Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army: Book Review

I review books for Barron's on a regular basis. Sometimes they assign me a book, sometimes I suggest one. While I am a registered Democrat and political moderate, they have never censored a review. Most of the time, however, I write too long and the reviews are edited to fit the space. Fortunately, their editors are very, very good and have never changed the meaning.

My honest reviews, however, have upset quite a few other people along the way -- mostly those on the extreme Right or, as in the case of this one, the extreme left.

What follows is my full-length review. The edited version appeared in Barron's on April 2, 2007.

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill, (Nation Books, New York, March 2006, hardcover, $26.95, 452 pages ISBN:1-56025-979-5) aspires to be the definitive investigation into the growth of one of the largest private military firms in the world and an exhaustive catalog of its sins, especially as a tool for Bush Administration policy.

But as a cobbled-together amalgam of the author's previously published articles, rehashed pieces by other "progressive" journalists all embedded in a slurry of unattributed sources and one-sided quotation of politicos with an axe to grind, the book fails miserably as anything other than a moveon.org playbook for the 2008 presidential campaigns.

Instead of a steady march of organized facts from multiple credible sources which makes for solid investigative reporting, Blackwater offers layers of innuendo cast in obviously biased language which offer glimpses of Blackwater: in Iraq, New Orleans, Azerbaijan and elsewhere. No smoking guns here or even warm barrels, just 452 pages of poorly documented, mind-numbing minutiae wandering about in search of significance and lacking in overall coherence.

Early on, the author attempts to indict Blackwater for incompetence, or worse, by reconstructing the final days of the four Blackwater employees who were ambushed, burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The indictment fails. Even worsh, Scahill's cartoonish descriptions of the men makes them into bumbling bafoons rather than offering the reader a moving, "Blackhawk Down" sense of tragedy and men betrayed.

Scahill's trite, political-hot-button phraseology pervades the book. To Scahill, Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince is, "a radical right-wing Christian mega-millionaire who has served as a major bankroller of President Bush's campaigns but of the broader Christian-right agenda." Some facts would have been helpful: religious affiliation, personal net worth, dollar amount of contributions. Perhaps Mr. Prince is all of these, perhaps not. But having the facts would allow a reader to reach their own decision, and having done that, could either agree or disagree.

Scahill's lack of attribution and the inherent weakness of his facts also destroy the book's credibility. He first writes that, Blackwater has more than $500 million in government contracts....:as one U.S. Congressmember observed, in strictly military terms, Blackwater could overthrow many of the world's governments."

This is a typical Scahill statement with no attribution. Which member of Congress? Observed to whom? When? All those pesky little details that a beginning journalism course requires for a C grade are notoriously absent in this book. With no attribute, one might conclude this was made up to fit the point.

Context is also lacking in that passage. Scores of other military firms like Sandline, Executive Outcomes and others have been overthrowing various world governments for the past 40 years according to Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, by P.W. Singer, (2003, Cornell University Press). Unlike Blackwater, Corporate Warriors is a very well-written, even-handed, fact-packed and extensively documented work.

Whether this level of military power in private hands is a good situation or not is handled with Scahill's tritely predictable judgement that it is all evil. He conveniently neglects to balance the record by pointing out that, according to a number of sources including Corporate Warriors, the Bosnia intervention could not have succeeded without private military contractors.

And Scahill's $500 million figure? He never tells us over what period of time those contracts were granted. And while it's certainly substantial compared with the average family outcome (even for Greenwich or Bergen County), it's a rounding error in the $80+ billion annual budget for the current war.

The sort of facts that would have made Scahill's book credible and worth reading are the very sort found abundantly in Corporate Warriors which tells us that even before the start of the current Iraq war, "from 1994 to 2002, The U.S. Defense Department entered into more than 3,000 contracts with U.S.-based firms estimated at a contract value of more than $300 billion. And unlike too much of Scahill's book, that last figure from Corporate Warriors has a footnote with a the source.

The lack of sourcing and context plague every part of every page of this book. To call out each of them would require more words that it took to fill the pages of Blackwater. There is simply no way to determine what should be believed or not. For that reason, this book is a waste of time and money for the seeker of truth. For them, Corporate Warriors and a number of other books offer far more credible and documented writing which is not plagued by biased prose and overtly politically intents.

Scahill's political tunnel-vision also makes it seem as if the rise of PMFs began in 1997 with Blackwater. Contractors have been doing business with the U.S. government for decades, but it really began big-time with the hollowing out of American armed forces that started under President Bush's father and accelerated during the Clinton administration. There is plenty of blame for that to spread around both parties, but in his own partisan way, Scahill cuts Bill Clinton a big piece of slack, failing to note his policies which helped expand the use of privatized military. Those wishing to have hard facts about this are referred to Corporate Warriors.

In the end, Scahill utterly fails to make his case that Blackwater is the world's most powerful mercenary army as his subtitle claims.


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