Cash and glory

<strong>Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army </strong>

Jeremy Scahill

It was an arresting image, savage and iconic: two mutilated and charred bodies dangling on bridge beams over the Euphrates, jubilant Iraqis cheering in the foreground. On the last day of March 2004, a mob in Fallujah ambushed two unarmoured SUVs carrying four American contractors. Bullets tore through the vehicles and the dead Americans were pulled from the cars and set on fire. As the crowd swelled, the bodies were hacked apart with shovels and stomped with the soles of shoes. The remains were then dragged to a nearby bridge, where they hung for the next ten hours.

The photograph of the desecrated corpses quickly spread around the globe, invoking the scene in Mogadishu a decade earlier, when 18 US army rangers were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of the Somali capital. This time, however, the men in Fallujah weren't members of an elite American force, at least not technically. They worked for Blackwater, one of more than 180 private military companies operating in Iraq. If Americans - and the rest of the world - were haunted and horrified that day by the fate of these men, they were also just beginning to realise that this was a very different kind of war. Forget for a moment the false pretences and reckless strategies that have marred the Iraq War from the beginning. What makes Iraq different is that it is a privatised war - the most privatised war in American history.

At least 125,000 private contractors - and perhaps as many as 180,000 (the US defence department jealously guards the figure) - work in Iraq alongside US soldiers. They are translators, truck drivers, cooks and, yes, private soldiers protecting ambassadors, convoys and government installations. Estimates of the number of security contractors emerge infrequently; a US government report last year suggested there were 48,000 private soldiers in Iraq. They hail from dozens of nations, and they risk their lives to make princely sums. A security contractor with elite training can earn as much as $1,500 (£750) a day, a great deal more than the enlisted soldiers he works alongside. Former Green Berets and British SAS lead contingents of Serbians, Chileans and South Africans, some with questionable human rights records back home.

Blackwater employs just 1,000 contractors in Iraq, but the company has acquired a certain fascination among war-watchers because of its management's deep ties to the Republican Party and its high-profile assignments, such as providing the former American proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer's, personal security detail in the city. Indeed, Blackwater has become totemic among the anti-war left, representing all that is nefarious and misguided about the Iraq enterprise, a reputation that wasn't helped when heavily armed Blackwater contractors arrived in New Orleans days after Katrina to protect stately Garden District homes from looting, all before the huddled masses in the Superdome were evacuated.

It is a reputation that Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter for the liberal weekly the Nation, hardly questions. His profile of Blackwater is a mechanical and repetitive condemnation of security privatisation that borders on the paranoid. It's a disappointment, particularly because this is a topic that demands further investigation. In his zeal to establish a kind of Christian fundamentalist agenda at the root of the firm's success, and even to conflate Shia death squads and Sunni insurgents with modern-day, pro-occupation contractors operating in Iraq, Scahill fails to examine in any constructive way what corporate warriors will mean to the future of warfare - and of peace.

In setting his sights on Blackwater, Scahill also misses the opportunity to scrutinise private security firms that not only have far larger forces and investments in Iraq, but also have the most notorious histories. Take Tim Spicer's Aegis Defence Services, which was awarded a $300m contract in 2004 to co-ordinate security for all Iraqi reconstruction projects. Or consider the London-based ArmorGroup International, which protects a third of all non-military convoys in Iraq. To call Blackwater "the world's most powerful mercenary army" is simply misleading and seriously exaggerates the company's scope and capabilities. As a result, Scahill misses an opportunity to provide a more useful and ultimately more significant portrait of the $100bn private security industry.

But Scahill deserves commendation for at least scratching the surface of the business and the implications of its growing presence. Towards the end of the book, he considers all too briefly the possibility of private military firms morphing into peacekeeping forces, before concluding, as he makes clear from the outset, that he'd prefer these dogs of war to hang up their guns. What he doesn't share is how he'd get them back in their kennels.

Carolyn O'Hara is assistant editor of Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?