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.
The book, he says, was intended “as a factual, well-researched, well-documented clarification of what is and was, [to] set the record straight once and for all. And to make the case that government has gotten way too big, including the defense budget.” Prince adds, “I’d like Republicans to understand that there is plenty of room to cut the defense budget. That this notion of being unpatriotic to cut defense is not true. I love the U.S. military . . . [but] when you’re spending more than the next 17 countries combined, it’s an unsustainable number with this kind of debt.”
If contractors are necessary to make the military cost-effective, what limits should be placed on their role? When Prince founded Blackwater, he had no plans to send privately employed soldiers into war zones. Blackwater started out in 1997 as a large compound in rural North Carolina with the sole mission of renting out facilities to the U.S. military and other law enforcement agencies. The post-Cold War military had been shutting down bases and cutting back on training expenses, which was damaging to readiness.
For instance, after the USS Cole bombing it became apparent to the Navy that firearms procedures and training necessary to protect ships in port had severely degraded, in part because the military simply lacked the firearms ranges needed to maintain the proficiency of soldiers and sailors. The Blackwater compound was built to supply tactical shoothouses, sniper ranges, driving tracks, and other training grounds, all within range of Quantico, Norfolk, Camp Lejeune, and other nearby bases. Had Blackwater stayed in this role, few would question that such a private contractor could be a cost-effective partner with the military.
Then 9/11 happened. The down-sized military was ramping up in a hurry, and Blackwater’s logistical capabilities just kept expanding, all at the behest of Uncle Sam. Soon Blackwater was in charge of providing the security detail for Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of postwar Iraq. The company owned and operated 73 aircraft, which were deployed in support of America’s war efforts. Blackwater was even the go-between for the CIA and Afghan warlords looking to bring down the Taliban. From the beginning, Prince cultivated an aggressive and ambitious culture at Blackwater. “The company grew by just saying ‘yes.’ We didn’t need marketing. We just said ‘yes’ and performed,” he says.
Blackwater quickly became the best-known private military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. In retrospect, maintaining a much lower profile would have been wise. It also didn’t help that the left-wing opposition to the war on terror was enraged by the fact that Prince is from a wealthy family well-known for funding conservative causes and religious groups such as the Family Research Council.
In reality, Prince was a standup guy compared with some other contractors—contracts worth $400 million were awarded to a company founded by Tim Spicer, a notorious mercenary whose previous work had included a botched mission to regain control of a copper mine that nearly destabilized the Papua New Guinean government and accusations he violated a U.N. arms embargo while doing shady work in West Africa.
But the damage to Prince’s image was done. “I never tried to be a hero, but I certainly never wanted to be cast as the villain either,” he says ruefully. “They cast us as villains for saying yes when the U.S. government needed us.” Even if you accept Prince’s insistence that his patriotism always trumped business, the most charitable interpretation suggests a degree of naïveté. Anyone who’s ever read a spy novel knows that doing favors for the CIA and State Department is a good way to end up being burned.
Looking back, Prince regrets plans he couldn’t bring to fruition—in particular, he wanted to bring military defense and logistical capabilities to bear on humanitarian work, what he calls “relief with teeth.” At one point Blackwater was in the process of “spec-ing” out a 900-foot Maersk ship to rent out space on board to charities and NGOs. The ship would have helicopters, vehicles, generators, and everything else “you need for a Philippines-type disaster or a tsunami in Indonesia . . . anywhere around South Asia, east coast of Africa, you’re within four-five days of sailing with 1,700 containers of everything you need for a disaster situation.” When there was no disaster to respond to, the ship could moor off the coast of needy areas and drill wells and set up medical clinics.
But that ambitious floating relief project never happened. The one private firm in the world with the logistical and military expertise to pull it off got further drawn into the war on terror and eventually succumbed to politics. “We definitely broke a lot of trail. And like any point man will tell you after a long patrol, the point man takes the most branches and thorns to the face,” Prince says. The crusade against Blackwater has hardly made the U.S. government skittish about hiring private military contractors. Blackwater is still operating with different owners under the name Academi, and similar outfits such as Triple Canopy and ArmorGroup are thriving. Because of Erik Prince, it’s now difficult to imagine the United States going to war anytime soon without being heavily reliant on contractors.
Whether or not this reliance is a good thing remains a politically charged question. Prince has moved on to private equity investments, and wants his book to be the last word on Blackwater. But despite his impassioned defense of the work done by his former firm, Prince is well aware that the use of private military contractors is not something to be undertaken lightly. “To the next entrepreneur that’s thinking of running to the alarm bell the next time the government needs it—this book should be a cautionary tome.”
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.