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?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide