By David Swanson
“It’s bad enough to be creating more profit incentive for war,” I told former head of Blackwater Erik Prince, “but you recycle part of the profits as bribes for more war in the form of so-called campaign contributions. You yourself have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political parties and candidates. The three of you,” I said, referring to Prince, another guest, and the host of a television show that had just finished filming and was taking questions from the audience, “you seem to agree that we need either mercenaries or a draft, ignoring the option of not having these wars, which kill so many people, make us less safe, drain the economy, destroy the natural environment, and erode our civil liberties, with no upside. But this systemic pressure has been created for more war. Will you, Erik Prince, commit to not spending war profits on elections?”
Prince had hardly been asked a serious question during the past hour of filming, but that of course did not mean he would answer one. The point was to raise the topic and put it in the minds of the people sitting and applauding him. Prince tried to answer by talking about how much the F-35 fighter jet costs, continuing the hour-long pretense that if you oppose mercenaries you favor the rest of the military. I cut him off and told him to answer the question. So he said that he was no longer working with the U.S. government but with other governments around the world. Does that mean he’ll stop bribing the U.S. government? Does that mean he doesn’t bribe other governments? He didn’t say.
The event was held at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which has a long, long tradition of inviting war makers and war advocates, but has never that I know of asked an opponent of the institution of war to speak. The show, minus the question and answer portion, will air on television on May 3rd. The host, Doug Blackmon, asked challenging questions like, “Do you think contractors should receive medals like other soldiers?” The day before the event he’d emailed me this comment:
“We’ve featured a lot of people over the past two years, with a lot of objections to the war-making of the United States—as well as a lot of objections to mass incarceration, police violence, and other terrible manifestations of our society. We also have heard from people who would disagree with you—but had nothing to do with making war. In any case, this will be a vigorous dialogue tomorrow. It may not cover everything you would cover if you were organizing the same program, but it’s a completely appropriate way for us to explore these hugely important and controversial issues, and to hear two sides in a meaningful way.”
At the end of the event I asked him whether Prince would have been invited to speak had most of the people Blackwater killed been Americans. Blackmon refused to answer.
The other guest was Ann Hagedorn, author of The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. Her book is not bad, but from the first moments of the event it became crystal clear why Prince had agreed to take part. The subject of drones wasn’t broached, but there was a lot of droning, and ummming, and slow and deliberate prefacing of . . . nothing. I could have clicked the audio on my little electronic device to have it read sections of Hagedorn’s book and made a better debate than she made in person. This was frustrating, of course, because the well-spoken Erik Prince needed somebody to reply to the outrages he was uttering. In an attempt to figure out where, if anywhere, Hagedorn was coming from, or perhaps to expose her as a commie peacenik, a member of the audience asked after the show whether, if mercenaries were eliminated, Hagedorn would move on to opposing the standard military. This was actually a good question, because most of Hagedorn’s critique of mercenaries, even more so at the event than in the book, was of their differences from other soldiers. But she didn’t answer the question. She said that she was a reporter who had no opinions or positions. Inspiring!
Hagedorn’s book is not a bad primer for people just discovering that the U.S. military hires mercenary companies. In Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, she writes, the use of mercenaries and other contractors climbed — under Obama/Clinton direction — to the point where there were 10 for every 1 troop, 18 for every 1 state department personnel, and 100 for every 1 USAID worker. She criticizes the lack of accountability for what this huge number of people do. She admits that the majority of deaths in these wars are civilians. I say “admits” because at the show taping she claimed that if Americans knew about the deaths of U.S. mercenaries they would then have a good sense of the deaths in the wars. She points out the fear mongering done by mercenary companies as well as governments to gin up business. She writes that of 195 Blackwater shootings between 2005 and 2007 in 84% Blackwater shot first and left the scene. She even quotes someone proposing we have fewer wars and cites the example of South Africa banning mercenaries.
Hagedorn notes Obama and Clinton’s flip to support mercenaries beginning in 2009, and their use of them to extend the occupation of Iraq in 2011 while “ending” it. Hillary Clinton, she writes, also pushed shipping companies to hire mercenaries to fend off pirates. The United Nations, too, is using mercenaries. The U.S. border with Mexico is being armed with mercenaries. Immigrants are being handled by mercenaries. U.S. police are being trained by mercenaries (with horrible results).
But Hagedorn is big on patriotism and the supposed democratic public institution of war (which would never survive a Ludlow Amendment creating a public vote on wars). When she called war an inherently public operation on Wednesday, Prince ignored any hint that private war creates more wars and simply pointed to the long history of mercenaries and to examples of other operations that have been privatized.
Blackmon began Wednesday’s show by asking Prince about the sentencing of four of his former employees to prison on Monday. Part of Prince’s defense was that “We’ve asked for cameras. . . . The State Department denied them.” This is bizarre because he never asserted that anything other than the intentional murder of civilians would have been filmed had there been cameras. He also claimed that his killers could not get a jury of their peers among civilians 7,000 miles away. So, does he want crimes committed in Iraq to be prosecuted in Iraq then?
Hagedorn explicitly refused to discuss the details of the Nissour Square Massacre but did point out that it was the sort of thing that boosted recruitment of forces against the U.S. military/mercenaries.
Blackmon asked if mercenaries had been scapegoated for an overall disaster, but Hagedorn said no, that that made no sense if you considered the scale of the mercenary involvement. Prince said that during the war on Vietnam peace activists went after troops and now they go after mercenaries. “Nature hates a vacuum,” he argued, suggesting apparently that Congressional contracts are produced by “nature.” Prince also pointed to the murder of Miriam Carey by the U.S. Capitol Police as if one inexcusable killing justifies others. “There was no hue and cry,” over that killing he lied, but imagine the uproar if it had been poor little old mercenaries who had done it. Of course, most killings of civilians by mercenaries in distant U.S. wars produce in fact no hue or cry at all back home.
I should note that Prince claims his mercenaries are (were) not mercenaries because they were U.S. military veterans. What that changes he never explained. Instead he calls them “volunteers” despite paying them. Asked about financial interests in keeping wars going, he said what was needed was oversight, but not from Washington, from empowering the people at the front. Whatever that meant. Prince advocated a smaller military budget, and Hagedorn said that smaller overall budgets always mean more for mercenaries.
Repeatedly Prince claimed to be fighting evil people “who want to destroy the Western world, you know, our way of life.” He claimed that mercenaries could be hired to destroy ISIS, no problem! He also claimed that what’s going on in the Middle East is an age-old Sunni-Shia conflict that the United States can only tweak around the edges (through such steps, I suppose, as destroying ISIS). That each war creates more problems to be addressed with more wars, that ISIS would never have existed without the 2003 invasion, didn’t come up (except through my comments during the Q&A).
One questioner suggested that “if war were the path to peace we’d sure have peace by now,” and Prince claimed to be for peace. So Hagedorn asked him, a-t l-e-n-g-t-h, to fund the peace movement (even though she has no opinions as a Journalist), and he declined, suggesting that the mercenary industry association should do it. That’s an association, by the way, that changed its name from the International Peace Operations Association to the International Stability Operations Association in response to criticism of being “too Orwellian” — as if war brings stability any more than it brings peace.
Prince said that rather than funding peace he would focus on “protecting Christians who are being driven out of the Holy Land.” He said this during the Q&A section with the filming of the show already stopped. Someone might have asked why people of a particular religion were of more value. But then we were at an event that never would have happened if the people whom Prince’s company killed had belonged to that religion.