Illustration by ALEX FINE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Blackwater founder Erik Prince will be speaking at the Free Library on Friday to promote his new book, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story Of Blackwater & The Unsung Heroes Of The War On Terror, his compelling counter-narrative about the rise and fall of Blackwater. Not surprisingly, in Prince’s telling Blackwater is essentially blameless for any and all murder and mayhem that has occurred on its watch. Yesterday we got Prince on the phone and asked who, in the final accounting, will have to answer for all that murder and mayhem. Turns out nobody will. DISCUSSED: The definition of war profiteering; why he’ll never work for the U.S. State Department again; how the War on Terror has gone too far; how Edward Snowden did his country a service; how we lost Iraq; how we’re losing Afghanistan; and how he squares his devout Christianity with the violence of his chosen profession.
PHAWKER: Your book is a very compelling and cleanly-delineated counter-narrative to the portrait of Blackwater that has been painted in the media over the years. It’s a great read for John Wayne types and Fox News buffs…
ERIK PRINCE: It also has the benefit of being true.
PHAWKER: OK, that leads in to the second half of my question: in your book you and Blackwater are almost entirely blameless in all the controversies over the years, which, as a journalist, beggars disbelief. It’s always been my experience that there are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth.
ERIK PRINCE: You know what, we certainly don’t claim to be perfect. We’re all human beings, we all do stupid things and certainly as a company and/or our people in the field certainly made mistakes along the way. But the book is written in a way to describe the rules and guidance and control that they operated under from the company and particularly from the government customers they were working for.
PHAWKER: You say they regret working for the U.S. government, that you would never do so again. That many of the things Blackwater was accused of – being trigger happy cowboys that caused a lot of collateral damage and civilian fatalities in Iraq, etc. – was the result of State Department protocols that dictated operating procedures on the ground that served to call unwanted attention to the presence of high-value targets that you guys were defending. That there were almost no incidents of violence with the NGOs and civilian contractors you were also protecting, when you could do things your way.
ERIK PRINCE: Tragically, one of the big regrets, or big mistakes, that we made was not absolutely mandating – we requested cameras many months before Nissour Square, but were denied them by State Department lawyers and bureaucrats. You know, if I could send a message to myself back then, I would say, ‘OK, go to the point of a labor stoppage. An all out labor strike,’ saying we will not do another mission until dash cams – similar to what a policeman would have in his cruiser – are there to protect from a he said/she said scenario. It would protect our civilians; it would protect our people; and certainly protect the company.
PHAWKER: You say in the book that there was something like 172 other military contractor companies operating on the ground in Iraq. Why was it that we never heard about them and we only heard about Blackwater?
ERIK PRINCE: I think the American populace was growing tired of the war by 2006/2007. During the Vietnam War, the anti-war left went after troops; this time they went after contractors. Blackwater became a pretty easy target for them between me being the sole owner of the business. That the company owned a lot aircraft, having its own resources, and me coming from a right-of-center Republican-leaning family. All those things kind of fit into the perfect narrative of attacking the company, attacking me, and doing anything they could to discredit what was scene as the Bush administration’s effort in Iraq.
PHAWKER: You blanch at being called a war-profiteer, understandably so, but if you break it down, and in the strictest definition of the term, is that not what Blackwater did? There was a war that provided business opportunities, you were running a for-profit business, and you made a profit.
ERIK PRINCE: Sure, but the way the word is usually described is you use war to make an obscene profit, a ridiculously high profit or gouging government and that is just not the case. The company did make some money and that money was put back into buying more resources to serve the government with. Look, we grew from one leased aircraft in 2003 to 73 just six years later. We were the only contractor that showed up with our own aircraft to fly in those competitively bid contracts for the State Department, or the Air Force, or whatever.
PHAWKER: Looking at the war in Iraq in retrospect, what’s your verdict? Was it an essential, if costly, sacrifice for American national security? Or a debacle that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, drained the nation of blood and treasure and, in the end, simply traded one unfriendly, oppressive regime for another?
ERIK PRINCE: You know, the sad thing is today that Iraq is completely lost. We completely lost it to Iranian influence. There was a window that the U.S. could have held on and could have encouraged a more moderate pro-Western leader. In the last big election cycle that they had, Ali A. Allawi won the election. He won the most votes in that election; it was recognized that he won the most votes. But the U.S. let Nouri al-Maliki hold on and with a lot of Iranian money and a lot of Iranian influence, to keep Allawi from ever taking a seat in the government, let alone the Prime Ministership. Thus the Iranians managed to keep their ally in the driver seat in Iraq despite all that blood, toil, and treasure from the U.S. to change the country.
PHAWKER: What do you make of American strategy and tactics in Afghanistan? What outcome do you foresee?
ERIK PRINCE: Look, the U.S. has built a few valiant Afghan units that can fight – that will fight – but they depend way too much on U.S. capacity for the logistics and spare parts and resupply. If the U.S. were to leave right away, the entire Afghan army would wither very quickly. Because, as you know, an army withers very quickly if it’s not a resupplied and compensated military. I say one of the big mistakes is that the U.S. never tried to build the economy side of Afghanistan. There’s a lot of mineral wealth, there’s a lot of gas under the ground, there’s a lot of things that would allow the country to ring the cash register, provide jobs for the people, and soak up a lot of that idle talent sitting around. I mark that to a deficiency of the state government.
PHAWKER: But there seems to be complete and utter reluctance on the part of the Afghan people to embrace any form of modernity — including liberal democracy — except from the slim minority of Afghans that are educated. The majority of people seem to be stubbornly stuck in the Middle Ages and happily so.
ERIK PRINCE: There are a lot of people stubbornly stuck, but I would say every one of them would embrace regular electricity, or paved roads, or those kind of things we take for granted in the West.
PHAWKER: I was somewhat surprised to learn that you have come to the conclusion that the War on Terror has gone too far.
ERIK PRINCE: I think it’s long overdue time to cut the size of the defense and intelligence budgets, because they’ve been so big for so long that they’ve created this very plodding, unresponsive, non-nimble bureaucracy that truly can’t get out of its own way. In a time where we should have some budget austerity, [instead of] spending our children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance. I say take away the argument from the right, that they can’t cut the budget because of defense, and from the left, that they can’t cut the budget because of social programs. I say there’s room to cut all of those things. The defense and intelligence departments would certainly be better off having those budgets trimmed.
PHAWKER: Was it not a mistake in the first place to ever call it a ‘War On Terror’ when in fact terror isn’t an enemy, it’s a tactic? It’s a euphemism for asymmetrical warfare. And you can’t declare war on a tactic. Nor can you win one. A tactic can’t surrender.
ERIK PRINCE: Hey look, I came into this whole program from the bottom-up; I can’t really speak to the titles that people use, or the policies, or whatever. I can certainly comment on what it’s like being a vendor and serving the government to try and accomplish these very difficult jobs in difficult places.
PHAWKER: What do you make of the recent disclosures about the activities of the NSA, specifically as it applies to the mass surveillance of the electronic communications of American citizens?
ERIK PRINCE: I think the NSA has gone too far. I think oversight in those areas is very weak and I believe that we as American people should be very careful not to trade liberty for the illusion of security.
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t know what to characterize him, but I would say he did a public service by stimulating serious debate on the matter because I believe our government goes way too far with collecting on Americans in all areas. So, for that, he did a great public service. I don’t know what else he’s disclosed, but it was a brave thing he did to speak a little truth to power on this.
PHAWKER: It’s often said that soldiers are fighting for each other or their country, but rarely for the agenda of political leaders, that their job is not to question whether a war is right or wrong; it’s just to win it. But is there not a higher responsibility and a higher form of patriotism and morality that requires all men to question the morality of their actions and the morality of their country’s actions, and that includes foreign policy initiatives and war making, and even if you are just ‘following orders’, if the orders contribute to immoral acts, you are complicit in immoral acts?
ERIK PRINCE: Sure, and that’s why we have federal elections every two years. That’s why we have a republic and not a direct democracy. I think for America to realize its limitations is important. Unfortunately, the government has proven it doesn’t do well at nation-building, and I think we’ll tread very carefully in that space going forward.
PHAWKER: You’re a devout Christian, I’m wondering how you square the violence of your past profession with the teachings of Jesus Christ who was, above all things, a man of peace.
ERIK PRINCE: Well, there are plenty of teachings in the Church of Just War Theory and all the rest.
PHAWKER: Just to be clear, that came long after Jesus died, he never says anything in the New Testament about any war being ‘just.’
ERIK PRINCE: As I said to graduating classes of Afghan border police, and I guess it’s one of the most satisfying things, to see the look of these Afghans, who live in a country that has been suffering from war for over thirty years, really since the Soviets rolled in there in 1979. To be able to teach them things like “intro to flush toilet use” and all the rest. But to have them in a course, that for eight weeks, they saw excellence; that the light switch turned on when they switched it; that the instructor showed up on time and they knew their subject matter; that there was ammunition to shoot at the range; that the food showed up on time; all these things. Because they lived in a failed and crumbled state for most of their lives and to be exposed to excellence…As I said at the graduation, “we are glad to be here to help you reclaim your country and to make peace, because we feel for those poor people living under a state of warfare and intimidation by either criminal thugs or radical jihadis who are trying to impose their will on all those people. We just want them to be able to live and be free and we take great satisfaction to be able to do that for them.
ERIK PRINCE: Well, I certainly wouldn’t have the company go to war for the State Department. The amount of politics that go into working for them certainly is a huge disincentive for that kind of work; it’s just not worth it. But I will also say, it’s sad that Blackwater wasn’t on the job in Benghazi because having done one hundred thousand [body guard] missions between Iraq and Afghanistan, no one under our care was ever killed or injured. I’m comfortable with saying that the U.S. ambassador in Libya would still be alive if the Blackwater guys were on the job there.
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