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A new—and timely—biography of the man behind Blackwater USA

Seeing through the mask

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⇒ See related story, "What's the difference between Blackwater's Erik Prince and suspected terrorist Daniel Boyd?"

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Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
—Bob Dylan, "Masters of War" (1963)

The first 70 or so pages of Suzanne Simons' Master of War: Blackwater USA's Erik Prince and the Business of War contain almost none of the rage of the Bob Dylan song from which the book takes its title. In fact, for most of its early chapters, Master of War seems almost hagiographic, as if it had been commissioned as a vanity project by Prince himself.

The book runs through the early life of the founder of the North Carolina-based military contracting company once known as Blackwater USA, seeming to present him as the hero of a TV biopic, highlighting—with admiration and easy praise—his marriage, athleticism, charisma and drive, and his obsession with joining the Navy and in particular the Navy SEALs. The book begins with rhetorical questions that might seem more appropriate in a People magazine puff piece—"Is he a business genius? A war profiteer? The lucky recipient of a government shell game? What makes him tick?"—as well as a quiet thanks to Prince for the access granted to its author: "Over the course of 18 months [...] he gave me the chance to find out."

It isn't entirely clear why this material appears so prominently in a book about the world's most notorious military contractor, Blackwater USA, whose headquarters are located in Moyock, in the northeastern part of the state. Perhaps Simons felt it necessary to present the information as a show of good faith that she wasn't embarking on a hatchet job. But even a fervent admirer of Prince would be hard-pressed to gloss over the firm's latest bout of bad publicity: According to a recent report by The Nation, two sworn affidavits were presented to a grand jury in Virginia federal court earlier this month containing allegations that Prince was conducting religious warfare against Muslims in addition to smuggling weapons and murdering people perceived as hostile to his company. These charges of an anti-Muslim crusade operating out of North Carolina weirdly juxtapose last month's high-profile terror arrests of seven Muslim men from Willow Spring for allegedly plotting religious warfare abroad. The chances of also seeing Erik Prince in an orange jumpsuit are probably remote, but one may wish for that spectacle upon finishing Simons' book.

Blackwater USA has become infamous worldwide as the poster child for the private contractors still operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, so much so that it has now rebranded itself Xe (after the chemical symbol for the inert and non-explosive gas xenon) in an effort to escape its toxic reputation. If Simons—an executive producer at CNN—was indeed casting about for positive material that might somehow "balance" the disturbing history of Blackwater she was about to provide, even this doesn't pan out: Prince's dedication to the SEALs, while impressive, is complicated by his decision to cut his service short to take charge of a multimillion-dollar financial empire after the death of his father, and the love story of his first marriage is at least partially tarnished by the presence of his mistress (pregnant with his child) at his wife's funeral from cancer.

And this is all before we have delved into the disastrous history of Blackwater itself. Prince—who seems to have charmed Simons, at least for a while, and who I'm certain is well-liked in his private life and well-loved by his family—oversaw and in many ways orchestrated the radical free-market privatization of the U.S. military operations during the George W. Bush years, which led not only to untold and unnecessary misery in Iraq but which dangerously blurred the lines between corporations and the government. Unaccountable to military law and more expensive (and less competent) than the soldiers it replaced, Blackwater leaves behind a legacy of costly errors and human tragedies that no number of humanizing anecdotes can wash away.

Suzanne Simons
  • Suzanne Simons

Simons confronts the firm's unfortunate legacy, beginning with the infamous murder of four Blackwater contractors at Fallujah on March 31, 2004, which marked one particularly visceral turning point in American public opinion about the war. An ongoing wrongful death lawsuit later filed by the families alleges that the company did not follow through on the protections it had promised to its Iraq contractors, including that they would operate in teams of no fewer than six in heavily armed, armored vehicles; as Simons demonstrates, Blackwater eventually countersued for $10 million, claiming violation of a contract that prohibits all lawsuits against the company. Likewise, Blackwater/ Xe faces accusations of negligence (and a wrongful death lawsuit) over a 2004 Presidential Airways crash in Afghanistan that killed six after pilots with incomplete training crashed the plane in the Hindu Kush mountain range.

In terms of its prosecution of the war, Simons spends long sections of the book considering the many accusations against Blackwater of overcharging and war profiteering that have been the subject of myriad congressional hearings. (In one memorable moment, Simons juxtaposes Prince's angry insistence that Blackwater is not a mercenary firm because "Blackwater does not now, nor has it ever, provided security services for, or on behalf of, any country other than the United States of America" with the reality of Blackwater's sister firm, Greystone Ltd., also owned by Prince, which does precisely that work.) Blackwater has also been dogged by incidents in Iraq like the Sept. 16, 2007, massacre in Nisoor Square, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed by the firm's contractors—most of which the FBI later determined were unjustified shootings—as well as charges that Blackwater illegally imported automatic firearms to Iraq that eventually reached the nation's black market. Through it all, despite the controversies, Blackwater has been awarded more than a billion dollars in government contracts; its involvement in Iraq came to an end not at the hands of the U.S. government but only after being expelled from the country by the new Iraqi government.

In the face of so much disaster, by the close of the book the Bush/ Cheney ideology of total privatization is not the only thing that lies tattered and exposed: so too does Prince himself. Heroic in the book's opening pages, Simons ends her portrait with Prince sputtering in impotent rage against a media he believes has unfairly maligned his company; the last words of the book are "It was the media that played a large role in the downfall of his company, and he would never forget it." Not negligence, not incompetence, not the awarding of work to private companies that the government should never have been doing in the first place, but the media. Lessons have not been learned.

Simons, for her part, does not flinch from her own evaluation of Prince. "While some champions of the free market system see him as a business genius," she writes, "others see him as a man with more money than wisdom, more energy than experience, and more determination than is good for him." But she reserves judgment when it comes to the Bush administration decisions that allowed Blackwater to make $100 million in profits in a war zone in the first place, suggesting only that this sort of highly lucrative military contracting may now be a permanent feature of U.S. military operations whether we like it or not. What, one wonders, would Bob Dylan have to say about that?

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