Video: The truth behind Blackwater

By Military analyst
updated 9/24/2007 2:22:32 PM ET 2007-09-24T18:22:32

As with most events that capture the attention of the media and the public, the recent incident in Iraq, in which armed employees of the American security company Blackwater USA killed a number of civilians, spawned several conflicting accounts of the event.

Blackwater evidently reported that its convoy was ambushed with an improvised explosive device, and that its employees then fired at what they believed were the insurgents responsible. The Iraqi government refuted that and said that there was an IED, but it was very far away, and that the Blackwater people started shooting when a car didn’t heed a policeman’s warning to stop. In the process, they killed a woman, her child and a number of bystanders. The death toll was originally reported as six, but on Wednesday, Sept. 19, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense reported that eight or more had been killed.

Whatever is the truth about the events, the incident illuminates one of the many problems with the way we are attempting to achieve the mission in Iraq.

Because there are so many non-military operatives in Iraq, some analysts put the number near 160,000, the same size as our military force there, so the burden of providing for their security is huge. With an insufficient American military presence to achieve all of our tactical goals, we don’t have adequate resources to perform our primary missions, let alone to guard scattered installations and thousands of American civilian officials and contractors. As a result of this shortage of people, we have outsourced a portion of our security mission in Iraq to companies that provide armed contractors, one of which is Blackwater USA. Among other things, Blackwater provides security for people working for the U.S. State Department.

Blackwater’s security people are paid much more than American service members, which is the only way people can be enticed to work in Iraq if they are not motivated by the patriotism that we see among our troops. Blackwater people are trained in small unit tactics and the use of weapons. Most of them have military or law enforcement experience, and they should have some idea what they are doing.

In the Armed Forces, troops are closely supervised, operate within a tight chain-of-command, and are responsible for everything they do or fail to do. Even in a combat zone, they receive continuing training according to a strict program of instruction and are regularly reminded of the rules of engagement. Before a military unit embarks on a mission, the troops receive a thorough briefing whose structure is identical to every other operations order in the military, and the units often conduct rehearsals before they depart on the mission.

Most important, all service members are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Almost all of these splendid citizens are magnificent representatives of our nation, but it is regrettable that from time to time, troops commit acts that require summary discipline or courts-martial, and the nature of combat is such that some of the crimes are particularly reprehensible. Troops have been prosecuted for mistreatment of prisoners, for murder, for conspiracy, for theft, for insubordination, for crimes great and small.

But it appears that the employees of Blackwater are subject to no disciplinary regimen, and even if they are truly guilty of malfeasance in the deaths of the Iraqi civilians, it is likely that no one, not the Defense Department nor the State Department nor the government of Iraq, can prosecute them.

The Iraqi government is understandably irate about all of this because Iraqi President Maliki’s inability to control or punish this kind of behavior makes him look like an impotent lackey of the United States. Perhaps just as bad, Blackwater’s suspension from duty means that State Department operators can’t be protected and are now restricted to hanging around the Green Zone. None of this is helpful to the government of Iraq or to our interests there.

In an ideal world, everybody, including armed contractors, would act properly, even in the absence of specific guidance to do so. But real life isn’t ideal, and in the end, training, supervision and leadership are the only guarantees that the right thing is always done. If these sad events demonstrate anything, it’s that we should never give people authority without also holding them accountable for what they do in our name.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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