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Is the Blackwater Verdict the Beginning of the End for Private Military Contractors?

Mercenaries are finally paying a price for killing innocent Iraqi civilians.

by Matt Taylor
Oct 24 2014, 5:00pm

Blackwater mercenaries are icons of the post-9/11 era. Photo via Flickr user chuck holton

Private military contractors have long been a staple of America’s war on terror. Terrified of copping to just how expensive and bloody it can be to do nation-building abroad, the guys in charge of the US military-industrial complex came up with a nifty way to avoid another Vietnam: private-sector soldiers, a.k.a. mercenaries.

By 2008, more than 150,000 contractors were deployed in Iraq alone, responsible for everything from logistics to serving as bodyguards for diplomats. These folks have a history of doing awful, awful things in war zones—since 9/11, they've been implicated in the rape of US civilians and the mass slaughter of innocent Iraqis and Afghans, among other outrages. Meanwhile, the companies pulling the strings have made billions and paid essentially no price (besides the need to occasionally rebrand) for their employees' egregious human-rights and civil-liberties violations.

But if Wednesday’s guilty verdict against four Blackwater guards is any indication, that could be changing. The men were at the center of the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, when they opened fire with machine guns and grenades on a crowded Baghdad traffic circle and falsely claimed to have come under AK-47 fire from insurgents. A jury in a Washington, DC, civilian court convicted them for killing 17 innocent Iraqi civilians and wounding 14 more.

“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” said US Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr., whose office prosecuted the case. “I pray that this verdict will bring some sense of comfort to the survivors of that massacre.”

One of the defendants, Nicholas A. Slatten, was found guilty of murder and faces life in prison, while the rest will serve a minimum of 30 years for manslaughter and weapons charges, pending appeals. Besides putting this handful of thugs behind bars, the verdict could also have ripple effects on the entire private soldier industry. 

“A case like this will have genuine shock effect on individuals and organizations whio want to participate in support of US military activities,” said Geoffery Corn, a veteran army officer, lawyer, and professor at the South Texas College of Law who specializes on international jurisdiction issues. “It’s a validation that even in the most chaotic warzones, not all killing is permissable—there are limits.”

The problem is that the US still leans heavily on private military contractors to conduct its operations. The draft ended back in the Nixon era, and though America has gone to war several times since, the government has refused to institute mandatory military service, as countries like South Korea and Israel have done. The Pentagon has to rely on voluntary recruits, and that's a tricky business—especially when many in the pool of potential soldiers aren't physically fit enough to join the military.

So the government has turned to hired guns, whose bluster reflects our insatiable thirst for their services. Just weeks before the 2007 massacre, a Blackwater manager told a State Department investigator "that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq," according to a memo the official sent to officials in Washington. Defense Department contractors numbered around 66,000 as of this July, a significant reduction since the peak of the Iraq War,  but that doesn't include other government agencies like the State Department, which Blackwater was working for at the time of the Nisour tragedy. 

As Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security program at New York University, put it, the Blackwater verdict “doesn’t get to the broader issue of when we use military contractors, and what rules are in place to make sure we don’t commit human-rights abuses” in the future.

There's also reason to doubt that one court decision seven years after the fact will persuade Iraqis that America is ready to play nice.

“I’m not convinced that the verdicts aren’t some kind of play to tell the world that the United States respects human beings and they’re valuable, while in fact it’s the opposite, that humans aren’t valuable to them,” Ali Abbas Mahmoud, an Iraqi ministry of housing employee whose brother was killed and sister injured in the Nisour Square massacre, told McClatchy. “If they are valuable, why do they hire these killers? In my opinion, it’s just a kind of media show.”

Structural changes in how America does business abroad seems like the only way out of this pattern of bloodshed, even if the ruling—and the 2000 law it relied upon—offer some hope that contractors will be less cavalier.

"What would really be significant is if the US government hit the contractors where it hurt," said Baher Azmy, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought a (successful) civil suit against the Blackwater for the Nisour debacle. "This is a bit of a black eye for Blackwater but doesn't hit them at their bottom line. It would make a big difference if the US decreased its reliance on contractors, who after all profit wildly from our going to war."

As Jeremy Scahill and others have already pointed out, the CEOs at these companies never suffer for the horrific behavior of their underlings. In Blackwater's case, that would be former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who left the (since renamed) firm in 2010 but was in charge at the time of the incident. He had the temerity this week to decry the politics behind the verdict; he also recently suggested that the US should pay some Blackwater-style mercenaries to fight the Islamic State, and even help deal with the spread of Ebola. As it happens, just last month the Pentagon was considering dispatching noncombat contractors to Iraq in hopes that they might bolster the country's embattled army.  

"The military-industrial cohesion and symbiosis is not going to be significantly impaired by this decision," Azmy said.

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