Then came Nisour Square. On Sunday, September 16, 2007, in western Baghdad, Blackwater troops were clearing the road for a diplomatic convoy. A car approaching from the other direction ignored repeated warnings to stop. Fearing another car-bomb attack, Blackwater’s Paul Slough opened fire on the car, occupied, it was later determined, by an innocent man and his mother. What ensued was a pitched battle, the details of which are still disputed. As Iraqi militants fired on the Blackwater men and they returned fire, more than three dozen Iraqi civilians were shot, and eleven of them died.
The result was an international outcry. The Iraqi government demanded Blackwater’s removal from the country. American media outlets blared stories of the “Blackwater Massacre” and “Mass Murder in Nisour Square.” The U.S. Justice Department charged five Blackwater agents with a total of 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and the use and discharge of a firearm during a violent crime. While individual agents were indicted, Blackwater itself faced no charges. Democrats in Congress became furious that the company remained legally unscathed, and in the 2008 elections, the role of military contractors, with Blackwater as their face, became a campaign issue.
When I spoke with Prince, I asked him about the aftermath of Nisour Square. He told me it was the first step in the unraveling of his company. “It was the perfect time for the anti-war Left that during the Vietnam War went after the troops. This time, they went after contractors,” Prince said. “Look, I came from a conservative family, I supported conservative causes in the past, I was the sole owner. We were the perfect target for all those folks to say, ‘That’s it.’ It became a campaign talking point for the congressional elections.”
Prince also thinks the State Department threw Blackwater under the bus, depriving its agents of evidence by barring them from having dashboard cameras in their vehicles, which Prince believes would have exonerated them, and refusing to defend his men, who were acting in defense of American diplomats. “The sad thing is the State Department could have shut down a lot of nonsense with the media by saying, ‘We did an investigation, and this is what it is,’” Prince said.
Perhaps worse, Prince and his employees were unable to speak to the press and give their account of the events because of a gag rule in their contract with the State Department.
With the world seemingly against them and no means of defense, Blackwater personnel were targeted as “cowboys” and “war profiteers,” reckless men endangering the lives of innocent people. What followed was years of court proceedings, bad press, and attacks from Washington politicians. Blackwater changed its name to Xe Enterprises in 2009 and eventually Academi in 2010. Prince, for the good of the company, had stepped down in March 2009.
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Though Erik Prince finished a draft of Civilian Warriors in 2011, he waited to publish until now, when the final prosecutions against five former executives of his company had finished, the men ultimately exonerated and the case dismissed. Now, with the past behind him, he can take the time to tell his story.
“I wrote this book just to set the record straight,” Prince told me. “The characterization of being these overly aggressive war profiteers who were running amok was just not the case. I think the book does a pretty good job of taking those arguments apart.”
To combat the notion that military contractors are a new evil in the modern era performing what ought to be strictly governmental functions, Prince traces the history of military contracting from Columbus — who “with the stroke of Isabella’s pen . . . effectively became a private military contractor,” Prince writes — to Iraq.
“Contractors are strewn all through American history, from the founding of the country and the original colonists, to the building of the Continental Army, to the privateers of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, to the Flying Tigers, you name it,” Prince told me. “Why say, ‘Oh there should never be any fighting contractors?’ because there certainly have been in the past.”