Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Blackwater Blues: Vigilantes in Iraq

The use by Coalition forces in Iraq of what essentially amount to irregular forces (contract companies, outsourcing agencies) adds a further dimension to an already spiralling conflict. In Iraq, citizens face the prospect of kidnap and lightning massacres. They face the prospect of searches by nervous, semi-literate Coalition forces all too eager to impress with their furniture destroying skills. Or they may well be killed by jerky, trigger-happy irregular forces that work for private contract companies. Outsourced sentinels who work for such companies as Blackwater USA have taken it upon themselves to add to the daily complement of casualties, of which seventeen were added to in September.

Recent developments have not taken the case much further. A spokesman for Blackwater has made the predictable claim about this incident in Nisour Square: they were shot at. In a war zone, it may not be unusual to be shot at, but the employees of Blackwater are happy to derive profits from Iraq as if it were Las Vegas, a roulette wheel without lethal consequences.

They should know better. Blackwater has a history: four of their number were ambushed and killed by insurgents in Fallujah in March 2004. Families of the deceased subsequently filed wrongful death suits against the company for unnecessarily endangering them.

But Mammon is God on Blackwater’s book balances, and the accountant remains American power. This may change in time, when that power is exercised more responsibly. This is not set to happen soon. A soil that allows such buccaneering as that of Halliburton to thrive in is a putrescent one in need of good aeration.

Perhaps it's a sign of imperial overstretch: from the metropole, commanders now seek, not regulars to kill or die for them, but auxiliaries whose loyalty extends as far as their pay cheque. Blackwater is, in fact, responsible for guarding American diplomats. They wear the uniform of modern condotierri; they menace the local populace with their ‘protective’ services. They may be nationals of the country in question (U.S., Britain, Australia), and they kill with the know-how gathered from the services of those respective forces. Blackwater tends to have an appetite for former navy SEALs and the Rangers.

These mercenaries turn the spotlight back on the rules of engagement. The law of war, already eviscerated under the aegis of the ‘war on terror’, offers few clear answers. Should we feel pity if a number of Blackwater be taken by insurgents or any member of the local resistance forces, held hostage and killed?

The scenes of torment beamed around the world of foreign nationals who fall into hands of the lucrative kidnapping (and beheading) industry tug the heartstrings. The case of aid-workers and doctors, maybe; the case of mercenaries and contract workers who tend to be better at firing a gun in anger than building a bridge may be different. A contract with Blackwater means far less than an oath to Hippocrates.

When the U.S. Justice Department looked at the law on ‘irregular’ combatants (a record noted in Karen Greenberg’s and Joshua Dratel’s The Torture Papers), their conclusion was that the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives fell into a chasm, a legal purgatory. It was for the president to decide the status of these combatants, and given Bush’s elevated understanding of linguistics, it was a tall order. Loopholes abounded in customary international law and the Geneva Conventions: the combatants were not uniformed (read the views of Deputy Assistant Attorney-General John Yoo and R. J. Delahunty, memorandum dated January 9, 2002), and they were not in the employ of a stable centralised authority, a recognisable government.

Yoo and Delahunty might as well have been describing Iraq. Awash with anarchical elements that are establishing a murderous equilibrium, Blackwater now looks as respectable as any other foreign fighter keen to stake a claim at martyrdom in Iraq. But their employees ought to take more precautions: violence, claimed Herodotus, is the driving force of history. It takes little to imagine what form that will take.