At long last, Robert Young Pelton's book, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, is out. (Back in December of 2005 when I pre-ordered it, I think it's scheduled pub date was something like April.) Despite its subject matter, the world of mercenaries and private military contractors, the book reads like a fascinating letter from a friend. It is thoughtful, funny, and humane in its exploration of a politically loaded topic.
In general, I expect that opinions on this book are going to gravitate around this issue of whether or not it's "biased," and in which direction. I'm not going to venture an opinion on that, since surely I am at least as "biased" as Pelton. What I will say is that Pelton treats his subjectmatter as ethically complex, which indeed it is. And he neither succumbs to over-identifying with the dudes he's hanging with, nor to simple repulsion at the whole enterprise.
The book opens with a Prologue detailing his meeting with Eric Prince, owner and founder of Blackwater, who articulates Blackwater’s ambitions, a corporately oriented optimism about the future of privatized military services. In the prologue, Pelton distinguishes between what in generally understood to be the distinction between mercenaries and security contractors:
Mercenaries fight, while security contractors protect, . . . at least, that’s the dividing line that’s supposed to exist. (5)
Destabilizing this apparent distinction is a theme that continues throughout the book.
The book’s Introduction is just the sort of action scene editor’s like to have at the beginning of books: a round trip down the legendarily dangerous “Route Irish” to the Baghdad Airport with Blackwater’s Mamba Team:
. . . it’s 2:43 and we’ve just completed the most perilous eight-minute drive in the world. (13)
The main text of the book is in three sections:
1. Hired Guns, which discusses
- the longest running CIA contractor, Billy Waugh,
- contractors inside Pakistan involved in operations that aren't supposed to exist,
- and the problematic use of American security contractors to guard foreign heads of state;
2. The New Breed, which focuses mostly on Blackwater; and
3. Of Rogues and Tycoons, which covers such characters as Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, Tim Spicer, executives of Blackwater, Richard Bethell (Lord Westbury), Simon Mann, and Niek Du Toit.
A fair amount of what is in this book has been touched on at one point or another in my blog.
The Prologue and Introduction introduce companies, characters and topics, while also promising more thrilling action. But it is with Chapter 1, Kill them All, that we really get going. It is the chapter about Billy Waugh and what, through a certain lens, might be seen as the Good Old Days when the CIA and it’s contractors could just go out and kill people; how the backlash against the Vietnam War reined in the CIA; how this played itself out later; how Waugh could have killed Osama bin Laden and didn’t because he wasn’t allowed to; and how this legacy played itself out in post-9/11 Afghanistan with both the CIA and the emergence of companies like Blackwater. Fascinating stuff. In principle, I knew a fair amount of what was in the chapter from reading a pile of CIA memoirs a while back, but Pelton’s chapter has a deeply unsettling historical momentum about it that the memoirs lack.
Chapter 2, Edge of Empire, is a wry discussion of the geopolitical realities (or unrealities?) of the area surrounding the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where bin Laden is sometimes said to be hiding. He finds an American base inside Pakistan that is not supposed to exist, that the actual border seems to be almost unmarked, and much else involving security contractors and surreal layers of deniability cleaving the official story from reality. Last year, when I was helping with disaster relief mapping following the Pakistan earthquake, I heard many peculiar things about the Pakistani government’s attitude towards maps—for example, that the exact location of some of the towns affected by the earthquake was initially considered by the government to be classified information—and this chapter puts some of that insanity into context for me.
Chapter 3, The Praetorian Guard, is an interesting exploration of the role of American security contractors as protectors for foreign heads of state. The examples in this chapter are Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, but Pelton revisits this topic toward the end of the book in his discussion of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, and what would have been Severo Moto’s situation had the coup succeeded: not good at all.
In Chapter 4, Confirmed Kills, we get a sense of the new security contractor utopia. The chapter opens at the Dallas Convention Center during the American Society for Industrial Security convention.
Before 9/11, the industry had only a limited market for the services of the men who now flock to these conferences looking for IC opportunities. The war in Afghanistan opened the door to more widespread employment of independent security contractors, and then Iraq kicked that door off it's hinges, stomped on it, burned it, and scattered the ashes. Iraq has been to the private security industry what the development of the first user-friendly Web browser was to the dot-com boom. (97)
Bush had opened up the War on Terror by issuing a license to kill with his post-9/11 presidential finding authorizing targeted assassination, but it would be Bremer's Order 17 that would really unleash the security contractors in Iraq. (114)
And this is what the Billy Waugh chapter has set us up for—to understand the nature of this utopia: these guys who might only find marginal employment in the US, can make $600 a day to go to Iraq and do what Waugh, for many years, was not allowed to do. The leash is off and the dogs are out.
Chapter 5, Blackwater Bridge, discusses the Fallujah incident, in which four Blackwater contractors died in gruesome ways and their remains paraded through the streets and hung from a bridge, as a turning point for the public perception of "security contractors" in Iraq, and its complex aftermath.
Chapters 6, Under Siege, is perhaps my favorite in the book. It explores the complexities of two notable combat situations, An Najaf and Al Kut. In the former situation, it seems that security contractors (whom the US military observed but did not assist) were expected to abandon their position on the roof of the Najaf CPA compound. Instead they stayed to fight and videotaped themselves doing it. The videos subsequently circulated on the Internet.
While the rules of engagement allowed contractors to fire in defense of their lives, the formulations of those rules had not anticipated contractors being dropped into a situation where they would engage in hours of combat without outside support. The other outcome that became very clear was that ex-soldiers given a license to kill may choose not to cut and run as they are trained and paid to do, but eagerly and repeatedly fire into the crowds that surround them. (153-154)
This section gives a much clearer picture of why the security contractors circulated videos of themselves shooting at Iraqis: they were allowed to shoot when the US military and coalition forces were held back. In the "turkey shoot" video, the shooter, whom Pelton identifies as "Mookie Spicoli" clearly enjoys what he is doing.
The Al Kut incident shows the flip-side of this. A group of security contractors alert Bremer to impending problems, who asks them not to exaggerate. The men are unsupported and under attack for days. Some are killed. When they finally come up with a plan to escape with their lives, an official of the CPA tries to prevent their escape. The CPA seemed determined to use them up and throw them away like so much Kleenex: truly appalling. Apparently, although the dogs are out, they are sometimes treated like dogs.
Chapter 7, The Dog Track and the Swamp, chronicles Pelton's visits to Blackwater training facilities, one of which is a dog track. This chapter contains one of the most entertaining sections of the book in which Pelton himself gets to teach in a training program called Mirror Image which simulates, "terrorist recruiting, training techniques, and operational tactics." His students are "Special Forces, Secret Service, marines, FBI agents, independent contractors, and other hand-picked attendees." (183) Pelton, who has been to Chechnya, has his team play "Chechens." The section is hilarious. I wish they had video of this.
The targets will be expecting the attackers to approach via one of the roads that lead into the village, so the Chechens sneak in from behind the berm of a live firing range and attack from behind, something that freaks out the lead instructor, but gives the team the perfect element of surprise. (192)
Clearly, Pelton was having a good time.
In Chapter 8, we revisit the Blackwater's Team Mamba in Baghdad, first introduced in the book's Introduction. Pelton gives a detailed sense of their day-to-day existence and of the circumstances of their employment. The chapter contains another of the book's funniest sections: when outgoing Blackwater security contractors and the plane crew go through security at Baghdad International Air Port on their way out of Iraq to Jordan:
At the gate, an older American with a bad comb-over pats us all down in a needlessly touchy body search—particularly needless when a flight member admits to Mr. Comb-Over that he is wearing a loaded 9-mm Glock. He gets searched anyway, and then hilariously they put his gun through the X-ray machine before returning it. . . .
Once we're on the plane, the Blackwater crew breaks open a large aluminum box and hands out a loaded M4 weapon to each passenger. (223)
Part 3, Of Rogues and Tycoons, begins with another of the book's funniest sections: Pelton's chapter on Jack Idema, a man emblematic of just how far a wannabee can go in a failed state, in this case Afghanistan in the post-9/11 culture of fear and confusion. The voice of Billy Waugh returns:
We only had 80 guys involved in our [Afghanistan] operations and Idema wasn't one of them. (239)
The best part of the chapter concerns Idema's rewriting of Robin Moore's The Hunt for bin Laden prior to its publication. Pelton writes:
I am actually featured in The Hunt for bin Laden and can speak from my own experience . . . Though they never met or talked to Idema, and despite the fact that almost ten members had carefully detailed their actions to Moore at K2, the first chapter puts forth an account of the team's infill into Afghanistan that the men tell me has been entirely fabricated. (243)
The chapter concludes with a paragraph that begins:
That such a transparent criminal could so easily label himself a contractor to act out his own covert paramilitary fantasy is a warning about the growing ubiquity of independent contractors. (250)
Chapter 10, The Very Model of a Modern Major Mercenary, concerns the rise of Tim Spicer, former President of Sandline, widely regarded as an example of upward-mobile failure (though Pelton does not say this), and Spicer's new company Aegis. The description of Pelton's interview with Spicer is a comedy of manners. What Pelton does not mention is that he was previously sued and settled out of court for his depiction of Spicer in a previous book. Our narrator, however, is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places and so does not fear to tread into the office of someone who sued him. (I myself once had my own run-in with Spicer's attorney, Richard Slowe.) What I found most interesting in the chapter was former Sandline accountant Michael Grunberg's account of what the take was for those running Executive Outcomes:
Even though they had difficulty extracting payments from the second operation, the men had generated extraordinary persona income. After the successes in Angola and Sierra Leone, EO had come to a natural end. According to Grunberg, "Eben [Barlow] took ten million and walked away. They all did very well. Simon [Mann] pocketed $60 million and Tony [Buckingham] banked $90 million." (263)
Simon Mann, one of the Executive Outcomes founders, is to have a starring role in Chapter 12, in which the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt is discussed. Apparently, he wanted more from life.
Chapter 11, The Lord and the Prince, is an examination of how the legacy of Executive Outcomes ans Sandline informs and shapes the ambitions of the principals of Blackwater and of HART Security. Of particular interest to me was the account of HART's contract with the government of Somalia in light of my adventure late last year writing about Top Cat Marine Security's signing of a contract with the Transitional Government of Somalia. Pelton remarks of the HART contract:
Other similar ventures by former soldiers have always fallen apart due to inherent corruption in local governments. (290)
Chapter 12, The Bight of Benin Company, is the chapter I ordered the book for in the first place, back in December. It concerns the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, which is what first interested me in the subject of military privatization. If not for my reading about and researching what was up with N4610, a former US military plane which ended up in Zimbabwe with a load of mercenaries in it, back in March of 2004, I would not be writing this now, nor would I have read this book.
In addition to providing a smooth, gripping narrative of events I learned about by obsessively reading news stories coming out of Africa two years ago, he covers some documents I had previous access to, most notably a document entitled "Assisted Regime Change." All by themselves, these documents, with their paranoia and layers of duplicity even among plotters, give us a blueprint for a future dystopia if "regime change" is privatized on a large scale. Here's a sample:
The "Bight of Benin Company" (BBC), written in the archaic British schoolboy style typical of Simon Mann, is a Machiavellian plan laced with paranoia and greed. The document lays out a plan to turn EG into something resembling the British East India Company. It details the coup backers' intent to claim the sole right to make agreements ad contracts wit the newly installed government . . . The BBC makes it abundantly clear that Moto is disposable and that his main backer, Eli Khalil, was not to be trusted. (318)
One document he doesn't talk much about, but I have been told the contents of, is the contract for the purchase of N4610 from Dodson. One idiocy of the coup plot was that N4610 was a tail number registered to the US Air National Guard. So to me one big question was always why didn't the plotters take the trouble to paint on a different tail number. The answer is, I think, in the contract. The contract specified a buy-back price for the plane; viewed that way, it was essentially a rental agreement with a damage deposit. In my opinion, they didn't paint over the tail number because the plotters had to give the plane back; Sandline declared itself defunct about a month after the plane was impounded.
While previous chapters showed how security contractors could be treated like dogs by those who employed them, one of the features of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot narrative is "the divide between the backers and those in prison." Though I have little sympathy for Simon Mann, for whom a $60 million take from Executive Outcomes was not enough, the coup backers did far too little to help him -- and those arrested with him -- once he got busted. Simon Man is currently fighting extradition from his jail cell in Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, where he could expect a much longer jail sentence.
Pelton as it happens had once retained Nick du Toit, leader of the EQ-based portion of the plot, for security in a 2002 trip to Africa. He returns to Africa and interviews du Toit in jail.
What I learned from Niek is that in the debate between contractor and mercenary, it will always come down to the individual. When Niek du Toit was my security man, I knew him as an upstanding, loyal, dependable provider of security in what was at the time the world's most dangerous place. Now, four years later, he is a criminal behind bars for what appears to be the rest of his life. (333)
The book concludes with an Epilogue in which Pelton visits one of the Blackwater contractors he spent time with in Baghdad after the man's return the the US. The man was badly injured after Pelton's departure. The epilogue is a mediation on both the lack of accounting on the actual number of security contractor deaths, and on the contractors' own lack of accountability:
As of spring 2006, there has not been one single contractor charged for any crime that occurred in Iraq, though hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed for offenses ranging from minor violations of military code to murder. (341)
He remarks also:
Working in violent areas and being given a license to kill can be frightening to some and an addictive adrenaline rush to others. It is impossible to predict how successfully the thousands of security contractors now working in Iraq will integrate back into normal civilian life after their wellspring of employment dries up. (342)
Elsewhere, interviewed in Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque's documentary Shadow Company, Pelton is a bit more blunt. He says: "Some of these guys couldn't work in Walmart."
Corporatizing war is presented by the purveyors of private military
services as a way of streamlining, of cutting out the red tape, of
increasing efficiency, under controlled circumstances. But throughout
the book, Pelton has shown just how fluid the line is between security
contractor and mercenary, between defending a fixed asset and just
plain combat, between security guard and criminal.
Combine this with the current nostalgia for the olden days when political assassination was an essential part of the toolbox of American foreign policy, and a move to reinstate that practice happening simultaneously with a massive swing toward privatization, and we find that our world is a strange place indeed.
An important theme of the book is the contrast between American and British attitudes toward privatized security:
It becomes clear to me during the meeting that there remains a very high wall between the HART's very English view of security, and of Blackwater's view of a brave new neocon world. . . . While [Blackwater's Erik] Prince paints a flashy, high-tech, road-warrior-style military company that could solve any client's problem by an application of sheer brute force and advanced weaponry, [HART's] Richard [Bethell] and George [Simm] calmly promote the idea of low-key and culturally integrated solutions. (301)
This contrast corresponds roughly to the contrast between American and British imperialism, but an imperialism at least partly uncoupled from the traditional imperialist powers, namely governments; an imperialism increasingly removed from oversight by the British and American publics.
What we have here, in the end, is an important book on where the 21st century is taking us, exploring the dystopian potiential of military privatization, even for the very people engaged in it. If there is any possibility to avert the dystopia, it lies in transparency. And so this book is very much a step in the right direction.