Blackwater surprise 

People paying close attention to what’s going on in Iraq have heard by now that the U.S. government is employing thousands of mercenaries to assist in the war effort.

Those who know for certain how many of these hired guns we have on the ground in the Middle East aren’t divulging numbers. It’s an understandably touchy subject. News Hits harks back to our school days, when we were taught that all those Hessians employed by King George to help put down the American revolution provided compelling evidence that the Brits were fighting an illegitimate imperial war bereft of moral righteousness.

Now we’re the ones beefing up our military with private forces.

An August report in The New York Times pegged the number of mercenaries working for us in Iraq at about 25,000. But that’s just a rough estimate. Like we said, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his minions aren’t all that eager to see much ink spilled on this topic.

We also learned from the NYT that these folk frown on the term mercenaries. Who would have thought professionally trained killers would be so image-conscious? They prefer to be referred to merely as employees of “private military companies,” or PMCs, as these outfits are known in the business. But, as some poet never wrote, “A Gurkha by any other name shoots just as sweet.”

We bring this up now only because there’s a disturbing new twist to all this military privatization, one that has received scant media attention. According to an article in the Oct. 10 issue of The Nation, about 150 men from Blackwater USA, one of the largest PMCs, were dispatched to patrol the streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In the article “Blackwater Down,” reporter Jeremy Scahill describes one of the hired guns dressed in combat gear while talking on a cell phone and complaining that he’s only making $350 a day plus a per diem. The anonymous merc also tells Scahill, “When they told me New Orleans, I said, ‘What country is that in?’”

It’s nice to know that guys walking around with automatic assault weapons can have a sense of humor. (At least we hope he was just joking; Scahill is ambiguous on that point.)

On a truly serious note, Scahill also relates an account provided by Michael Montgomery. Montgomery works for Bodyguard and Tactical Security, a private security company hired by a New Orleans resident to protect his $3 million private estate and luxury hotels.

Montgomery describes coming under fire from “black gangbangers” situated on a highway overpass. The security team unleashed a flurry of bullets from their Glocks and AR15s. Quoting Montgomery, the article goes on to say, “After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said.”

The article (you can read it on the Web at also quotes Michael Ratner, president of the liberally minded Center for Constitutional Rights. “These private security forces have behaved brutally, with impunity, in Iraq,” Ratner says. “To have them now on the streets of New Orleans is frightening and possibly illegal.”

What makes all this particularly interesting is a significant Michigan connection. Blackwater was co-founded in 1996 by one Erik Prince, son of Edgar D. Prince. Now dead, Edgar started Prince Corp., a Holland, Mich., auto parts supplier that sold for a reported $1.4 billion a decade ago. Erik’s sister is Betsy DeVos, recently the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and wife of Dick DeVos, whose billionaire daddy helped start Amway. Dicky D. is now running for governor against incumbent Jennifer Granholm.

Erik, a onetime Navy SEAL commando, is notoriously press-shy. But there is a quote from him that appeared in The Grand Rapids Press back in 1992, several years before he founded Blackwater. Seems he got to see the administration of Bush the Elder up close and personal, and didn’t much like the view. Bush I was just way too liberal for Prince’s tastes.

“I interned with the Bush administration for six months,” Prince told the paper. “I saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with — homosexual groups being invited to the White House, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kind of bills.”

A July 2004 story in The News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., described Erik as positioning himself “at the intersection of free enterprise, activist Christianity, conservative politics and military contracting.”

That’s quite an intersection. Jen better watch her step crossing it.

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