Punishing the cowboys: Blackwater, justice, and easier wars

By Charlie de Rivaz:

A Blackwater Little Bird Helicopter flies over the Republican Palace in Baghdad, December 2007. Photo: jamesdale10 (CC 2.0)
A Blackwater helicopter flies over the Republican Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, December 2007. Photo: jamesdale10 (CC 2.0)

On Monday, four former employees of Blackwater, the notorious private US military contractor, were sentenced for the killing of 14 unarmed civilians and the wounding of 17 more in Iraq in 2007.

Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard each received 30 years in prison after being found guilty of several charges of voluntary and attempted manslaughter. Nicholas Slatten, the team’s sniper, was sentenced to life for first-degree murder for his part in the killings, which took place while the four men were working as part of a security detail for the US State Department.

Slatten began the massacre by firing at the civilian occupants of a car caught up in traffic at the roundabout in Nisour Square, Baghdad. In the ensuing confusion three armoured vehicles opened fire, strafing the cars and pedestrians in and around the square with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers, causing what the lead prosecutor described as ‘a shocking amount of death, injury and destruction’. The defendants’ claim that they believed they were under attack did not convince the jury, who convicted them in October 2014.

After Nisour Square

In the fallout from the massacre in Nisour Square, Blackwater was blocked from providing diplomatic security in Iraq – the so-called ‘cowboys’ were sent home. Indeed, you might have expected a general cooling off in the relationship between the private security companies and state militaries.

But there’s been nothing of the kind. Between 2008 and 2011 there were more military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than soldiers. Compare this to the First Gulf War, when there was one contractor to every hundred soldiers. [i] Most of the contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan were working in logistics: building bases, doing the laundry, cooking the food. But a significant chunk – 18% in 2012[ii] – were involved in providing security, exactly what Slough, Liberty, Heard and Slatten were supposed to be doing on that fateful day in Nisour Square.

Even Blackwater is still involved, albeit under a new – less threatening – name: ‘Academi’. As part of the failed counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan, Academi has received $309 million from the US government. Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder, escaped any liability for what happened in Nisour Square and is now gallivanting around Africa for Chinese mining, oil and gas companies as part of his new outfit, Frontier Services Group. In the war against ISIS, Prince has called for the US government to ‘let the private sector finish the job’.

Rotten apples?

The use of private military contractors by governments has increased, not decreased, since the Nisour Square massacre. But does it really matter? After all, weren’t Slatten and co. just a few rotten apples, caught up in the heat of the moment?

It is difficult to know how many ‘rotten apples’ are working for private military companies. In 2012, Faiza Patel, then Head of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, claimed that the rot was widespread, alleging that private military contractors had been involved in extrajudicial killings and sex trafficking. A 2008 RAND survey found that 20% of diplomatic personnel who had worked with armed contractors in Iraq found them to be ‘unnecessarily threatening, arrogant or belligerent’. This was echoed by a 2010 New York Times article, which claimed that American troops saw contractors as ‘amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy’.

It has also become clear that private contractors were heavily involved in the torture of Iraqi detainees during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. One of the most striking revelations from the CIA Torture Report, apart from the systematic use of brutal practices like ‘rectal hydration’ and ‘rough takedowns’, was that private contractors conducted 85% of the interrogations of terror suspects. In late 2012, L-3 Services Inc paid $5.8 million in damages to 71 former detainees of Abu Ghraib who allege that they were tortured by employees of the US defence contractor.

Hiding in the shadows

But the truth is that little is known about the behaviour of private military contractors, because they typically operate in the shadows, beyond the scrutiny of the media. Most governments do not publicise the military contractors they hire, and much of what they get up to on the ground is either classified, or obscured by layers of further sub-contractors.

Indeed, it is precisely this secrecy that makes private military companies so attractive to governments: they can hide both the violence and the cost of war. When a contractor dies no one lines the streets of Wootton Bassett, waiting for the flag-draped coffin to pass. Similarly, when a contractor abuses a civilian in a faraway warzone, the government doing the contracting can deny all responsibility. No pesky court-martials are needed; no reputations tarnished.

By employing private contractors, wars can be escalated on the sly, without the need for unpopular troop increases. This is foreign policy by proxy. The UK allegedly used SAS veterans in Libya, who claim they were paid £10,000 per month, to help topple Gaddafi in 2011. The US Congress was not made aware of the fact that Blackwater were assisting the CIA and JSOC in their ‘snatch and grab’ missions in Afghanistan (and even Pakistan) until it was disclosed by the CIA director in 2009.[iii]

At the same time, the costs of private contractors can be kept ‘off the books’ in a way that the costs of regular troops cannot, thereby making an expensive war seem relatively cheap. An estimated 70% of the costs to the US of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were kept off the books, funded by emergency appropriations approved outside of the Pentagon’s annual budget.

Regulating the cowboys

It is difficult to control what goes on in the shadows. Since the fifteenth century and despite Machiavelli’s warnings about the ‘undisciplined and treacherous’ nature of mercenaries, states have failed to effectively regulate the role of private companies in war. Even today, there is no effective system of legal accountability to check the behaviour of private military contractors; they typically operate beyond the jurisdiction of both national and international law.[iv]

For a long time it looked like Slough, Liberty, Heard and Slatten would evade justice too. It took over seven years before they were found guilty of the killings in Nisour Square, so long that the statute of limitations kicked in and prosecutors had to drop manslaughter charges against Slatten. In fact, the case only made it to trial after a personal intervention by Vice-President Joe Biden. Blackwater/Academi itself never got anywhere near the courtroom. If a case as high-profile and horrifying as Nisour Square proved so fragile, it is little wonder that private contractors rarely end up in court.

But even if there were effective regulation, even if we did live in a world where international law meant something and international institutions worked; even then it would still be better to reject the turn towards using private contractors instead of the regular state militaries.

More wars, bigger wars

This is because private contractors make war easier. With the support of private contractors, states can engage in more wars, and on a far grander scale than would otherwise be possible. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan would not have gone ahead without the support of private contractors: there just weren’t enough soldiers.

In particular, private contractors make unilateral wars easier. There’s a good reason that unilateral wars are unilateral: no one else supports them. If states could only entertain the possibility of going to war if that war had multilateral support, then both the legitimacy of the war and its prospects of success would be greatly increased.

Private contractors make war easier, and they also try damn hard to make it desirable. We should not kid ourselves into believing that these contractors are sitting quietly, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the government to pick up the phone and call on their services. On the contrary, they are incentivised to lobby the hawks in government to make war. For the contractors, war equals money. It is no surprise that from 1998 Kevin Prince became a steady contributor to the Republican right – one of his recipients was, of course, George W. Bush.

Disturbingly, the more the government outsources its military needs, the more pervasive the war incentive becomes. Intelligence analysts working for companies like Blackwater are now judging security threats. Strategy experts working for these companies are now being asked their advice about the risk of prosecuting such-and-such a war. Those who stand to make money from war are gaining more and more influence in the corridors of power.

While we should welcome the weighty sentences handed down to the ‘cowboys’ responsible for the massacre in Nisour Square; it is no cause for celebration. There has been precious little change since the massacre. The state is still in thrall to the private contractors, and the contractors still operate in the shadows, beyond the eyes of the media and beyond the reach of the law. This matters. We have so far failed to tame the cowboys, we must not let them make violence an easy option.

Charlie de Rivaz is an MA student on the Conflict, Security and Development programme at King’s College London. For three years he worked in Argentina and Colombia as an English teacher and journalist. His main interests include the political economy of war, international human rights law, conflict resolution, and state-building. Charlie is the Managing Editor of Strife blog.


[i] Pattison, James (2014), The Morality of Private War, OUP
[ii] Ibid, p.22
[iii] Ibid, p.149
[iv] Ibid, p.147

1 thought on “Punishing the cowboys: Blackwater, justice, and easier wars”

  1. Having seen the aftermath in Nisour Square – and being close enough to hear this entire event transpire – I cannot express how glad I am these Blackwater clowns finally received the justice they deserve. The activities Blackwater conducted and their overall blatant disregard for anyone (to include our U.S. troops) was shameful. I loathed those guys.

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