Born June 6, 1969, Erik Prince is an American businessman and former US Navy SEAL, best known for founding the world’s largest, private military company, Blackwater USA, in 1997. He served as its CEO until 2009, and later as chairman until Blackwater Worldwide was sold in 2010 to a group of investors. Prince currently lives in the United Arab Emirates. -Courtesy Wikipedia
It’s likely America wouldn’t have been able to declare independence from England without the help of private military companies (PMCs). On today’s modern-day battlefield they are relied on more heavily than most people want to admit. Many have been critical of President Bush, and his extensive use of PMCs after the terrorists attacks of 9/11. The Obama administration continues to heavily use PMCs world-wide in support of American objectives. Obama himself used Blackwater for his own security detail as a US Senator.
The current structure of the military has essentially forced the use of PMCs in a variety of combat roles that would normally be staffed by active duty military. The future role of PMCs on the modern battlefield is an important topic that should be intelligently debated with an open mind. The one certainty? Private military companies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I was standing in the bustling San Diego airport terminal on my way to Texas this week, and stopped in the bookstore to look for something to read for the long flight to San Antonio. I glanced at over several titles, and then saw Erik Prince’s book, Civilian Warriors, out of the corner of my eye. I’ll admit it, I didn’t want to read it at first, in fact I put it back on the shelf, then stood and stared at it. Deep down, I knew I had to read it and get Erik’s version of Blackwater.
There are always multiple perspectives to every story, and somewhere in the middle resides the truth. In light of all the controversy stirred up in the media, and political hype drummed up by the usual suspects in DC, I’m glad Erik Prince finally told his side of the story.
The book Blackwater was a runaway best seller, and came from a relatively unknown (at the time) accidental Nation journalist Jeremy Scahill. The book is overly biased in my opinion, and somewhat prejudiced, based on Erik Prince’s conservative upbringing, which is no fault of his own. Erik comes from a good family, and his father, and as you will learn, is the quintessential American entrepreneur. He worked hard, and was rightfully rewarded for the risks he took as a businessman.
There was something missing in Jeremy’s book Blackwater, another side of the story, and it left me with a nagging feeling after I finished it. I’d always wondered what Erik was like as a person, what motivated him to build his company, and why didn’t they manage their growth better? All questions I’ve wondered about. Blackwater became an overnight success, Prince grew a billion dollar empire, and it fell from grace just as fast as it rose to the top.
Many have been critical of Prince, especially career politicians and bureaucrats who name call but have a very limited understanding of the role private military companies play in the modern warfare. This was apparent to me after Erik testified before Congress. Most the questions asked were clearly written by staffers, and the question-askers themselves didn’t understand their own questions, sad but typical in American politics these days. Erik talks about this in detail in Civilian Warriors.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. -Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve admittedly been critical of Erik Prince in the past, and to be candid, my bias comes from my own experiences with Blackwater. However, being critical of Blackwater the organization is one thing but being critical of Erik the person is another, and I’ve been perhaps too judgmental in the past.
My Own Experience With Blackwater
My first experience with BW was when I was asked by Naval Special Warfare Command (WARCOM) to serve as the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) representative on US Special Operations Command (US SOCOM) SOPMOD weapons acquisition update panel. At the time I was an instructor at the west coast training detachment’s sniper cell. The panel of SOCOM reps and I met daily at Blackwater’s facility , and analyzed a myriad of vendors vying for the opportunity for a spot on the Gen 2 SOPMOD kit. EOTECH, and other well-known manufacturers were virtual unknowns at this time.
I came away from the experience impressed at Blackwater, it was a squared away facility.
I had a second brush with the company when I was a Chief Petty Officer on instructor duty stationed at the Naval Special Warfare Center. We had problems with one of our sniper instructors, and it turned out the problem was drug related. He popped positive on a urinalysis. The Navy doesn’t tolerate illicit drug use, and he was rightfully dishonorably discharged. This particular individual threw away over sixteen years of service, and his retirement, for a nasty coke habit. Make no mistake, the SEALs and SOF community have our own problems, just like professional sports. It’s always a minority, but we face the same challenges and aren’t immune to this sort of behavior.
I still remember getting a call from this guy at the office, “Guess what? I’m not even processed out yet, and I have a job making $500 a day,” he said. “Ok,” I replied, although I was secretly thinking to myself that whoever hires this guy is in for quite the ride. I’d refused to give him an endorsement at his request. To this day I don’t give my endorsement to someone unless it’s earned. His next few words, I’ve never forgotten. “Blackwater hired me,” he said. I’d known the company from a few years back, and I couldn’t believe they’d hire someone with a dishonorable discharge that was drug-related. They did. I’m not sure how long he lasted but he wasn’t the only SEAL or SOF guy with a questionable background who was snatched up due to massive growth, and an even bigger manpower shortage. This was the cancer that would slowly start to kill the company regardless of the high-caliber of men at the top.
In 2006, I was working as a contractor for an agency in northern Iraq. I was on a team of incredibly talented men, all former Spec Ops guys. We were running ops out in town in indigenous vehicles, when we were almost run off the road by an aggressive BW convoy. I can still see their expressions in my sleep. Their artificial hostility was unnecessary given the geographic location and threat environment, and in my professional opinion, it only made things worse.
Then there’s the BW guys we’d see in the chow hall at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) wearing tight shirts, and wearing their gear in a manner that indicated everything but professional. It was not uncommon to run into an old acquaintance with a shady past who was now suddenly working for the company. At this point in late 2006, the company was spiraling downward from an outsider’s perspective. Once well-respected, in 2006 no good Operator (former SOF guy) would touch the company as a new opportunity. Triple Canopy, and the others had taken a stand when it came to quality, they poached a lot of good talent who were leaving in droves, and were used it as a competitive advantage to chip away at BW’s enormous market share. This drove home an important lesson for me at the time. Quality people attract more quality people. I’ve always remembered this.
(Image Courtesy of Civilian Warriors)
The PMC business is one of the world’s oldest trades, as Prince smartly points out in Civilian Warriors. In 2009, more contractors were dying in Iraq then active duty, and essentially, “Privatizing the ultimate sacrifice”, as Prince’s Civilian Warriors puts it.
Prince grew his business so quickly because he saw the need, took the risk, and reaped the rewards. It’s the all American story with a bad twist. First boosted by the Columbine shootings, and the need to train law enforcement for the active shooter. Then thrust into the stratosphere after the USS Cole, and 9-11 terrorist attacks. At the time, Blackwater was the only one selling water in the desert. It’s all in there, and worth reading.
Aside from learning about the rise of BW from Prince’s perspective, I enjoyed getting to know Erik as a person, and respected that he admitted his own shortcomings. Having penned a book myself, I realize how terrifying it can be to admit sins of the past, and to display them for the world to read about, and judge. I’m specifically talking about his telling of his experience with his wife’s battle with cancer, and the extramarital affair during this challenging time in his life. It takes guts to write this stuff, and he could have easily left it out of the book. The fact he left it in speaks highly of his character, and his own moral courage, and I respect him for this.
You’ll learn, and not be surprised, that some of the very people his company protected turned their backs on the business when the going got tough. Ironically, the same people, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton included, who were so critical of Blackwater, continued to push contracts to the company under a different name. This proves how much we’ve come to rely on the private and flexible services offered by modern-day PMCs.
If you want the full story, then read Civilian Warriors by Erik Prince. You won’t regret it.