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Blackwater/Xe: How did it happen that the U.S. came to rely on mercenaries?

Since the private “security” contractor Blackwater (re-branded last February as “Xe”) hit the news last fall for allegedly killing unarmed civilians in Iraq, the professor’s question has led me to a more important question for a constitutional repub

A cagey professor used to provoke his students’ curiosity by asking, “Does anything bother you about that?”

Since the private “security” contractor Blackwater (re-branded last February as “Xe”) hit the news last fall for allegedly killing unarmed civilians in Iraq, the professor’s question has led me to a more important question for a constitutional republic: When, why, and how did the United States of America become the land of mercenaries?

My grade-school teachers taught us to be proud that the land of the free and the home of the brave was not the home of mercenaries, professional soldiers who rent themselves out for any cause for the right price. Our national security rested in a standing Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and Coast Guard under civilian oversight, accountable to the people through an elected government.

What happened that allowed a proud democratic republic to turn its back on this foundational principle? How did it happen that a private for-profit corporation called Blackwater could establish its own little kingdom on 7,000 acres of private land in a remote area of North Carolina where it builds its own superior armored vehicles and helicopters and trains its own soldiers for combat? How did it happen that Blackwater “soldiers” make $20,000 per month, while the U.S. soldier, sent to the very same war, is paid a small fraction of that amount and goes into combat with inferior body armor and second-class Humvees?

An unaccountable shadow army
In a democratic republic “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the question of a shadow army seems obvious. Xe’s original name, Blackwater, suggests an operation that is out of sight. When, why, and how did for-profit “security corporations” (i.e., mercenaries) like Xe augment or supplant the traditional role of the U.S. military, operating “The U.S. Training Center” on private property for private purposes, unaccountable to the president as commander in chief or the civilian oversight of Congress? When and how, for instance, did it happen that Xe’s high-paid security forces, instead of the U.S. Marine Corps, became protectors of American diplomats in Iraq and around the world?

We have a private army on our own soil. Its personnel are built around U.S. military Special Forces personnel who have joined Xe. They are snipers, demolition experts and former intelligence officers, both Army and CIA. Xe has its own intelligence department that hires out to corporations and the CIA, for profit. Does anything bother us about that?

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Such forces, unaccountable to the people, could, if they so chose, operate in black water for purposes that are anything but democratic. The current heated rhetoric of the far right is pouring toxins of fear and hate into the political water table, the poisons of a new McCarthyism with innuendos and bumper stickers that paint a popularly elected president as the nation’s internal public enemy. Our nation’s history of assassinations and assassination attempts requires that we pay attention to what’s happening under our noses right now. A company willing to hire on as trained killers and intelligence experts under the flag of democracy and freedom is also presumably capable of hiring on for insidious purposes. When Rush Limbaugh states that the nation’s security is at stake in the Oval Office, we should pay attention to the question of the professor. When, why, and how did it happen, and why does it continue?

Ordinary people off the hook
As a result of public opposition to the War in Vietnam, the Nixon administration established an all-volunteer army, ending the draft that had been based on the shared belief that every American citizen had a duty and responsibility to protect our national security interests. From that point on, military interventions across the world no longer affected us personally. Draft-age young men no longer had to fear that they would be sent to a war in which they did not believe. Parents no longer feared they might lose their children. The volunteer military took ordinary people off the hook, cut the nation’s moral nerve, and turned the public’s eyes away from interventionist foreign policy and foreign adventures.

In short, our national security was privatized. Like the U.S. economy, much of it was outsourced to the likes of Xe — private armies that operate in black water removed from public accountability and living on the public dole and granted immunity from prosecution — to compensate for the inadequate numbers of our “volunteer army” and do an end run around the public outcry about the war in Iraq.

This is not a partisan issue. So far as I could tell, my grade-school teachers were mostly, if not all, Republican. They voted for Eisenhower. In his Farewell Speech in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, esteemed hero of World War II and two-term president and commander in chief, warned the nation of the runaway growth of a “military-industrial-complex” that has a life all its own, in love with the illusion of power, sowing the seeds that produce hatred around the world and that threaten the very idea of a constitutional republic here at home. We are living in the fulfillment of that warning. His Farewell Speech reads, in part:

“[W]e must not fail to comprehend [the new military-industrial complex’s] grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

It bothered Eisenhower. Does it bother you? If not, why not? If it does, what do we, as ordinary citizens, do to press the question and stop it?

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues, and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center.