Published: Nov 05, 2006 12:30 AM
Modified: Nov 05, 2006 03:11 AM
Soldiers for hire
N.C. company, among others, is thinning line between security contractor and mercenary
Keith 'Jack' Idema, a former soldier and convicted felon, became a rebel with a cause in Afghanistan. His role as 'Army of One' is among several profiles in Robert Young Pelton's 'Licensed to Kill. '
Jay Price, Staff Writer
If the Iraq war lasts long enough, North Carolina's next $1 billion-a-year company will be a relatively obscure outfit tucked away on the edge of a swamp where stray bullets from a .50-caliber sniper rifle won't blast a hole in the neighbor's den.
Blackwater USA, a private security contracting firm near the tiny town of Moyock in the northeast corner of the state, is already pulling in between $600 million and $800 million, writes Robert Young Pelton in his new book "Licensed to Kill."
Until March 31, 2004, few people outside the world of SWAT teams and Navy SEALs had even heard of Blackwater -- or the industry of private security contracting, for that matter. Four Blackwater contractors were murdered then mutilated that day in front of television cameras in Fallujah, Iraq. They had been guarding trucks for a company supplying food to the U.S. military, a job that once would have been done by the troops.
For a few weeks the media couldn't do enough stories on the most modern version of that age-old occupation, the soldier for hire. Then the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke, and the media were on to the next big story.
Pelton, though, was still interested. A contributor to National Geographic Adventure who has also worked for the likes of CNN and "60 Minutes," Pelton had dipped into the violent and flaky world of mercenaries for years, often while researching yet another a new edition of his book "The World's Most Dangerous Places," the guide to where NOT to go.
He's an edgy, clear writer. But perhaps his greatest skill is getting into places that other people cannot. For "Licensed to Kill," that talent meant everything. He got something that dozens of journalists and academics failed to: deep access to the world of private security contractors.
Much of that was with Blackwater, including a month making runs with one of the company's security teams along the world's most dangerous road -- the notorious 8-mile route between Baghdad International Airport and the U.S. fortified Green Zone. He also hung out in the team's digs, which sounded more than a little like Animal House, only with guns, and spent significant time with company officers in Baghdad, Moyock and Washington, D.C.
In a few perfunctory stretches, Pelton explains the industry's rise: How a sharp reduction in the size of the U.S. military after the Cold War and the Bush administration's miscalculations about the dangers of post-war Iraq led to the need for billions of dollars in contracts for private security.
He also offers a brief discussion about the nature of their work. While a couple of British-South African companies have engaged in offensive operations, Blackwater says it engages only in defensive operations. Because the contractors are protecting rather than attacking, they are, in a way, less like mercenaries than mall security guards -- albeit much better armed and trained and working in much worse places.
The most compelling passages are built around Pelton's time with the contractors on the front lines of this privatized chunk of the war, and at their trade conventions and training facilities. The book is perhaps the clearest picture yet of this odd little subculture, the kind of unbiased cultural sketch that Tom Wolfe used to do, minus the stylistic license of vintage Wolfe.
Pelton opens with "The Contractor's Creed," which circulates among contractors and is probably as factual as it is humorous: "I do this job for the opportunity to kill the enemies of my country, and to finally get that boat I've always wanted," it says, among other things, along with: "In any combat zone, I will always locate the swimming pool, beer and women, because I can."
There's another such lampoon circulating on the Web that Pelton doesn't quote. It's titled "Blackwater Fever" and it pokes fun at the Moyock company's employees as an arrogant lot, with an excessive enthusiasm for tattoos, wrap-around sunglasses, steroids, tight shirts and "high speed" clothes like special shooting vests and other accessories.
There have been problems with steroids, but industry's chemical of choice is a cocktail of testosterone with an occasional jolt of adrenaline. By most standards, Pelton has a testosterone issue himself. But he doesn't celebrate or attack this bravado. He just flops all the guts out on the table, and there they are.
There are plenty of genuine hard guys in the book who love the action. But it's also clear that many of the contractors -- who include former soldiers, sailors and law-enforcement officials -- are trying to take advantage of their limited but suddenly marketable skill set.
There's the tough would-be-contractor who swaggers around the training, but after coming within a whisker of washing out and missing out on the $600-a-day gravy train, confides to Pelton that he needs the money badly because he just got married. "I have to provide for my family. How can I provide for my family?"
Then there is Griz, the Blackwater loyalist who had the company's bear paw logo tattooed on one ham-sized bicep. Or the other Blackwater operator who is guilt-ridden because someone else had to replace him on the fatal Fallujah run because his travel connections had fallen through.
Pelton gets an extraordinary amount of access to Erik Prince, Blackwater's boyish, low-profile owner, who has the unusual credentials of not only being a former Navy SEAL commando, but also being an heir to a $1 billion-plus auto parts fortune.
While Pelton doesn't take sides in the debate over whether security contractors are a positive or negative force, a running theme is that thin line between security contractor and mercenary, a line that contractors say is firm and clear, and many critics of the industry say doesn't exist.
Blackwater officials told Pelton they want to field a brigade-sized private army for use in peacekeeping and intervention on behalf of organizations such as the United Nations. They told him the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region was the kind of situation where they could be helpful.
Given the tragedy of Darfur, any help might be welcome. But, Pelton cautions, red flags should be raised when a company like Blackwater -- which heretofore has accepted only jobs with the U.S. State Department's seal of approval -- starts talking about private armies with helicopter gunships and attack aircraft.
Indeed, one of the British-South African companies Pelton writes about was able to seize much of a small country with just 125 well-trained men, after all.
Pelton, as have other industry experts, believes that companies like Blackwater may start looking at new kinds of work -- perhaps not all strictly defensive -- when the big money in the Middle East stops flowing. They're used to big revenue streams and it will be hard to go cold turkey.
For private security contractors, Pelton wrote me in an e-mail message recently, "There will never be another Iraq."
(Jay Price has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The News & Observer.)
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Jay Price has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The News & Observer.