Blackwater: The Roger Clemens of War

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

December 14, 2007

It seems that 2007 will go down in history as the year of artificial performance enhancers. In the world of sports, you’ve got guys like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. In the military realm, you’ve got Blackwater. That’s right, just when it seemed the questions that surround private military contracting couldn’t get more simultaneously odd and disturbing, Blackwater (the company involved in the September shootings in Baghdad, which left 17 Iraqi civilians dead) has been sued by the victims’ families for, among other things, sending heavily-armed “shooters” into the streets of Baghdad with the knowledge that some of these “shooters” are chemically influenced by steroids and other “judgment-altering substances.”

The lawsuit, aided by the non-profit Center for Constitutional Rights based in Washington, claims not just that the civilians were killed by Blackwater employees, but that the company was responsible as it “created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company’s financial interests at the expense of innocent human life.” Most recently, the plaintiffs asserted that “Blackwater knew that 25% or more of its “shooters were injecting steroids or other judgment altering substances, yet failed to take effective steps to stop the drug use.”

Blackwater has, of course, vehemently denied many of the claims in the lawsuit; its spokesperson, channeling Major League Baseball’s denials, told the media that the use of steroids is “absolutely in violation of our policy.” The company also sought to defuse its recent spate of negative press with a public relations blitz that included changing the corporate logo to look less threatening, having the firm’s CEO, Erik Prince, take questions on that hard-hitting venue The Today Show (other topics covered on that episode included “tips for improving your sex life” and “eco-friendly Halloween costumes”). The latest step: arranging for its private military parachute team to serve as the halftime show at the upcoming Armed Forces Bowl (how’s that for irony?) football game in Fort Worth.

It will remain for a jury to figure out whether the lawsuit has merit or not. (The claims of steroid use are not without precedent, however. In 2005, U.S. Marines busted a steroid-dealing network in the U.S. embassy complex that provided hypodermic needles and large amounts of anabolic steroids to contractors. Nine Americans working for KBR and Blackwater were reported by the Washington Post as being kicked out of Iraq for their role in it.)

For the public, however, we should be thinking about this issue of contractors and steroids in another way. Our military’s use of the private military industry has become an addiction that parallels athletes’ increasing turn to artificial substances to get ahead. Just as a dose of steroids give athletes the ability to hit the ball further than ever before, so too has injecting more than 160,000 private military contractors into Iraq allowed the operation to perform tasks that would otherwise be difficult. It is for this reason that many see no problem with seeking that “competitive advantage,” on either the playing field or the battlefield. And, yet, short-term performance enhancement comes at a cost. Just as steroid use leads to side-effects that range from acne and heart damage to even death, the turn to more and more contractors has led to such results as billions of dollars missing in taxpayer funds, soldiers poached away from a stretched thin military, and contractors “Getting Away with Murder,” as one recent report on the industry was entitled.

As 2007 comes to a close, both sports and the military must figure out a larger question, however. Many of these addictions’ side effects may prove to be manageable, or at least pushed back under the table, be it through new designer drugs or various new laws and policies. And yet, we cannot get around the fact that even if we were able to solve the side effects that come with our new addictions, something about just accepting them doesn’t settle right.

The reason figures like Bonds and Clemens and now the dozens of other baseball stars are treated with more contempt than celebration by both fans and fellow athletes is not merely because our concern about their shrunken testicles or bloated heads. Nor is it about them breaking the rules, per se. Even if using steroids were made legal, it would still trouble our notion of the game’s ideals. It would still run afoul of the sense that baseball is supposed to be a game won on smarts, skill, strategy, and dedication – not out of a syringe. Achievement that comes only from a lab is not really athletic accomplishment to be honored at all.

The same sort of concern of ideals versus reality plays out when governments become more and more reliant on private companies in the public realm of the military. The addiction to private contractors in public military operations is troubling not only because of side effects like lost taxpayer money or incidents as what happened with Blackwater’s shooters in Baghdad (whether they used steroids or not). Rather, it is because the military is a unique sort of profession. It is responsible for the safety of all of society. It is for this reason that the military is the only profession to have its own system of law and we speak of its role in society as one of duty, honor, and sacrifice. Insert “private” in front of military and we must, in turn, substitute such honored concepts as “service” and “mission” with profit-oriented words like “job” and “contract.” This doesn’t make the people in these roles evil or bad, much like many of the players who used steroids are ones we will still cheer for come spring. But, just the same, our ideals begin to fall by the wayside. The long-term health and respect of the military profession and, most importantly, its role in a democratic society is jeopardized.

Much as sports like baseball must now figure out what to do about steroids, and whether to let such figures as Bonds into the Hall of Fame, the American military must figure out just how far it is willing to hand over its professional identity to profit seeking actors outside the force. To put it another way, do we just accept Bonds and Blackwater as the future? Or, are we going to put an “asterisk” besides the recent era and reign back in our addictions?