The Blackwater scandal has gotten plenty of media
coverage, and it deserves a lot more. Taxpayer subsidies for private mercenaries
are antithetical to democracy, and Blackwater's actions in Iraq have often been
murderous. But the scandal is unfolding in a U.S. media context that routinely
turns criticisms of the war into demands for a better war.
Many politicians are aiding this alchemy. Rhetoric from a House committee early
this month audibly yearned for a better war at a highly publicized hearing that
featured Erik Prince, the odious CEO of Blackwater USA.
A congressman from New Hampshire, Paul Hodes, insisted on the importance of
knowing "whether failures to hold Blackwater personnel accountable for
misconduct undermine our efforts in Iraq." Another Democrat on the panel,
Carolyn Maloney of New York, told Blackwater's top exec that "your actions
may be undermining our mission in Iraq and really hurting the relationship and
trust between the Iraqi people and the American military."
But the problem with Blackwater's activities is not that they "undermine"
the U.S. military's "efforts" and "mission" in Iraq. The
efforts and the mission shouldn't exist.
A real hazard of the preoccupation with Blackwater is that it will become a
scapegoat for what is profoundly and fundamentally wrong with the U.S. effort
and mission. Condemnation of Blackwater, however justified, can easily be siphoned
into a political whirlpool that demands a cleanup of the U.S. war effort
as though a relentless war of occupation based on lies could be redeemed by
better management as if the occupying troops in Army and Marine uniforms
are incarnations of restraint and accountability.
Midway through this month, the Associated Press reported that "U.S. and
Iraqi officials are negotiating Baghdad's demand that security company Blackwater
USA be expelled from the country within six months, and American diplomats appear
to be working on how to fill the security gap if the company is phased out."
We can expect many such stories in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, we get extremely selective U.S. media coverage of key Pentagon operations.
Bombs explode in remote areas, launched from high-tech U.S. weaponry, and few
who scour the American news pages and broadcasts are any the wiser about the
With all the media attention to sectarian violence in Iraq, the favorite motif
of coverage is the suicide bombing that underscores the conflagration as Iraqi-on-Iraqi
violence. American reporters and commentators rarely touch on the U.S. occupation
as perpetrator and catalyst of the carnage.
One of the most unusual aspects of the current Blackwater scandal is that it
places recent killings of Iraqi civilians front-and-center even though the killers
were Americans. This angle is outside the customary media frame that focuses
on what Iraqis are doing to each other and presents Americans whether in
military uniform or in contractor mode as well-meaning heroes who sometimes
become victims of dire circumstances.
Many members of Congress, like quite a few journalists, have hopped on the
anti-Blackwater bandwagon with rhetoric that bemoans how the company is making
it more difficult for the U.S. government to succeed in Iraq. But the American
war effort has continued to deepen the horrors inside that country. And Washington's
priorities have clearly placed the value of oil way above the value of human
life. So why should we want the U.S. government to succeed in Iraq?
Unless the deadly arrogance of Blackwater and its financiers in the U.S. government
is placed in a broader perspective on the U.S. war effort as a whole, the vilification
of the firm could distract from challenging the overall presence of American
forces in Iraq and the air war that continues to escalate outside the American
The current Blackwater scandal should help us to understand the dynamics that
routinely set in when occupiers whether privatized mercenaries or uniformed
soldiers rely on massive violence against the population they claim to be
Terrible as Blackwater has been and continues to be, that profiteering corporation
should not be made a lightning rod for opposition to the war. New legislation
that demands accountability from private security forces can't make a war that's
wrong any more right. Finding better poster boys who can be touted as humanitarians
rather than mercenaries won't change the basic roles of gun-toting Americans
in a country that they have no right to occupy.