Thoughts From a Former Army Captain on the Nisoor Square Shootings

Contractor is such a convenient word. The ubiquitous word for outsourced government services has such a broad scope that it is more likely to convey images of electricians and construction workers than it is to say, conjure up the spectre of armed civilians taking life while operating in a foreign, sovereign country. These American mercenaries are a supposedly efficient solution for a two-front war that has stretched a ten division Army to the limit. But, more importantly, they are not a fair or a moral solution. The current strategic and structural deficiencies that created a context in which private companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy thrived should be remedied as soon as possible before the United States find its’ prestige and honor further tarnished by more incidents like the Nisoor Square shootings.

The Nisoor Square shootings are a perfect example of the consequences of structural deficiencies that created an accountability vacuum around these guards who, from anecdotal experience and according to a recently released Senate report, are “reckless.” The changes that took effect in the wake of the Nisoor Square incident have not been substantive enough to align the mercenary culture with American morality.

I have driven through Nisoor Square many times, and, at a time when violence was peaking in Iraq: the spring and summer of 2007. The square is in fact a traffic circle just outside the Green Zone and it is almost always packed with cars. I am not surprised that a car drove towards the Blackwater convoy. In fact, I would be more surprised if a car didn’t drive towards their convoy. They are, after all, in the middle of an enormous city.

I am surprised by the amount of devastation wrought. Even ceding the dubious premise of a threatening car, I fail to comprehend how seventeen people were killed. Many of these men are former special operators; they are highly trained in hostage rescue and precision, discriminatory fires. At least one guard tried unsuccessfully to get the others to stop shooting . Combining this apparent fact with the scale of the shooting, the age of the victims and that some victims were shot in the back, does not suggest these men reacted in self-defense.

As the Senate Report and the aftermath of the Nisoor Square shootings illustrates, these mercenaries are such an alien entity to the military they operate with little supervision which translates into little accountability. And the people they protect, State Department diplomats, who complained of post traumatic stress disorder from the occasional mortar attack on the Green Zone , do not strike me as the type of people to report on misconduct by these guards. The culture in that organization, which nearly revolted at the concept of mandatory duty in Iraq at a time when the Army desperately needed help, does not lend itself to ratting on the men who cut corners to protect them.

The accountability issue is two-sided: civilians who are not trained for war are unlikely to question former SEALs and Green Berets protecting them and ad hoc solutions that attempt to integrate a civilian company into judicial processes designed for soldiers are unlikely to correct systemic deficiencies in the morality and culture of these private organizations who have sworn no oath to the constitution and who bear only as much loyalty to the strategic goals of the United States as one can expect from a man or woman who has agreed to potentially give his life for money.

As a soldier, I find the differences in pay immoral in the sense that they are unfair to our men and women who stay in uniform. At the end of the day, the United States government is writing the checks to military personnel and to mercenary companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy. An Army captain responsible for the lives of up to 200 men in a company is paid around 60k. An Army captain who hangs up his uniform and joins Blackwater or Triple Canopy can typically command a paycheck of 250-300k. I do not think this is the message that we want to send to our servicemen and women. Does the United States government really value the services of a private mercenary at four to five times the going rate it values those who are willing to die defending the American way of life?

Truly, the only solution for this problem is to create a flexible pay structure and a separate command administered by the military that can take advantage of the need for highly qualified combat veterans. A more flexible career path and incentive system would allow the military to retain more of these men and women that possess critical specialties. This system would allow accountability at the top while taking advantage of clear, well-established judicial processes for those trigger pullers who operate at the bottom. Relying on mercenaries and private CEOs who operate in an environment that is rife with the potential for another crisis creates a moral imperative for action.

General Douglas MacArthur, advocating a stiff punishment for Japanese General Tomayuki Yamashita for failing to prevent war crimes in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation, wrote these timeless words:

The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being. When he violates this sacred trust, he not only profanes his entire cult but threatens the very fabric of international society. The traditions of fighting men are long and honorable. They are based upon the noblest of human traits – sacrifice.

One of the victims in Nisoor Square was a nine year old girl. The Blackwater guards who killed her are acquitted and free not by the weight of the evidence but because of an inept investigation. What is our excuse if this happens again?

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts From a Former Army Captain on the Nisoor Square Shootings

  1. Andrew says:

    Very interesting article. I agree with your statement that “The current strategic and structural deficiencies that created a context in which private companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy thrived should be remedied as soon as possible…” In my opinion, one of the structural deficiencies that needs to be addressed is the Army’s incredible overhead costs. It is a shame that Blackwater can pay its employees 4-5x what the Army pays – and STILL operate far more cost-effectively than the Army. For every patrol the Army puts out on the roads – there are multitudes of company, battalion, brigade staff, etc. The Army could probably trim most units by 10% without any noticeable affect on readiness (after all – 10% of soldiers are on R&R at any given time anyway). Until those costs are brought down – there will always be an incentive to go with contractors. Looking into the future – the Army’s inability to contain costs could become even more troubling if defense budgets are reduced because of budget deficits. The Army can’t rely on a blank check from Congress for its future wars.

    Also – do your comments hold for the use of contractors outside of war zones? For instance, the State Department hired DynCorp to train the Liberian Army. Any problem with that?

  2. BHall says:

    I completely agree with the bloated nature of Army overhead, but, I would strongly challenge you on what “cost-effective means.” Certainly cost an important part of the discussion but cost cannot be divorced from the quality or quantity of the service being provided. And I would argue that the productivity and the quality of the good provided by the Army versus mercenaries is the key to understanding whether one or the other is truly more “cost-effective.” I define a soldier’s productivity as the extent to which he has furthered the strategic interests of America/defended the American way of life. Mercenaries very presence on the battlefield – profit motive lurking behind them persistently – is a blight on these interests from the very start. So, the cost-effective assertion only captures the money spent, it does not capture the nuance and the assumptions backing up what it means to be “cheaper” or “cost-effective.”

    Your second question is quite interesting. In a vacuum, I don’t really have a problem with the concept of former soldiers training foreign soldiers as long as they stay completely in a trainer mode and aren’t executing patrols. But, training an African government’s Army that may or may not violate human rights is a dicey proposition and one I am immediately uneasy with though not willing to dismiss out of hand.

  3. Leo Buehler says:

    Blake,

    I have a feeling that we have differing opinions on many topics, but I have to agree with your assessment on private security contractors. One point that was missing from your article (and one which amplifies the gravity of the situation) is the level of experience of the people being hired into these firms. At the onset of our actions in 2003, most all of these contractors were former senior NCOs from the most elite units, so, while structural moral and legal mechanisms were lacking, at least it could be argued that the values and morals associated w/ the LOLW would still be followed. But as the scope of their role increased, they began hiring in people who were less experienced (junior NCOs, people from RGR RGT, the 82nd). Over time, even hiring junior soldiers from regular units (some as junior as 11M E-4s, other MOS’s not associated with trigger pulling at all). The end result is often times 3 or 4 man teams led by someone who wouldn’t even cut it as a TL in one of our organizations. Had the best, most highly trained, patriotic, and moral contractors been in place, maybe events like these could be avoided. But, lacking the right type oversight and accountability mechanisms, it is likely a bridge too far to realistically expect. Ultimately, it brings to question whether we (US Gov’t) should be arming anybody who is not under the direct oversight of military leadership (and subject to UCMJ or international law), and more so the question of sending our soldiers anywhere (on an extended basis) without the approval of Congress (and thereby at least have a hope of a properly structured plan and accountability). I am actually beginning to fear a government that employs (contracts) mercenaries and allows them to act autonomously without accountability. I realize the scope of operations was too vast to internally source these functions, but then, why would we chose to pursue an endeavor beyond reasonable reach? I, like you I am sure, am very proud of my service and the service of the men who served with me. I have no doubt we made a positive difference in the areas we served, but I now wonder how exactly I was supporting and defending our Constitution and the principles of liberty and freedom during my deployments.

    But in a nutshell, yes, these dudes are mercenaries, and generally caused many problems for us land-owning commanders. They also generally degrade the moral standing upon which our nation presumes to act (in my humble opinion). Anywho, good read Blake.

  4. […] Hall has previously discussed many of these issues here on this blog. These questions, although poignantly spotlighted in combat operations, are just as relevant in […]

  5. […] one word tied most of those stories together – Blackwater.  By now everyone is familiar with Blackwater’s exploits in Iraq.  Despite reports that the number of contractors in Afghanistan could balloon to 160,000, the […]

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