Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blackwater Seeks Whitewater

For things to remain the same, we must change.” This quote is from an aristocratic Italian landowner who painfully attempts to adopt to socioeconomic change wrought by Garibaldi's revolution in 19th century Italy. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was uttered by Burt Lancaster in his role of a powerfully rich magnet in the film THE LEOPARD, based on Lampedusa's novel by the same name.

This week the mercenary guns-for-hire, paramilitary, private corporation Blackwater, decided to change its name to Xe, pronounced zee. It even changed its logo from an aggressive, in-your-face imprint of a bear's paw to an innocuous abstract presentation of the Xe. Too bad it did not use Runic letters to project the Xe, as was done sometimes in the Third Reich; at least, it would honestly embody its tarnished history. Its new almost algebraic formulation attempts to shift attention from its grizzly past. Previous to its bear's paw logo, Blackwater used a depiction of cross hairs on a rifle scope to intimidate more – surprised they never used a necklace made of human ears.

Though Blackwater was founded in 1997, it was for the most part dormant, in a cocoon stage, until it was hatched by GW Bush for combat in the Iraq War. It is now history that the Pentagon had over committed US forces by fighting two wars simultaneously. To deepen the depth of its forces, it turned to civilian contractors to man nearly all logistic missions; the logistic train had to be secured and contractors adapted easily to this additional security function.

Right now there are roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq; there are over that many contractors. Though Blackwater is a small percentage of these, it is by far the most controversial. So controversial that it has become the bête noire for contractors in Iraq.

We first hear of Blackwater in Iraq in the initial Coalition Government. It served as a Praetorian Guard to the lost soul, Bremer; the American Caesar. During this period it had four members killed in Fallujah, Iraq. Their bodies were burned by insurgents with parts dangled from a steel bridge across the Tigris river. Still today, Blackwater cannot explain sufficiently why their men were in Fallujah. Members of the victims' families have sued Blackwater for failing to protect the men.

As a response, Bremer ordered punitive action against the populace of Fallujah. This was followed later by a second battle by the USMC that killed over one thousand Iraqis and effectively razed the city. The damage was so extensive that it ranks with the destruction category given to Grozny and Stalingrad. The careless, gruesome initial Blackwater incident was to spark a whole chain of dreadful actions. The deadly smashing of Fallujah still remains as a brooding cause célèbre among the Iraqi insurgent Sunnis.

Blackwater remained in Iraq after Bremer's departure, working under a State Department contract to provide security for the embassy and State Department projects. It replaced the customary USMC embassy guards. It is estimated that each private contractor costs six times that of a US enlisted man in Iraq.

Blackwater gorged itself on no-bid contracts and as other contractors, it operated in Iraq with immunity from legal restraints by the US military, US government or Iraqi authority. For example, though not members of Blackwater, about 50% of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib were private contractors.

Blackwater was associated with arms smuggling, but the straw that broke the camel's back was its slaughter of at least 12 Iraqi civilians at Nisour square in Baghdad. The Iraqi government was enraged over the incident and the US State Department did not renew its contract that ends May of 2009. At least four Blackwater members are in legal jeopardy, but under what jurisdiction remains questionable. Congress has investigated the issues, but has failed to take action. However Blackwater, over a period of time, has fired 25-30 people for drunkenness and other disciplinary problems, some of which involved violence.

Though the concept of privatization of government functions by the Republicans is well understood, this theory when applied to armed security organizations remains especially contentious. In Iraq, Blackwater operations, along with other contractors, destroyed the effectiveness of the unity of command and caused enormous coordination problems with military operations as it skirted command and control. Blackwater competitively attracted skilled special forces personnel from the military with much higher pay. Their presence, serving alongside military personnel with similar missions at considerably lower pay, caused morale problems and friction with service personnel.

The surprising thing was that General Powell and his deputy Armitage at the State Department, both having served as military men, signed contracts with Blackwater without its inclusion in the command structure of the Iraq theater of operations. Both were graduates of the chaos in the command structure of the Vietnam War; they should have understood the detrimental implications.

Blackwater also was to provide US internal security during the anarchy of Katrina, mainly against looters. In this case, I prefer to let the constitutional lawyers to grope with the issue of using private forces against public criminals under the aegis of the US government.

By changing its name and logo, Blackwater has also foresworn the mission of serving as guns-for-hire. It will concentrate instead on just training guns-for-hire; their clients will include foreign nationals. As soon as a Xe advisor is shot at and returns fire, the company is right back in its past blood-letting security game. For me, it will always be Blackwater a.k.a. Xe –"for things to remain the same we must change" and that is what happened at Blackwater.

The Blackwater men consciously risked their lives for federal pay; there is nothing noble about this and no one questions their bravery. Doubt the USA got their money’s worth when balanced against the harm they caused. Colonel Robert E Bartos USA Ret.

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