A Journal on Resilience, Independence, and the Self-Assertive Personalities That Define Humanity.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blackwater Bashing - A Media Sport

Blackwater bashing has been popular for quite some time now. Almost as long as the US has been involved in Iraq, negative press about contractors has been coming out. Primarily, negative about Private Military Contractors (PMC's) and Private Security Contractors (PSC's). PMC/PSC's are the evolution of mercenaries and that makes them an easy target for criticism, right or wrong. The word mercenary conjures up all manner of negative associations, and the imagination doesn't have to be stretched much at all for war-crimes to be laid at the feet of these men.
The company formerly known as Blackwater has caught, in the past couple of years, more than its fair share of this. Blackwater has come to represent all the ills and evils of the privatized military industry, and is synonymous with “mercenary evil army” in the eyes of the media and many Americans. With each new article written, this becomes more and more true. A dozen journalists, independently decide BW would make the great topic for a negative exposition of the private military industry. When that dozen articles come out, they provide a referential frame-work for one another, and for other articles to build upon. It was only made more perfect because Blackwater created distinctive branding. They had a threatening name (never mind that it had all the grave meaning of “swampwater”, which is what it alluded to), and an easily recognizable corporate logo, a big bad all-black bear paw silhouette with sharp claws. American's like a name, a face, they can hold onto, and once Blackwater soaked into the American consciousness, who in their right mind would try to replace it? No one. Why do the leg work, why invest the time and energy into tackling another company, with a mundane name like Meyer & Associates, when there is a giant brand-name demon immediately available? The media is in the business of selling something, and any good editor or producer will know that no one is buying “Some company that sounds like they do your taxes killed some people in Iraq”. Accordingly, any decent journalist wouldn't dream of pitching that story. So, Blackwater it is. Which is why you haven't seen many headlines decrying “Xe” as the evil empire – The name Blackwater is still being widely used, as it's the recognized brand.

Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, is not, in reality, the evil empire. They are not the most respected, even in the community, of private military/security firms, but they are not the evil empire. For the outside observer, trying to get a handle on them, gain a legitimate idea of what the company is and does, the media frenzy for “Blackwater's” jugular proves to be more of a hindrance than a help.
It's reasonable to begin with questions. Does authority exists on the subject, particularly within the mainstream media? If so, are there any truly unbiased authorities or does everyone have a dog in the hunt? What about the man on the street, the witness to supposed atrocity? Essentially: Who are the sources and what are their motivations?
The man street is easy. The reports from Iraqi family members, friends and neighbors of supposed Blackwater “victims” should be obviously treated as biased, and misleading. Why? For the same reason that, in America, reports from family members, neighbors and friends of slain gang-members should be taken with a grain of salt. When the mother/sister/best-friend/old teacher of a 17 year old shot to death while robbing a liquor store is quoted as saying “He wasn't a bad boy. He wasn't robbin' that place, he was just there. He didn't deserve to die”, most intelligent people roll their eyes, scoff and move on. When the same is said by friends and family of an Iraqi who is shot by a rolling security convoy, plenty of otherwise intelligent people gasp and cry out for justice against these roving bands of murdering contractors. What greater legitimacy does a random Iraqi have, than a random American? How is an armed contractor somehow more a villain than a Harlem store owner who kills armed robbers?
Unreasoned, and more importantly, unsupported claims from individuals should be, under the best of circumstances highly suspect. Collections of accounts of un-checked Blackwater violence don't necessarily equate with reality simply because they're the spoken testimony of a sympathetic people. Particularly when those accounts are, by the time you hear them, second hand. The media (or at least a number of the personalities behind articles, photos, etc.) have a dog in this hunt – They want to paint a picture of something they dislike, so that everyone dislikes it. This doesn't, by itself, invalidate their position, but the possibility exists that they might take things too far. It has happened.
The short point I'm trying to make is, people on the ground and the press (or both) reporting them shouldn't be trusted without question. Their biases are showing, mmmkay?
Even when no bias exists, or it is commendably suppressed by the authors, do they still speak the truth? Harder to answer, not the least for the subjectivity of truth. But, most of the popular media lack the perspective necessary to actually understand what they're talking about when they write about Blackwater/Xe and other PSC/PMC's. Why? Because none of them have ever worked in that field or anything close to it. Many of them were never even in the military, or a foreign service post which put them in positions to interact with private security personnel. There are many jobs in the world which are, at best, difficult to understand from the outside – Few are so greatly different from the observers post and the actors than those “under the gun”. Soldiers, police officers, private security are jobs that must be done before they can be actually understood. An inexperienced observer does not necessarily understand what they see – They can merely report it as they've seen it. Eyes on a gun-fight, or a tactical situation, or an overall strategy see different things depending on the experience and education of those eyes. The work of armed professionals appears chaotic, fractured, particularly when arms come into play. What the outside see's as a frantic unpurposed seizure of violence, the professional see's as a driven, purposeful, even methodical series of tasks and reactions. The outsiders blindness goes far deeper than even that.
Patterns are extremely important in human behavior, and analysis of that behavior. Every professional field, from medicine to accounting to war, involve a developed pattern recognition skill on the part of the professional. War, terrorism and violence are no different. When the armed professional see's someone he or she deems a shooting problem, they are making a decision based on years of experience and training. The Iraqi standing on a roof, shot by an overhead PSC element in a helicopter, was probably exhibiting behavior consistent with that of an insurgent actor of some form, such as a spotter for anti-aircraft fire or a trigger-man for a roadside IED placed for an approaching convoy. What the professional see's as a logical response to a recognized pattern, appears to the inexperienced observer an act random maliciousness, or murderous blood-thirst. Perspective is incredibly important. Observers – journalists – covering this field who don't have the experience of working in the field, are apt to be wrong because they cannot understand the details, they cannot relate to the personalities, and are trying to fill in the blank with something from their world. And that's at their most innocent, not when they are trying to actually push an agenda.
The reporting of recent allegations against Blackwater and founder Erik Prince, made by two former employees, provide a great example of this. Two relatively random guys made sworn statements that a whole series of crimes had occurred in Iraq, perpetrated by Blackwater employees and tolerated, or even encouraged, by the company. And, because we know that people never lie under oath for their own agenda, the media has eaten it up without a lot of question.
The allegations include: Murder, or conspiracy to murder, arms smuggling, child prostitution and sexual exploitation, and religiously based anti-Muslim crusading. From an outsiders perspective, particularly one who believes private military forces are a bad thing, the allegations may sound perfectly reasonable. They support the narrative that already exists about mercenaries, and their offspring, private military/security firms – Particularly Blackwater. Such things have, after all, been true in the past– Why shouldn't they be true of one of the allegedly greatest villains of the Iraqi conflict?
The best reason to doubt the allegations, initially published and quoted by The Nation, are the allegations themselves. I want to focus on one particular area of the allegations, which cast some serious doubt on the overall truthfulness of the testimony. From the sworn declaration of “John Doe #2”: "Using his various companies, [Prince] procured and distributed various weapons, including unlawful weapons such as sawed off semi-automatic machine guns with silencers, through unlawful channels of distribution."
Doe #2 also alleged, “Mr. Prince obtained illegal ammunition from an American company called LeMas. This company sold ammunition designed to explode after penetrating within the human body. Mr. Prince's employees repeatedly used this illegal ammunition in Iraq to inflict maximum damage on Iraqis.
“Mr. Prince made available to his employees in Iraq various weapons not authorized by the United States contracting authorities, such as hand grenades and hand grenade launchers. Mr. Prince's employees repeatedly used this illegal weaponry in Iraq, unnecessarily killing scores of innocent Iraqis."
John Doe #2 claimed to have been in the employ of Blackwater Worldwide for four years. We can only assume that Doe #2 was in that employ, or wants it to be believed he was, in some capacity related to armed operations. Yet, his terminology and focus in these claims has more in common with bad television, than with an experienced security or military man talking.
Sawed off semi-automatic machine guns with silencers” is wrong on multiple levels. First, semi-automatic is antithetical to machine gun. A machine gun is a fully automatic weapon, vs. a semi-automatic which fires one round for each pull of the trigger and no more. Such weapons, whether semi or full automatic may be short barreled, but they cannot be sawed off as they primarily rely on gas generated from the chemical propellant to operate, and cutting into the barrel would disrupt the gas system badly causing the weapons to malfunction. Lastly, silencer is another misnomer, as the correct term is suppressor – Firearms cannot be truly silenced, merely muffled, or suppressed. Armed professionals speak and write in a professional manner, using the professional lexicon of their industry – The quoted statements are not written in a professional manner. Similarly, “hand grenade launchers” is an out of place term. It has been decades since launchers designed to propel hand-grenades further than the human arm can throw were in common manufacture, much less use. Modern grenade launchers use their own munitions, which are not hand operable and thus not “hand grenades”.
Further, Doe #2's description of the LeMas ammunition, “ammunition designed to explode after penetrating within the human body”, is wildly inaccurate. LeMas ammunition, specifically the bullets loaded on the complete ammunition, branded as “Blended Metal Technology” (BMT) by the manufacturer, RBCD Performance Plus, contain no explosive and therefore do not, and can not, explode at all. They are a light weight bullet, designed to rapidly expand and fragment inside a soft target to increase cavitation and prevent over-penetration resulting in a bullet striking an unintended target. LeMas claims that their bullets expand and fragment in a much more effective manner than other products, and that the same bullet against a hard target offers increased penetration, but they make no claim of explosive capability. Not only does LeMas and the manufacturer RBCD make no claim of explosive content, but what claims they do make have been invalidated. Independent analysis has proven that LeMas/RBCD “blended metal” ammunition is not constructed as advertised, and fails to perform to the claims of the company. According to the research, conducted by Dr. Gary K. Roberts, the ammunition was in fact loaded with nothing other than common (commercial-off-the-shelf) varmint-hunting bullets, designed for taking light skinned animals such a coyotes.
And this isn't the first time LeMas has appeared in the anti-military/anti-war press, with references to “exploding” - The statement of Doe #2 has a great narrative similarity to previous pieces stemming from a 2003 Army Times article on use of a LeMas round by a private contractor in Iraq.
From a supposed armed professional, the claims made in Doe #2's sworn statement seem incredibly unprofessional – Weapons which couldn't even exist, incorrect terminology for the modern battlefield, and repeating manufacturers and media claims which have been proven as inaccurate are not the marks of a professional. That alone should be enough to cast extreme doubts on the validity of Doe #2's claims (and by association, the claims of Doe #1).
There are other inconsistencies as well, including the labeling of Eric Prince and his favored employees at Blackwater as “Christian crusaders”, while alleging they supported child prostitution. Say what you will about the Christian right, but their particular morality is not one frequently in favor of child molestation. This is even more true of those with a military background, as most private contractors are - They have an exceptionally low tolerance for the abuse of children.
Of course, when the media get's hold of these juicy little tidbits, they go wild. Few have the experience or knowledge to actually see the problems with these claims, and those who do lack the integrity to speak out as doing so wouldn't favor their bias. Either way, ignorant or agenda driven, the major media remains a source not to be trusted on these matters.

As a reader, particularly as a student of these matters, we have to be aware of the narratives that are cherished in the mass media, and what filters are necessary to maintain those narratives. Only then can we read between the lines and begin to suss out what truth may actually exist.

Blackwater/Xe is a double edged sword. They leave some black marks on the industry, but they are also a large and capable service provider, currently filling several important contracts (including for the State Department).
If Blackwater/Xe employees commit crimes, they should (and are, I'll remind you) be held accountable and tried fairly. If (if) Erik Prince is a murderer, conspirator in murder, or sanctioned any of the ridiculous things attributed to him, then he should be tried and jailed if found guilty. If he is a madman, his company will probably suffer for it in the long-run, and it (and he) will fade away to join Executive Outcomes, Sandline and a whole host of other failed PMC/PCS companies.
The whole thing makes for interesting viewing though, doesn't it sports fans?

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