If you’re familiar with Blackwater USA — now called Academi, and before that, Xe — recent news that four of the company’s operators have been given huge prison sentences is probably a big surprise. While most people might agree that justice has been served, the fact that American contractors are being held accountable for their actions during the Iraq War is a bit surprising, if for no other reason than at one time they were granted legal immunity by the Bush administration.
To put it simply, the conviction and sentencing of Blackwater’s mercenaries by a federal judge is a big deal, and that’s because it’s seemingly one of the only times that the government has actually cracked down on private companies operating in conflict areas. For those unfamiliar with the story of the four Blackwater operators in question, the case stems from a 2007 incident in which Blackwater forces opened fire and killed 14 unarmed civilians.
The event led to a massive wave of resentment among the Iraqi population, and ultimately hindered the war effort as many locals then turned against American troops, some joining insurgent groups. That incident, and the close relationship between the Bush administration and Blackwater, is recounted in the book Blackwater: The Rise of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It was written by Jeremy Scahill, who now works for The Intercept, for those looking for more detail.
While the killing of those 14 unarmed civilians is a tragedy, what made the incident truly unforgivable is that it was perpetrated by a private American business operating with very limited, if any, accountability.
That lack of accountability or legal liability was afforded by former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer’s Order 17, which led to many questions as to whose law contractors were bound to obey: Iraqi, or American. Also, since Blackwater is a private company, they were not bound by traditional military rules, further muddying the waters.
But with the recent conviction and sentencing of Blackwater’s operators — three 30-year jail terms, and one life sentence — the way private American companies operate in foreign countries, and conflict zones in particular, could change. While the incorporation of mercenary companies, or private security contractors, into the ‘total force‘ is a relatively new development as far as military engagement goes, other private businesses have a always been circling conflict zones in search of lucrative government contracts or opportunities for investment.
For example, companies like Halliburton, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin make billions of dollars from federal contracts, not only to supply the military with weapons and equipment but also to rebuild after operations have ceased. These companies are part of what we all the defense industry, which often comes under fire for war profiteering — meaning that they basically have American military conflict in the best interests of their corporations.
In other words, war means big bucks for these guys. And it’s always a bit of a weird situation when you have big businesses pushing for military conflict. But that’s another argument entirely. What’s important with this specific Blackwater story is that it shows the government is holding a private company accountable for their actions, when previously that hasn’t been the case.
For big business, does this mean that private companies operating in conflict zones, or other places overseas far from American regulators, need to start monitoring their behavior more closely? Or was the Baghdad incident simply so egregious that the government felt they had no choice? Just imagine the public and international backlash had these Blackwater operators been given a slap on the wrist — it’s possible the federal judge in the case felt he had no choice but to hand down lengthy prison sentences.
Or, it’s possible that the public just wants to see someone punished for the numerous crimes and abuses that took place in Iraq, and a company like Blackwater happened to be the perfect scapegoat. Blackwater founder Eric Prince seems to think that’s the case, and commented on it as far back as 2007, per USA Today.
“The left was already angry about George Bush, and they hated the Iraq War,” he says. “In the Vietnam War, the anti-war left went after the troops. Can’t do that this time. It’s an all-volunteer military, so they go after contractors.”
Whether this is a one-off sentencing, or the government actually is cracking down on war crimes committed by private companies, big business should view the Blackwater convictions as a sign of a shift.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger