With all due respect to General David Petraeus, the most influential strategist of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be Erik Prince. The fact that Prince has had a huge impact on how the U.S. military operates isn’t necessarily a compliment. The former Navy SEAL is the founder of Blackwater USA, the notorious “private military contractor” that garnered a great deal of unwanted publicity for its role performing security and logistics functions for the U.S. government in various war zones. Prince and his former outfit have legions of detractors for whom the term “private military contractor” is just a euphemism for mercenary.
Even Prince appears to have plenty of reservations about his 13 years with Blackwater. After spending years responding to congressional subpoenas and resolving a number of high-profile lawsuits, Prince has returned from self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi and published a book, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror—his attempt to set the record straight. He feels he’s been treated unfairly, and not entirely without reason. “We were ‘cowboys.’ We were paid too much and beholden to no one—Bush’s private army, run by a Roman Catholic war profiteer,” is how Prince describes the portrait of his firm that emerged. If you were reading his press in the twilight of the Bush years, you’ll know that he’s not being hyperbolic.
That’s not to say Blackwater’s role in the war on terror was spotless. A Blackwater detail guarding a State Department convoy killed 17 Iraqi civilians during a shootout in Nisour Square in Baghdad in September 2007, and to this day the justification for the firefight remains murky. Prince is adamant that the inability to explain bad things that happened in the fog of war could have been avoided. “We requested cameras,” he tells me. “And lawyers from the State Department said no, because what if we record an incident? Well, exactly!”
He also insists that Blackwater should be remembered for more than controversy. Prince recalls the day after he was hauled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, then led by Democrat Henry Waxman, for hostile questioning about Nisour Square. The very next day, Blackwater contractors responded to a distress call in Baghdad from the U.S. embassy and ended up saving the life of the badly wounded Polish ambassador to Iraq in a dramatic helicopter rescue mission. The Nisour Square shootout generated headlines in major newspapers for years. The copious decorations heaped on Blackwater contractors by the Polish government did not.
The idea that private corporations should help the government wage war remains something many people can’t stomach. Prince maintains that Blackwater’s role is vindicated by history. “That question of whether you’re gonna have battlefield contractors was solved a long time ago,” he notes. “Thanksgiving was brought to [America] by a military contractor—Miles Standish and John Smith were private military contractors working for a British, London-based, publicly traded company that sent them here to colonize America. . . . Nine out of 10 ships taken in the American Revolution were taken by privateers. Washington used to own a piece of a privateer. . . . The ebb and flow of battlefield contractors needed in America is certainly interwoven in our history.”
Indeed, Prince is right to note that America’s armed forces since World War II were historically anomalous in both their size and their lack of dependency on private contractors. After the Cold War, reversion to the mean was inevitable. “The military can’t be all things to all people. So we have gaps. A temporary way to fill that gap is to contract that service. If you don’t wanna do that, then bring back a much, much larger and very expensive military,” he says. “I just saw a number, that the Pentagon is budgeting $2.1 million per soldier in Afghanistan. That number to me is so utterly staggering, it’s ridiculous.”
Prince is also impatient with another criticism, which is that military contractors in Afghanistan were bilking taxpayers. It’s true that Blackwater received over $1 billion in government contracts in the span of a decade. In his book Prince mounts an extensive case that his firm in particular was a good value. If that argument seems self-serving, Prince also explains in detail how corrupt and broken the Pentagon’s contracting process is, with its “cost plus” arrangements that let the government pick up the tab for unlimited cost overruns.