Lawyers, Guns, and Blackwater

It’s shameful enough for the country that spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined to hire mercenaries to fight its woebegone wars; the mercenaries we hire are hooligans who we kicked out of our overpriced military.

As Tim McGlone of The Virginian-Pilot reported on March 8, two Blackwater "workers" – Christopher Drotleff of Virginia Beach and Justin Cannon of Texas – got themselves escorted to the front gate with other-than-honorable discharges shoved up their pockets over a shopping list of infractions. Drotleff and Cannon are now ex-workers of Blackwater because in May 2009 they shot three unarmed Afghan civilians, which, to be fair to Drotleff and Cannon, is a relatively small number of unarmed civilians to shoot by Blackwater standards, and what’s more, only two of them were killed, for cripes’ sake. The third civilian was just wounded and is probably grateful to still be alive.

Not surprisingly, Blackwater didn’t have either of these hooligan’s military records on file even though they were required to by contractual agreement. The contract also required Blackwater to review the hooligans’ records before hiring them, which Blackwater probably did, and that’s probably why the records weren’t on file, so Blackwater could plead ignorance when the hooligans pulled a stunt like shooting unarmed Afghan civilians.

Drotleff and Cannon’s boss at Blackwater was no altar boy either. Johnnie Walker (supposedly that really is his name) was a two-fisted, double-barreled, heat-seeking disaster. A senior Blackwater executive wrote an internal memo that said Walker’s management at Camp Alamo in Kabul “cultivated an environment that indirectly” led to the May shootings, and he described Walker as “an exceptionally ineffective” manager who habitually blew off meetings with Department of Defense and NATO officials. The Blackwater executive also mentioned that Johnnie Walker was a Hemingway-class drinker and characterized him as having “no regard for policies, rules, or adherence to regulations in country.”

Local military brass weren’t enamored of Walker’s Wild West show. Maj. Gen. Richard P. Formica at one point wrote a memo to the Camp Alamo’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Brian Redmon, demanding that he get the Blackwater cowboys under control, but there wasn’t much Redmon could do about them. The mercenaries weren’t in his chain of command, and they weren’t subject to discipline under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Redmon wrote to his superiors asking for clarification as to just what his responsibilities regarding the Blackwater workers were, but he never heard back.

Walker had a deal worked out where Blackwater employees had access to the weapons arsenal at Camp Alamo, even though the weapons were for use by the Afghan police and the U.S. Army only. One Blackwater worker checked out weapons under the name "Eric Cartman," which is the name of the fat kid on the TV show South Park. Sometimes the Blackwater workers didn’t bother to sign for the weapons as Stan or Butters or any of the other kids on South Park, or as anybody at all, for that matter.

The Blackwater workers managed to get hundreds of guns from a Navy buddy of theirs identified as Chief Warrant Officer Sailer (another allegedly real name) with no paperwork or receipts of any kind to document the transition. In a teleconference interview with Senate Armed Services Committee staffers investigating the weapon-custody shenanigans, Sailer allowed as how yeah, he’d given guns to Blackwater guys, but he didn’t remember the circumstances. Sailer also said in response to written questions that he did "not recall ever having a conversation with anyone picking up weapons … regarding the intended use of the weapons." He probably didn’t recall bothering to ask what their intended use was either, nor did he likely recall why he thought it was no big deal to hand over weapons without getting any documentation. Chief Warrant Officer Sailer needs to become Seaman Recruit Sailer for as long as it takes the military legal system to turn him into Mr. Sailer, at which time he’ll no doubt use his other-than-honorable discharge to get a civilian job with Blackwater.

The musical gun monkey business led to an "accident" in December 2008 in which one Blackwater worker shot another worker in the head. As Johnnie Walker told Senate committee staffers, some of his workers determined they needed "learn how to shoot" from a vehicle. One of the workers decided it would be a good idea to get on the back of a moving car with an AK-47 and "ride it like a stagecoach." The car hit a bump and the gun went off and shot one of the other workers in the head.

The worker who got shot in the head suffered brain damage and is partly paralyzed. Even though the incident involved "unauthorized activities" and, in Walker’s words, "poor judgment," Army and Blackwater supervisors allowed the reindeer games to continue, and that led to the May shooting of Afghan civilians by Drotleff and Cannon. On the day of that shooting, Drotleff, Cannon, and Walker attended a party of the sort that in my day we called a "DRUNK-EX." Hey, who doesn’t need a little liquid courage before they go out and plug a few unarmed civilians?

Days after the deadly incident, Walker, still tight as a tick, made a phone call to his superiors at Blackwater and threatened to pull his entire security team out of Afghanistan if he were fired. In retrospect, Blackwater probably wishes it had taken him up on the offer. Raytheon, the primary contractor, fired Blackwater from the job last summer. Now renamed "Xe" in an effort to clean up its image but still referred to by the entire known universe as "Blackwater," the company is trying to get a new contract for $1 billion to do the same job it was doing before it got the ax from Raytheon, which is training Afghan police. Yikes. With security forces trained by the likes of Walker and Drotleff and Cannon, who needs insurgents?

Xe Vice President Fred Roitz says the bad old Blackwater days are over, that the company has cleaned up its act now. Roitz doesn’t mention that the new management and policies were already in place when the May killings occurred, or that the killings were merely the latest chapter in a long litany of bad behavior displayed by mercenaries who we’re ostensibly paying to fight terrorism, not to practice it.

Mercenary work is an ugly business that new vice presidents and new policies won’t make any prettier. It’s the kind of work done by the Drotleffs and Cannons and Walkers of this world, and for every Johnnie Walker you fire or bring to justice, there’s a Jim Beam and a Jack Daniels and an Old Granddad or two from Vietnam days who are ready, willing, and able to knock down fast money for behaving like homicidal sociopaths.

Blackwater is under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department over more sins than you can throw a grand inquisitor at, and that’s fine, but the best way to get mercenaries to stop running amok is to quit hiring them. That alone, however, won’t stop our national rampage, because, as horrible as it is to admit, our mercenaries haven’t killed the tiniest fraction of innocent civilians that our official uniformed military has.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.