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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Civilian Warriors’

- - Monday, December 9, 2013

CIVILIAN WARRIORS: THE INSIDE STORY OF BLACKWATER AND THE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE WAR ON TERROR
By Erik Prince
Portfolio, $29.95, 416 pages

When I returned from my second visit to Iraq in January 2003 in my capacity as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense, one of my main concerns was the actions of the private, armed contractors who were providing security for everyone from the Department of State to the bevy of private enterprises that were vying for the newly freed-up oil business. Their driving habits and other actions were upsetting many Iraqis, and I feared that they would add further fuel to the fast-growing insurgency. Armed contractors were a relatively new development in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were no clear ground rules governing their conduct.

I began planning to put together a workshop to discuss the possibility of developing a professional code of conduct for this new and booming profession. One of the people I wanted to invite was Erik Prince, the CEO of an outfit called Blackwater, which seemed to have the most professional and disciplined approach of all of the organizations that I had observed. In preparing for the event, I did some research on the company. What I learned impressed me. Blackwater was an adaptive and innovative organization that seemed to anticipate new challenges and opportunities before anyone else. By the time we were ready to do the workshop, Blackwater was immersed in the fallout from the deaths of four of its contractors in Fallujah, and Mr. Prince was unavailable. The workshop produced nothing since everyone was too busy with the war to think about codes of conduct, but my interest in Mr. Prince and his company's activities continued.

"Civilian Warriors" is a spirited defense by Mr. Prince of himself and his company, and nothing in the book dampened my admiration for what he was trying to do, and what he succeeded in doing. It is a good read, because he spins an exciting yarn, but it is also a potential handbook for young entrepreneurs on how to start and grow a company on a shoestring if a person sees a marketing niche for his company.

Mr. Prince came from a close-knit Michigan family whose patriarch built a business from nothing into a $1 billion enterprise. Along the way, he gave young Erik a sense of drive and self-reliance that helped him survive SEAL training, and gave him the desire to pursue his vision of building a world-class company that could augment the U.S. government in the messy, nontraditional conflicts that followed the Cold War.

When Iraq and Afghanistan happened, Blackwater was uniquely positioned to protect American diplomats and other officials tasked with trying to rebuild those two shattered countries. Using retired special operators, Marines and other combat veterans, Blackwater provided that protection and went beyond the call of duty to assist American troops in both countries when all other means of assistance failed.

The second portion of the book details Blackwater's fall. Mr. Prince freely admits to mistakes, both personal and professional, but I agree with his assessment that much of its downfall was a result of opportunistic left-wing politicians, hysterical blogging by anti-war pseudo-journalists and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Most disappointing was the company's betrayal by officials at the State Department. That organization benefited the most from Blackwater's protection; not one department official that the company guarded was ever killed or seriously wounded under its protection. One has to wonder if Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens might still be alive had Blackwater been around to protect him.

Many of the excesses attributed to Blackwater were the result of the company scrupulously adhering to a six-volume set of guidelines stipulated in its contract by the State Department contracting office.

The latter portion of the book is a depressing litany of lawsuits, congressional investigations and negative new stories. That eventually led to the demise of Blackwater. The editor probably pleaded with the author to tighten it up, but I suspect that Mr. Prince wanted to defend himself and his company in ways that he could not while under contract owing to a State Department stipulation. The casual reader will likely skip a lot of this; I certainly did.

Blackwater's experience is a cautionary tale of an entrepreneur doing what he thought right for the country and his company in the face of the snake pit that Washington has become in the past few decades. The U.S. government hired Blackwater to do what it could not, and the company paid the price.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who has been a civilian adviser in both Iraq and Afghanistan.