few years. Finding its profit statements on the Internet is not very easy, but according to the wikipedia entry, during the past few years, Blackwater has received over 500 million dollars in government contracts (many of them being no-bid contracts)! While I was reading about Blackwater and its founder and trying to wrap my brain around the number of zeros in the financial figures involved, I couldn't help but visualize the smug face of Nicholas Cage from the movie Lord of War.

Frankly, I don’t know whether companies like Blackwater do a great service to the country (as their website claims) or they are mercenaries without a conscience. In the words of U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker [told to the U.S. Senate]: "There is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq. There is no alternative except through contracts." [source]. The Blackwater employees do put their lives in harms way every single day and have suffered the chilling consequences more than once [Fallujah Ambush, Other Incidents]. In matters of war and conflict, the facts are so hazy and every story has so many sides that it becomes hard to make any judgment. That said I wish my hard earned money did not go into funding hazy operations flirting with the boundary between good an evil. I work hard for every penny and wish my tax dollars would go into projects where the benefits are clearly observable like improving the schools or the health care system or the public transport system.

I know I ought to be more involved and more active in the political decision making process, and yet I am not. I know I ought to question and hold the politicians who use my tax contributions accountable for their action and yet I don’t. I live my comfortable suburban life with my cushy job socializing with my equally clueless friends. Until the day the war is brought home by someone who straps on a dozen bombs (or flies an airplane) in a desperate and deliberate attempt to kill people who are near and dear to me. He is on a suicide mission because he does not have anything to live for. His father / mother / brother / sister / wife / child was “collateral damage” in a war funded by my money and he just could not find any other way to snap me out of my idyllic apathy and make me take notice.

And so, just this once when my conscience is pricked and I have decided to at least rant things out, let me come out and say - Please, stop using my tax dollars for funding your meaningless wars. And don’t tell me it is for freedom and democracy – I may be spineless, but I am not dumb.

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Juan said...

You should see this documentary, it talks about the contractors who are benefiting from the Iraq war, who are their owners and the revenue they have got.

It's shameful for me knowing that there are people gaining insane amounts of money at the expense of another country's destruction, while the government just looks the other way and keeps funding these companies.

xshanex said...

just a couple things I wanted to touch on as I have been discussing this a lot lately.

-mercenaries are normally defined as civilians for hire that perform offensive rather than defensive operations. A more correct term would be PMC or private military company

-nice catch on the legality of their action and the limbo that contractors are in. They are not under the Department of Defense so can't be under the UCMJ and don't fall under Iraqi law due to agreements with the Iraqi government. MEJA might apply along with some other legal stuff if it was a formally declared war which it still isn't

PMCs are also known as security contractors, although this term usually refers to individuals employed or contracted by PMCs. Services are mainly rendered for other business corporations, international and non-governmental organizations, and state forces.

Private military companies are sometimes grouped into the general category of defense contractors. However, most defense contractors supply specialized hardware and perhaps also personnel to support and service that hardware, whereas PMCs supply personnel with specialized operational and tactical skills, which often include combat experience.

"The 1949 Third Geneva Convention (GCIII) does not recognize the difference between defense contractors and PMCs; it defines a category called supply contractors. If the supply contractor has been issued with a valid identity card from the armed forces which they accompany, they are entitled to be treated as prisoners of war upon capture (GCIII Article 4.1.4). If, however, the contractor engages in combat, he/she can be classified as a mercenary by the captors under the 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I) Article 47.c, unless falling under an exemption to this clause in Article 47. If captured contractors are found to be mercenaries, they are unlawful combatants and lose the right to prisoner of war status. Protocol I was not ratified by the United States because, among other issues, it does not require "freedom Fighters" to obey the convention in order to be granted its protections"

this wikipedia entry is a more realistic view of the broad range of work that contractors perform

-depending on who you talk to the numbers for contractors is above 100k but the amount of them providing security is 10% of that at best spread over many companies. Many biased papers and new sources would have you believe that there is 150k people toting around guns and performing security work. The vast majority are making meals, buildings, working on tanks/trucks, supply, maintaining computers, fixing infrastructure, and various other positions in the rear as support for troops or rebuilding.

-of course companies are making money over there...the billable rates (amount the government charges per person/job) over there are insane due to the difficulty in finding qualified people willing to work in a combat zone. You're not going to find someone working for $50k a year and a 401k over there. Figure salary plus 50% for benefits/carrying costs for an employee and then company profit. A position paying $100k there would cost the company an extra $50k+ for overhead and then anything over the $150k is profit for the company...the government might pay $300k for that aka the billable...thats for a low level slot and not for a person on a private security detail like the blackwater guys. The amount the employee of the company gets paid of the billable varies wildly depending on the type of work and how the contract is written. A rough estimate would be that as a contractor you might make 3x what you would state-side

-the reality is that contractors are essential in an increasingly technologically sophisticated military/government as they provide a wide range of services which either cannot be found/maintained in the government/military or which are only needed over the short-term and thus not worth investing in training and developing skills over a period of a couple years...hence the contract. I would personally love to be a government worker as it ensures much greater stability/flexibility over the long term and allow me to become and expert in my field rather than working on a contract. When it ends I'm out of a job and can only hope that my company will transfer me or I can find something else as I bounce around for the next 32 years between contracts

-the majority of contractors are working very hard over there to do what they can to help. The actions of a few contractors from small companies are making people think that all companies operate that way which is simply not true. With established companies on competitivally bid contracts there is tremendous amounts of oversight and accountability

sorry for the realllly long post

ispf said...

Juan: Thanks for the link. I will check it out tonight.

xshanex: First of all, thanks for the long comment. I really enjoyed reading it.

I read the wiki entry about PMC's and several other articles about the good work some of the PMCs are doing while writing the article yesterday - and that diffused my anger and helpless feeling a little bit (and made the final article a lot more mellower than what it started out being :) I understand that its just a handful of contractors that are giving the rest of them a bad name. That said, I don't believe civilians from one country (some news sources claim several Blackwater employees are Chilean who served under the dictator Pinochet!) should ever be allowed to carry heavy firearms on the soils of another country, period. In war-torn places, where the chances for mistakes are high, this is just asking for trouble! And putting them in a situation where they are above any law - just doesn't make sense! Power corrupts even the best of the people and this is an incredible position to put people with possible violent nature (hired guns) to be put in!

Like I mentioned in the article, I don't know what is really happening in Iraq beyond what the media portrays, but I sure would not want my tax dollars to go into funding private contractors that carry firearms in areas filled with regular civilians who probably just want to get on with their lives as I do, and not have to worry about random strangers (from some other country) starting to shoot at them (and kill them!) randomly!

golbguru said...

I have views on the general political/war situation, but I would rather not discuss them here.

About this particular Blackwater incident - it reminds me of the movie "Rules of Engagement". After analyzing the situation through third party eyes, I end up asking myself: What would I have done if I were in that situation? what would my instincts be? - the answers make me really uncomfortable. :)

Patrick said...

I have heard the Blackwater estimates at almost $1 billion in total contracts since Sept 11th. I don't know what they are in actuality, but I'm sure they are astronomical.

As a former military member who has deployed to the Middle East several times, I can attest to the fact that there are numerous contractors at every deployed location, doing an endless supply of jobs. And they are needed. There simply aren't enough military members to handle every task that needs done.

In my personal opinion, I don't believe the US should pay American civilians to carry weapons in another country. If you want a top notch security detail - train the military. That is what they are for. As far as the other political aspects, I won't touch that. They are too complicated to get into.