As the Iraqi government threatens to expel all foreign mercenaries following the Blackwater shootout, the role of private military contractors is once again in the spotlight. There's no denying that the rise of the private military contractor is transforming the way we wage war. They earn four times more than regular soldiers, act with impunity and - in Iraq - outnumber all non-US soldiers combined. ‘Private Armies’ follows the training and deployment of these men. From skidding around a racing track, practising escaping from kidnappers, to dodging bullets in Baghdad, it’s an eye-opening look at life as a private soldier.
Taiji, Northern Baghdad, is one of the worst places in the world to get a flat tyre. “We’re in the midst of the most dangerous spot ever and he chooses to stop the car”, fumes security contractor Jean-Pierre, despairing at the driver of the convoy he’s escorting. “The motherfucker has lost his mind”. Nearby another car burns while Jean-Pierre nervously clutches his gun.
At times like this, earning up to $20,000 a month means nothing. He’s already narrowly escaped an ambush and is becoming increasingly bitter. “At the beginning, I was not afraid at all”, he confides. Now, he readily admits to being; “scared to death”. Many of his missions are in areas where even US soldiers don’t go. “Those areas aren’t secure at all. We are the only dummies there”.
Emblazoned in every contractors’ mind is the image of four Blackwater staff being dragged through the streets of Fallujah and lynched. Scott Helvenston was one of the men who died. His mother is now suing Blackwater and blames them for his death. “They’re whores who don’t care about the men they hire”, she claims. “They’re only interested in money”.
Scott and his colleagues had only just arrived in Iraq when they were sent to one of the most dangerous areas in the country to collect kitchen equipment. When Scott protested, he was told; “he would be on the streets of Baghdad and would have to make his own way back to America”, unless he accepted the job. But Blackwater couldn’t even provide maps for its staff. Lost and disorientated, they took a wrong turn and ended up driving through Fallujah instead of around it. “They had no idea of what they were doing”, laments Scott’s mother.
Many believe Blackwater exploited the deaths of its men to secure additional contracts. The day after the lynchings, it got a standing ovation in Congress. Blackwater’s senior executive, Joseph Schmitz, held a high profile seat in the Ministry of Defence and has close ties to Donald Rumsfeld. He sees Blackwater as the natural fusion of business and patriotism and boasts; “our client is the American people”.
According to Schmitz, it was Blackwater, not the government, that restored order to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. “We got there days before the National Guard arrived and we were responsible for the looters leaving the French quarter”. He even believes Blackwater could have prevent the French riots in 2005.
As political pressure grows to bring the troops back, private military companies are shouldering more of the burden. “With private contractors, America is able to stay in Iraq for much longer and without as much political fallout”, explains Tara Macelvy from ‘American Prospect Magazine’. Jean-Pierre puts it more succinctly. “We’re cannon fodder”.