BLACKWATER: THE RISE OF THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL MERCENARY ARMY by Jeremy Scahill (Nation), 452 pages, $33.50 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It was one of the most macabre images to emerge out of the bloodbath that is the Iraq war. Four Americans bludgeoned, shredded and roasted by an angry mob of Iraqis, left dangling and twisting from the beams of a bridge.
That was how most of the world first came to hear of a shadowy private military outfit called Blackwater that the Bush administration had tapped to help carry out its occupation of Iraq.
Journalist Jeremy Scahill manages to lift the curtain on this secretive, highly armed group of freebooting mercenaries and in the process shows an even uglier side of a very ugly war.
At the heart of Blackwater is its founder, Erik Prince, an enigmatic, far-right millionaire Catholic fundamentalist who developed a taste for covert warfare while serving with the elite U.S. Navy SEALs.
Prince realized there was a financial killing to be made in the Bush administration's drive to war and its core Republican belief in privatization. Through intense lobbying and a knack for hiring well-placed Republican apparatchiks, the outfit sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars from the Pentagon's bottomless money pit.
But Blackwater didn't send troops into foreign war zones only. Right after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, its heavily armed men were patrolling the streets. When the waters receded, Blackwater had sponged the U.S. taxpayer for a hefty payout.
Scahill tells an intriguing story of scandal that in normal times would have generated more than one congressional inquiry. The case of Joseph Schmitz, the man Bush picked to oversee the Pentagon's military contractors, is especially egregious. Schmitz winked as Republican-tied companies like Halliburton profiteered. Then as the noose of scandal tightened around his neck, he bolted to Blackwater, a company he abetted in fattening on dubious contracts.
Scahill has done a fine job of telling this tale of power, violence and greed.