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17 September 2009

Blackwater Forever

SWAT video game, courtesy of Salavat/Argonaut Games/Wikipedia

Blackwater-related images can be found in the SWAT Playstation game

The most controversial private security company in history emerges in mainstream media yet again - this time with broader implications to its cultural impact, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN

Early last month, Blackwater Worldwide, the ever infamous private military and security company, was thrust into the commercial media spotlight yet again after its founder was accused of “murder[ing] or facilitat[ing] the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company.”

After weeks of avoiding any sort of meaningful scrutiny, the company again emerged upon revelation in a piece by the New York Times that in 2004, the CIA hired the company to “locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda” in a program that had been concealed from congressional oversight.

It was one of the first known times that US national security was purposefully outsourced to a private company to partake and engage in specialized and covert operations that were once exclusively performed by the government.

A former top Blackwater executive told ISN Security Watch that what was reported was not correct. He re-emphasized the article’s mention that “It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program.”

“Everyone was led to believe there was some force of [Blackwater] guys trained in assassination,” the former Blackwater employee told ISN Security Watch. “It just wasn't an accurate story, and it was way blown out of proportion.”

However, days after this story broke, the New York Times reported that the ubiquitous media stories covering US drone attacks in Pakistan were in part carried out by Blackwater, which had since changed its name to Xe and was sometimes under contract as US Training Center.

According to the report, “The division's operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company's contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency [while also providing] security at the covert bases.”

The interviewee could not clear the record with ISN Security Watch as the programs remain classified and investigations are still ongoing.

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

The company is still under investigation by various parties and seems to constantly be in court for something.

That the company emerges every so often in the news cycle has caused some journalists to compare it to a game of “Whack-A-Mole” in that it keeps “popping up,” while others have pondered if Blackwater is “too big to fail.”

Blackwater represents the fusion of American neo-realist foreign policy and neo-liberal theories, which maintain that anything can be bought and sold on a private market, including military functions that used to be exclusively owned by the nation-state.

The privatization of military affairs and national security cannot be discussed without mention of Blackwater, which has managed to force itself into the narrative of US-Iraq and US-Afghan relations and beyond. But more than this, the sheer idea of Blackwater has become a politically cultural archetype, which, despite its massive material power and political relationships, has manifested itself in a sort of stereotype, not only to its own detriment but to the detriment of the very industry in which it operates.

One might hesitate to suggest that a discussion of Blackwater (and what Blackwater means for global politics) should be limited to those in military, security, business or even academic circles, but indeed, the company has shaped itself into an epithet that evokes a dubious awe, perplexing fascination and outright suspicion.

For these reasons, the company has managed to be caricatured in several Hollywood films and television shows, it has been the subject of a hard rock song, earned a mention on a late night entertainment program in the US and has been compared to the characters, companies, missions and plots in a litany of video games and other fictional works. In fact, the SWAT series for the Playstation gaming system includes actual footage of Blackwater’s training facilities and commentary from Blackwater-employed SWAT instructors.

A former executive with the company even mentioned to ISN Security Watch that Blackwater once had to send a legal letter to a Chinese toy company that was manufacturing GI Joe-knockoff action figures that bore the Blackwater logo without permission.

When asked about Blackwater’s cultural relevance, the executive told ISN Security Watch that at the time, “we didn’t think anyone in that world knew about us or even cared.”

But the company has clearly created an unintentional cultural impact. During the interview, the former Blackwater official likened the company’s brand to that of ‘Kleenex’ or ‘Fed-Ex’ in the sense that the word ‘Blackwater’ became a ubiquitous reference that spanned the entire security industry.

“[It’s] just like whether you use UPS or DHL, [but say] you ‘fedex’ soemthing,” the official told ISN Security Watch.

Critical security

To what degree have these cultural nuances altered or reinforced how scholars, journalists, soldiers and security personnel perceive the idea of security, let alone collective notions of how security can or should be allocated and what implications or consequences arise as a result of assumptions?

To some extent, these questions are addressed in the many security blogs that can be found online, but few succeed in explaining or critiquing phenomenon in the security world outside of strictly positivist and empirical frameworks.

That songs and movie plots and action figures and video games develop in reaction or response to companies like Blackwater says more about the people who produce and consume these products and less about the “world’s most powerful mercenary army.”

This is not to say that the industry should not be subject to strict scrutiny, but without scrutiny or question of the cultural virtues that seem to develop, the emergence and existence of companies like Blackwater could not be understood outside of the near unanimous, functional explanation of military downsizing in the post-Cold War era.

As news coverage will undoubtedly rise and fall with Blackwater as a subject, might the aforementioned scholars, journalists, soldiers, security personnel and activists entertain for a moment that the idea of Blackwater may be nothing more than the material reflection of the political, economic and social culture from which it was formed?


Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.

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Logo International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
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Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported