Erik Prince: Blackwater Founder, Free Market Condottiero
Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of Blackwater, has a new book: “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.” In it, Prince argues that mercenaries are the truest expression of the American war-fighting spirit.
The argument was probably inevitable, and Prince is the perfect guy to make it. In one cow-licked, snub-nosed profile, he brings together the two big trending ideologies of the last decade: militarism and free-market capitalism.Militarism in American history is like undulant fever: It comes and goes in waves. There was a time in the 1970s when most people saw the Armed Services as a last-ditch job for the otherwise unemployable. That changed during the Reagan years. The change didn’t happen because the US military did much to cover itself with glory; Reagan’s administration was timid about direct military involvement, only willing to invade pushovers like Grenada and wisely reluctant to provide the Afghan “mujahideen” with advanced weapons. No, it was the fact that you stood very little chance of actually getting killed, combined with the shift to Reagan’s “service economy” that made the military look good. Compared to working at WalMart, the Army was a socialist paradise: lifetime medical care, free room and board, and all the education you could handle.
Once people saw the WTC in flames, soldier-worship ramped up to a frenzy. The United States has been involved in multiple wars for a decade, and surveys show that public approval ratings for the military top those for every other profession, including doctors and scientists.
Meanwhile, Libertarian ideology has been tracking enthusiasm for soldiering. By now, almost a quarter of all Americans lean libertarian. It’s a group that looks a lot like Erik Prince, 94% white, two-thirds male, and of what used to be called “military age.”
Soldier-worship and free-market libertarianism is an odd mix of ideologies. Of course it may not feel odd for most Americans, but that’s true for every strange cultural expression: If you grew up with it, it feels natural, no matter how weird it looks in the abstract.
I got a taste of the way strange cultural beliefs seem totally natural to locals a couple of years ago, when I was living in Najran in southwest Saudi Arabia. Witchcraft is a fact of life there. And a capital offense. When I asked a friend of mine what had caused his recent heart attack, he said, “You know, I think it is witchcraft.” He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met—he taught himself to speak perfect English by listening to the BBC, and worked as a programmer for the Ministry of Education—but it seemed perfectly natural to him that sorcerers were beheaded outside the police station in Najran.
And when you stand back and squint at America’s two big current ideologies, Libertarianism and militarism, that mix seems just as weird, and a lot bloodier, than my Saudi friend’s mix of computer skills and belief in sorcery. After all, the U.S. Armed Services are a government monopoly — the government monopoly, the one that underwrites and provides protection for all the others. When you have a monopoly on large-scale violence, you have a monopoly on anything you happen to want. The IRS, the pet hate of Libertarians, would be a harmless joke without the threat of military force backing up their collection letters.
So how do the young white males who share these two incompatible hobbies, militarism and libertarianism, square their circle? Well, that’s where Erik Prince comes in, with a simple solution: the glorification of the perfect combination of free-market independence and American militarism -- the mercenary.
There's a problem, though: an examination of the career of Erik Prince demonstrates there’s nothing even close to a free market when it comes to getting a huge freaking wedge of taxpayer money from the Feds. Prince’s success came from using crony connections in military and intelligence circles to make billions, with no competition, no open bidding, and no accountability. Prince’s money came in a way that would be totally familiar to Soviet-era apparatchiks. But like most of the beneficiaries of this DoD crony “capitalism,” Prince considers himself the product of pure hard work, and is on a mission to clean up the reputation of soldiers for hire.
Prince is not what you’d call a subtle guy, as evidenced by his chapter whitewashing the word “mercenary”: “Christoforo Colombo is my favorite government contractor.” Columbus, a Genoan, worked for the rulers of Spain, which makes him—if you’re a Prince fan—a “PMC” (“private military contractor”), and the blood brother of all those ’roid-raging Blackwater cowboys who shot up Nisour Square in Baghdad.
Making Columbus into a merc wouldn’t mean much in the leftist Twittersphere, where the moribund holiday Columbus Day is mainly a chance to scold about “500 years of oppression,” but Prince and his co-author (ghostwriter) David Coburn are writing for a very different crowd, who worship the traditional American pantheon. And Team Prince spends a whole chapter tagging all those Revolutionary-War statues with “Merc4Life”:
“Today in Washington D.C.—a district named after Columbus—there is a seven-acre public park just north of the White House called Lafayette Square….I often visit the park when I’m in the city—at its four corners are additional statues, honoring General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Major General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, and Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau. None of them are Americans, yet they were all instrumental in the United States winning its independence. They are instrumental in how I look back on what we built at Blackwater.”This list is a bad joke if you know anything about the men on it. They left wealth and status to side with a Republic, the form of government most feared by their aristocratic kin back home. They gained nothing by joining the American Revolution; most, in fact, lost everything and took that completely in their stride, never dreaming that it should cause them to turn on the American Republic. Just to take one example, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, endured Russian prisons, saw his followers massacred by Tsarist troops, and still made a will that all his possessions be donated to enslaved African-Americans. America owes a huge debt to guys like these, and later exiles like the Pole Adam Gurowski, who also lost everything to fight for freedom, and never complained when their American allies slighted them.
But none of the people on that list have any connection with Erik Prince, or Blackwater’s gang of high-school bullies making big money to shoot up traffic in Baghdad. Some of the illustrious names Prince tags with the “merc” label can’t be called private contractors by any definition; Jean-Baptiste Donateur de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, was a highly-decorated veteran of the regular French Army, served at the pleasure of Louis XVI, and even did his best to serve his country during the Revolution. He was never a “PMC” by any standard, and would have suggested a meeting at dawn in a nice secluded park if you’d dared to suggest anything so low (although Rochambeau, a noble, would probably have considered it beneath him to meet a mere bourgeois like Erik Prince on the field of honor).
In other words, Erik Prince and his ghostwriter are just indulging in the favorite hobby of the ignorant: Pretending people from other times and places, who would have been appalled and disgusted if they’d actually met you, are your pals, your colleagues, your buddies from another era. It’s a sort of corollary of Godwin’s Law: When something bad is the topic, then it’s always Germany in 1938, but if you want to make yourself and your friends look good, then it’s always the east coast of North America in 1776.
So let’s just say that, as history, the list is a joke, and a deeply insulting one. But it is interesting in one way: Prince instinctively identifies with a group of exiles rather than all the ordinary Americans who fought for the cause.
Prince probably feels a kinship with these exiles because he has been doing his best to get as far as he can from America, the actual America, the country between Canada and Mexico. Like a lot of rightwing defectors, Prince admires a notional America but has something like hatred for the actual, existing country.
He’s sick of the “out of control trial lawyers and labor unions,” and peeved that the State Department disowned Blackwater after the company killed too many Iraqi civilians. So Prince has been shopping for a country that suits his notion of how things are supposed to be—like the United Arab Emirates, where he moved in 2010. This was Prince’s idea of a libertarian paradise: “a friendly pro-business climate, low to no taxes, free trade…” and no unions whatsoever.
No doubt the Gulf Emirates are a wonderful place, if you come in with Prince’s money and connections. I knew a lot of people who worked there at far lowlier status, and didn’t find it so pleasant. Especially the women. Gulf employers tend not to be very clear on the distinction between “employee” and “slave,” and treat servants from poorer countries so badly that even fiercely Islamic countries like Indonesia have banned agencies sending Indonesian housemaids to the Gulf and Nepal has tried to limit the commonplace rape of young women working there by forbidding any Nepalese women under 30 from getting work visas to the Gulf.
None of that bothered Prince, if he was aware of it at all, when he praised the U.A.E. Such things are the collateral damage of the “pro-business climate” of the Gulf, as praised by Prince. And the friendliness was more than ideological; Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who effectively rules the U.A.E., is a man very much like Erik. Mohamed, born to wealth and privilege, decided early on that his hobby would be playing with soldiers, and studied at the British military academy, Sandhurst.
According to a leaked American diplomatic cable, the Crown Prince “…sees the logic of war dominating the region, and this thinking explains his near-obsessive efforts to build up his armed forces.”
The wars Prince Mohamed has in mind are not glorious nation-building projects. What he and the other Gulf rulers fear is that their own people, the ones who don’t count, will demand some of those rights the Minutemen were fighting for. The Gulf states have a simple economy: Foreigners, most from the Subcontinent and East Asia, do the work and the very small population of “real” people get the money.
Sixty percent of the Gulf natives work in government; another 15% don’t work at all. Male expatriates from poorer countries make up three-quarters of the whole workforce. Half of them are employed in construction work. The average summer temperature in Abu Dhabi is 96° Fahrenheit/36° centigrade; average daytime high is 108°F/42°C. And for this kind of work, two thirds of expat workers make less than US$600 per month. Two-thirds of the connected Abu Dhabis who deign to be employed at all make more than US$3,800 per month in their air-conditioned government offices.
So you can see why Crown Prince Mohamed was so eager to welcome his friend Erik and get him started on a new project: building a brigade of mercenaries totally separate from the regular (and worthless) armed forces of the U.A.E., using veteran death-squad vets from Colombia and South Africa.
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan isn’t exactly an Ayn Rand hero, but he would be a familiar type to fans of “Dune,” and in my experience every American libertarian secretly, or not so secretly, considers himself the reincarnation of Paul Atreides/Muad’dib. The distinction between Rand heroes and Frank Herbert’s is worth making here, because in every way, Erik Prince’s version of “the free market” and “freedom” has more to do with the world of House Harkonnen than Main Street, USA. Prince’s chosen country is a place where two-thirds of the entitled locals work in government, if they work at all. As “libertarianism,” it makes no sense whatever. But as the natural prejudice of a man born to wealth, status, and a deep scorn for everyone who’s not a billionaire, Abu Dhabi really is the true home of Erik Prince’s family values.
Jeremy Scahill did an excellent job of describing the matrix that created Prince in his expose, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.”
Erik Prince, like Mohamed, started life as the son of an emir. Prince’s father was the de facto god-king of Holland, Michigan, a Dutch-Reformed enclave in Southern Michigan where most people look the same, go to the same church, and vote the same way. Erik’s dad employed a quarter of the population manufacturing his billion-dollar idea: lighted windshield sun visors that allowed millions of harried commuters to adjust their make-up and check for eye-snot while idling in the drive-thru line at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work.
Like Prince Mohamed, Erik grew up in a world of dynastic marriages, alliances between families rather than love matches. His sister Betsy united two of the most powerful Republican families in the state when she married Dick de Vos, son of the man who started Amway, another Southern Michigan-based corporation.
Amway is short for “American Way,” but, like “libertarianism” and “private military contractor,” these fine words tend to have a special meaning when used by Prince’s people. Amway means something very different among the poorer people I know. It’s a name that makes people yelp and hide, blurting, “Say I’m not here!” for fear of Amway-cult relatives trying to unload their quota of cleaning products.
Amway was very, very good to Dick DeVos, though. He inherited 5.1 billion dollars from the Amway pyramid his father founded, so that he and Betsy, along with her brother Erik, could focus on traditional second-generation rightwing billionaire projects like sandbagging public schools.
Erik did a little of that in 1990, working with GHW Bush senior as a White House intern, but found Bush the elder a weak reed: “I saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with—homosexual groups being invited in… the Clean Air Act, those kinds of bills.”
Prince had the money to buy himself a feudal estate of his own, where his sensibilities would not be offended by clean air or homosexuals. He bought 6,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina (later expanded to 7,000 acres) and hunkered down through the Clinton years, as far away from impurity as you can get, short of emigrating to Abu Dhabi.
Then came the election of a second Bush, this one from Prince’s own world—the reckless second generation of right-wing oligarch families.
After 9/11, all those connections were worth billions, literally, for Erik Prince—a very good return on the quarter-million dollars Prince contributed to Republican campaigns. Blackwater morphed into a convenient no-oversight military force, available for anything Cheney and his clique wanted done without having to ask all those pesky democratic institutions Kosciuszko and his ilk fought to create. And the money was unbelievable. Blackwater’s sweetheart federal contracts totaled $1 billion by 2006, and that’s almost certainly a low figure, since Prince has now admitted his mercs were getting paid under the table by the CIA at the same time.
It was a fiasco for the US, and especially for the American people, who have lost at least three trillion dollars—so far—in order to neutralize the only regional threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But you won’t find any sense of patriotic despair about the strategic disaster that was Iraq in Prince’s book. He takes offense at only one thing: the way he, Erik Prince, was supposedly mistreated by Leon Panetta, CIA chief. That’s why he calls the Iraq adventure “twelve wasted years”; he means “wasted” for the career of Erik Prince, not for the United States.
But what about that fact that we lost? It seems to make no impression on Prince. I found that odd, at first. How can a man who used to be a Navy SEAL show total indifference to, and ignorance of, counterinsurgency theory?
But the more I looked at the history of mercenary captains like Prince, especially those from the era of the condottieri, the mercenary commanders who destroyed Italy in the late 15th and early 16th century, the more sense Prince’s indifference to American military success started to make. Prince is the direct descendant of the condottieri; even the word “condottiero” means “contractor,” Prince’s preferred term for his soldiers of fortune. Some of these condottieri particularly Francesco Bussone Carmagnola, are eerily similar to Prince, in their cynicism, in their career trajectory, their selfishness, and their megalomaniacal vanity. Carmagnola set the pattern for all condottieri: He would win a tactical victory, as he did in the Battle of Maclodio then allow the defeated army to retreat and regroup, ensuring more campaigning and “…forcing [his backers] to pay incredible amounts in upkeep for the almost useless army.” From 15th century Northern Italy to the Sunni Triangle isn’t all that far, when you think like a mercenary.
Mercenaries don’t want to win, they want a paycheck, and the longer the paycheck lasts, the better for them. Thus, a cycle of endless wars, meaningless tactical victories in a strategic vacuum, is the perfect environment for a condottiero like Prince. In retrospect, saying that Prince was indifferent to the debacle that was Iraq is too generous; it was a godsend to him and his gang of hired thugs.
If you think about the two Gulf Wars as an American, Gulf War I seems like a quick, decisive victory, and Gulf War II a protracted debacle. But think about them like Carmagnola or Prince would, and they reverse positions: There’s much more money in a long, failed war like II than a quick victory like I.
And sure enough, Prince recalls the 2003 Iraq War in strictly mercenary terms: The job of his PMCs was to protect the State Department functionaries in their charge, which they did, and never mind the haters. It was simply a protection racket in the most literal sense. Prince’s bitterness is reserved for the wretched democratic institutions—or, as he calls them, “Cold and Timid Souls,” that forced him to sell the company in 2010.
This is a mercenary outlook in both the general and military senses of the word—and that’s the huge problem with Prince’s childish attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the soldier of fortune. Everything you thought you knew about mercenaries is…actually pretty much correct. And everything Prince argues in his attempt to make mercenaries, or “PMCs,” of the most American of heroes is just plain wrong. The best evidence for the case against mercenaries is the career of Erik Prince himself. After profiting hugely from America’s worst strategic debacle, in which he participated enthusiastically as long as it was profitable, he took deep, lasting offense at the attempts of Congress and a free press to hold him to account for the monstrous things his mercenaries did in Iraq. In a huff, he fled to Abu Dhabi, a nightmarish oligarchy which he considered a true free-market paradise—which it is, if you happen to be a friend of the Crown Prince.
The mercenary force Prince attempted to start in Abu Dhabi failed. His business plan, if you can call it that, was ridiculous, as anyone who’s worked in the Arabian Peninsula could have told him. He expected Colombian and South African death-squad veterans to sit and sweat in all-male, alcohol-free desert camps, never allowed into town to let off steam. And he expected the population of Abu Dhabi to accept the presence of these Crusader mercenaries—Prince stipulated that no Muslims were to be recruited for the force, which is why he ended up with this improbable Colombian/South African mix. The mercs hated it, and the local oligarchs hated it even more. The force seems to have dissolved, less than two years after he started it.
Luckily, Prince has found a new playground—sub-Saharan Africa—and a new “pro-business” country: China. His latest mercenary force goes by the initials FRG—Frontier Resource Group.
The name itself means nothing; Prince, like most mercenary providers, changes his companies’ names more often than a credit-fraud professional changes ID. Often, the change is toward in-yer-face obscurity, as when Blackwater, facing too much bad publicity, became Xe, the periodic-table abbreviation for Xenon, a colorless and odorless gas.
Prince’s new company has investments in some of the bloodiest countries in Africa, like the DRC, and with his new partners, the communist oligarchs of China, he won’t have to worry about any of those pesky democratic institutions that have consistently gotten in his way. With these new friends, Prince has finally found a place and a backer that shares his values. Which is, of course, very bad news for anyone on the ground who doesn’t happen to be a second-generation oligarch.
Illustration by Brad Jonas.