Book Reviews

Blackwater: the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army
by Jeremy Scahil (Serpent’s Tail)

Gwen Ansell

Naomi Klein begins her analysis of disaster capitalism in the post-Katrina food queues of New Orleans 2005: a city transformed almost overnight into its own dystopian future. Jeremy Scahill begins his book on the streets of Falluja 2004, where four Americans described by the United States media as ‘civilian contractors” or ‘reconstruction workers” were ambushed, lynched and burned.

What links the two scenes is the presence of a previously low-profile company, Blackwater, whose heavily-armed squads policed both.
The four men in Fallujah may not have been part of the US military, but they were hardly ‘civilians” either. They were soldiers for hire: mercenaries.

Scahill’s book is a lengthy and painstaking piece of research examining the company, its history and actions, and the convenient fit between the growth of the mercenary industry and the privatisation and expansionist policies of the current US regime.

It isn’t just a Republican project, however. Bill Clinton had no problems with privatising military functions, and authorised the mid-1990s training of the secessionist Croatian army by a private military company.

Scahill’s book begins with the story of the late, reclusive Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater. He was a scion of a right-wing Christian fundamentalist dynasty, but eventually forged a theocratic alliance with conservative Catholics to wage the crusade of which his company would be the military arm.

The company is 10 years old: the ground was broken for the first Blackwater military training camp in Camden County, close to Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp, in June 1997. From that point, Scahill traces the company’s growth and diversification, and its business, personal and ideological links with many of the leading neoconservatives in the Bush White House (most notably Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney)—but also with a far wider network of cronies in high places in many countries.

As well as bearing the Friedmanite stamp of doctrinal approval, using private armies has many advantages for a nation involved in risky foreign wars. It provides a palatable troop and body count, since dead ‘reconstruction workers” do not feature on army rolls or death tolls. Using private contractors to support dodgy foreign allies, conduct renditions or carry out interrogations keeps such activities under the radar of international scrutiny and law. And the mercenary soldiers themselves can be treated in ways that US military regulations would not permit.

All this may seem very distant from South Africa, but Scahill uncovers several local connections. One of George W Bush’s most valued post 9/11 advisers, vice-chairperson of Blackwater and an ardent advocate of private armies, is ambassador J Cofer Black. CIA veteran Black spent much of his career in Africa, working in Zambia, Somalia and here at the height of apartheid repression. He also played a major role, from Zaire, in arming anti-communist forces in Angola. Black came into contact with many South African former Special Forces operatives, of whom Blackwater employs its share.

When South Africa moved to pass groundbreaking and wide anti-mercenary legislation in 2005, its main international opponent was what Scahill calls ‘the Orwellian-named International Peace Operations Association” (IPOA): the worldwide mercenaries’ regulatory and lobbying body. Blackwater had been a leading founder-member. IPOA’s chairperson Doug Brooks lobbied against the laws in South Africa and around the world - at the same time as he was lobbying aggressively for mercenaries to be employed as peacekeepers in Sudan, the Congo and other crisis zones.

As he tells the story of Blackwater, Scahill also raises many other interesting questions. He analyses the international law implications of such activities. And he throws a spotlight on the geopolitics of both the Caspian region and Darfur. Sudan has oil, high-purity uranium and the world’s fourth-largest deposits of copper. Humanitarians calling for more vigorous action in the Darfur region share the cause with Blackwater, which has argued for a fast-reaction privatsed force to deal with the situation and thus open up lucrative investment opportunities.

But it’s the implications for American democracy that concern Scahill the most. Audits in Iraq have revealed how, despite contracts to serve the US or Iraqi state, private operators have swindled and run riot largely to their own agendas. Mercenary forces cannot guarantee even that the trains will run on time. A private army ultimately answerable to no one except the oligarchs who are its paymasters and shareholders has already operated in New Orleans, runs private ‘Christian prisons”, and is eyeing the policing of the Mexican border. Initiatives to police the inner cities privately cannot be far behind.

But this frightening power has a hollow at its core. Scahill quotes Michael Ratner of the US Center for Constitutional Rights pointing out that ‘the increasing use of — mercenaries makes wars easier to begin and to fight—it just takes the money and not the citizenry.” Ratner reminds us of another empire increasingly reliant on mercenaries to fight wars of resource exploitation and self-aggrandisement abroad and to control discontented citizens at home: the Roman Empire—in the period of its final decline.

Non-fiction

The Age of Fallibility: The Consequences of the War on Terror
by George Soros
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

Drew Forrest

The theme of George Soros’s latest book—the failure of the Bush administration’s war on terror and, more broadly, The United States’s dereliction of world leadership—is less interesting than what it reveals about Soros the man.

With Osama bin Laden still at large, a global upsurge in terrorist outrages, anarchy in Iraq and Iran bolstered as a regional power, the bankruptcy of neo-conservative foreign policy is plain for all to see. Those with only a modest grip on reality should require no convincing.

But The Age of Fallibility remains a good read for the light it sheds on a billionaire financier who is also a moderate left-winger, and who has decided to devote his vast wealth to reforming world affairs.

Philanthropy among the super-rich, of the type personified by Andrew Carnegie, is not uncommon. What sets Soros apart is determination to use his money in a liberal political cause, to promote open societies.

He emerges as heavily influenced by his father, an adventurous Hungarian Jew who became a passionate hedonist after escaping from a Russian prisoner of war camp in World War 1, and who organised false identities for his family to shield them from Nazi persecution.

It is from his father that he appears to have inherited his humanist outlook and his view that there are higher values than money-grubbing.

Pangs of humanist conscience probably underlie his pro-democracy activism. Although he denies it, he was accused by Malaysia’s Mohamed Mahatir of personally precipitating the emerging market crisis of 1997.

Soros says he is of an abstract cast of mind, and the first part of his book is a rather dry reflection on the flaws inherent in human cognitive activity and the ‘boom and bust” phenomenon from which he made his loot.

He then applies this theory to the US, finding that the delusions of the neo- conservatives—particularly the use of conventional military might to fight an invisible terrorist enemy—represent a similar ‘bubble”.

Soros provides an interesting analysis of the currents in the US’s democracy which allowed for George W Bush’s re-election, despite the dramatic curtailment of basic freedoms during his first presidential term.

At fault, he argues, are the cult of success, the commercialisation of politics and a ‘feel-good” climate among voters, prevalent since the Reagan years, which predispose politicians to mislead the electorate. The media have been similarly guilty of systematic failure to confront ordinary Americans with hard truths.

He highlights a paradox: by allowing diverse expression, open societies are better equipped to home in on ‘reality”. But they are inherently less certain and more fear-prone than their closed counterparts.

Fear is what underpins the US’s foreign policy aggression, Soros believes—fear of an uncertain world and, ultimately, death. ‘A feel-good society cannot accept death,” he writes. ‘Osama bin Laden correctly identified the one aspect in which militant Islam is superior to Western civilisation ... the perpetrators of 9/11 were not afraid to die.”

In his 76th year and without religious belief (like his father), Soros is ‘much possessed by death”. It is a recurrent theme of his book and, clearly, an important reason for the urgency of his world-reforming mission.

In a strange digression headed ‘The problem of death”, he explains how he has come to terms with personal mortality: ‘The fact of death is not the denial of life but its natural conclusion. If death comes at a time when all passions are spent, it need not be terrifying.”

In this respect, The Age of Fallibility is a medieval memento mori which holds a message for South Africa’s rapacious material accumulators. One of the world’s richest men has become conscious of his approaching end—and that he cannot take his billions with him.

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