This Wednesday, four former private security guards were sentenced for various counts of voluntary and attempted manslaughter with a count of murder for their role in the 2007 shootings in Baghdad that killed 17 Iraqis and wounded nearly 20 others. These men were all American contractors under the private military company (PMC) Blackwater USA (now dubbed Academi), and were hired by the State Department to protect American diplomats at the height of the Iraq War. The conviction of these contractors not only represents the end of a long battle by victims, witnesses, and federal prosecutors to hold these men accountable for their actions, but also indicates a shift in the relationship between the U.S. military and the PMCs it hires. Prosecutors have begun to rein in the agency of security companies under the patronage of the government, and in doing so have sent a clear message necessitating an adherence to the “rule of law, even in times of war.”
The incident that prompted this process, the massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, was allegedly a case of a misunderstanding that quickly and fatally escalated beyond reason. The contractors, believing they were threatened by a car bomb from an approaching vehicle in the square, fired upon the driver and a nearby policeman, killing them both. The Blackwater team, who claim to have then been fired upon by Iraqi police, responded in turn by retaliating against both the police in the square and nearby civilians, allegedly under the impression that they were under attack by disguised insurgents.
This attack incensed the Iraqi public and people across the world, prompting investigations by the FBI and reports by Iraqi authorities, the U.S. military, and the UN, among others. The FBI found that 14 of the 17 killed in the event were unnecessarily targeted, and further review by the military even suggests that none of the people killed in the fighting were legitimate targets at all. Further indicators of undue aggression on the part of Blackwater’s contractors can be seen in reports by the House Oversight Committee, which note that the frequency and deadliness of Blackwater’s engagements in Iraq regularly reached unacceptable levels, especially when considering the fact that Blackwater was the aggressor in over 80% of the conflicts its contractors were involved in.
The UN, however, went a step further, releasing a report in 2007 striking at the heart of what made this incident so exceptional in the first place. The panel that investigated this issue referred to the Blackwater contractors as mercenaries, a view that the U.S. military fervently opposes but must ultimately address, at least in part. The report notes that the “trend towards outsourcing and privatizing various military functions” has greatly expanded the presence of PMCs in the U.S. and elsewhere, and when considering the amount of influence that these companies have in respect to global affairs, stricter regulation becomes an obligation.
It was Blackwater contractors, after all, that were able to so profoundly impact the opinions of Iraqis on America during the infamous event in 2007. Private or not, Blackwater and PMCs like it represent American interests abroad when they are in the employ of the government. Thus, they should be expected to abide by and be held accountable to the legal standards befitting the American troops they supplement.