The Magazine

Warriors for Hire

Blackwater USA and the rise of private military contractors.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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And there's much, much more. Sitting in his second-story office with expansive views of the grounds, Black water vice president for strategic initiatives and former recon Marine Chris Taylor makes a sound business case for the Blackwater facility. "One of the single greatest factors that makes us who we are today is, one, we are always complete, correct, and on time with our services and, two, this facility--this is the greatest barrier to entry in the market of doing training and security operations; nobody else has this." Taylor continues: "To build this facility today--$40 or $50 million, and nobody's got that kind of coin. Nobody wants to invest that, especially if you are going into a market where there already is a big dog."

Still, at a certain point touring their facilities, the immensity of the place seems like, well, overkill. Of all the curiosities littered throughout the gargantuan property, it's hard not to be taken aback by "R U Ready High"--a firing range modeled after a high school, as well as an old school bus used for training in tactical hostage situations.

Taylor patiently explains that the company built it immediately after Columbine and that local police forces and SWAT teams often have woefully inadequate training for such situations even to this day. Sure enough, shortly after my tour of the facilities, there were two school hostage situations within days of each other, again in Colorado and in Pennsylvania. Neither ended well.

It may seem callous that Blackwater is making a buck preparing police to deal with such horrific events. But somebody has to be in the business of worst case scenarios. It's not their fault that everywhere--from Colorado to Iraq--business is so good.

While Blackwater's training and logistics operations might be the heart of their operation, that's not the reason the company is on the verge of becoming a household name. Among its initial government contracts was one for antiterrorist training in the wake of the USS Cole bombing. A single marksman could have taken out the approaching bomb-laden boat, but most soldiers on deck weren't even carrying loaded weapons at the time. Recognizing a major weakness, the Navy awarded an "urgent and compelling need" contract to Blackwater to train 20,000 sailors in force protection. The company still executes that contract to this day. And from that start, it gradually expanded its roster of services available to the military. Enter the war on terror, and the military began looking for something beyond training and support services--actual manpower.

Blackwater is now one of the largest and most respected suppliers of "private military contractors" in Iraq. The company has carried out high-profile assignments--such as their exclusive contract to guard Ambassador L. Paul Bremer when he was the top U.S. civilian in Iraq--whose performance by a private company would once have been unthinkable.

The company's work in Iraq has not been without incident. The four American contractors killed in Falluja in March 2004 were providing transport security for a Kuwaiti food service company under a Blackwater Security Consulting contract. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and the disfigured corpses were eventually strung from a bridge with an electrical cord. The families of the four men--one of them a revered former SEAL instructor--are suing Blackwater, alleging that they were rushed out on the mission without adequate preparation or protection.

Aside from providing one of the most demoralizing images of the war, the killing of the four Blackwater employees did two major things. It was the catalyst for the Battle of Falluja, a brutal but ultimately successful attempt to reclaim the city from insurgents, which resulted in 83 additional U.S. troops killed in action. And it drew national attention to the use of private contractors--"mercenaries" to their more vehement detractors--in Iraq.

In the first Gulf war, the ratio of private contractors to military personnel was one to sixty. This time it's approaching one to one. The Washington Post last week reported that the Pentagon counts about 100,000 contractors in Iraq. Private contractors are being used to supply everything from pizzas to porta-potties; still the decidedly larger ratio is no doubt the result of the 20,000 or so serving in a quasi-military role--almost three times the number of British military forces currently in Iraq.