Blackwater Strikes Back

From tomorrow’s WaPo: Private Guards Repel Attack on U.S. Headquarters

An attack by hundreds of Iraqi militia members on the U.S. government’s headquarters in Najaf on Sunday was repulsed not by the U.S. military, but by eight commandos from a private security firm, according to sources familiar with the incident.

Before U.S. reinforcements could arrive, the firm, Blackwater Security Consulting, sent in its own helicopters amid an intense firefight to resupply its commandos with ammunition and to ferry out a wounded Marine, the sources said.

The role of Blackwater’s commandos in Sunday’s fighting in Najaf illuminates the gray zone between their formal role as bodyguards and the realities of operating in an active war zone. Thousands of armed private security contractors are operating in Iraq in a wide variety of missions and exchanging fire with Iraqis every day, according to informal after-action reports from several companies.

In Sunday’s fighting, Shiite militia forces barraged the Blackwater commandos, four MPs and a Marine gunner with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 fire for hours before U.S. Special Forces troops arrived. A sniper on a nearby roof apparently wounded three men. U.S. troops faced heavy fighting in several Iraqi cities that day.

Given that their own were brutalized recently, there is some justice in this. Still, it belies the notion that these men are there merely as some sort of security guards. They’re every bit as much combatants as our “advisors” in Vietnam forty years ago. I’m glad that they were there in this instance. But I’d sure feel better if we were using soldiers subject to the UCMJ and the laws of war than private contractors.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. BigFire says:

    No. A payback by those aggrieved upon is justified. Besides, they weren’t on the offensive, but acting as guard on the premise. Afterall, if you rob a bank, the bank guard is supposed to protect what he’s getting paid to guard, and not run away. In this case, the stake is higher, and the guard better armed and train (and much better motivated).

  2. Beldar says:

    I agree with BigFire. Sure, it’d be “nice” if there were enough conventional police in the US so that banks didn’t need private guards, and it’d be nice if there were enough conventional military in Iraq so that private security contractors weren’t needed either. But there aren’t, and there aren’t, and neither of those things are likely to change. If there are to be private security people, one certainly hopes that they’re competent, well-trained, effective, disciplined, and ethical. The incident in Najaf reported here certainly suggests that the Blackwater folks met at least the first three criteria. Given their recruiting pool, I’m very inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on the last two.

    Thanks for passing along this info, Mr. Joyner.

  3. Beldar says:

    One other thought that just occurred to me:

    James Joyner wrote in his original post,

    I’m glad that they were there in this instance. But I’d sure feel better if we were using soldiers subject to the UCMJ and the laws of war than private contractors.

    The inference is that the Blackfive private security contractors are subject to no laws (except perhaps whatever disciplinary procedures, if any, their private employer might enforce).

    I’m no expert on the current state of the law in Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, and haven’t made any effort to educate myself on the subject. But I’ve certainly read bits and pieces about the re-establishment of Iraqi civilian courts, and while I don’t know the extent, if any, of their jurisdiction over foreign civilians involved in the reconstruction effort (as opposed to Iraqi natives), I’m not sure it’s reasonable to presume that the Blackwater personnel, or others like them, are effectively now “above” or “outside” of any law. I suspect that in fact, they’re subject to civilian or quasi-civilian (CPA) jurisdiction that may be, at least in theory, more rigorous than the UCMJ.

    Assume, hypothetically, one of the extremely speculative scenarios being bandied about by the Angry Left — imagine, say, a Blackwater “mercenary” (ugh, I hate using that term even when mimicking the Angry Left) who’s caught and disarmed an Iraqi who was attacking a soft target, who thereafter proceeds to execute the Iraqi with a bullet to the back of the neck. I can’t cite you to the relevant statute, or even tell you which court he’d be tried in or under what type of proceeding, but I’m not willing to simply assume that there’s no such law and no such court currently available.

    Private security contractors in the “civilized world” are subject to civilian criminal and civil laws. The bank guard who captures and then executes a robber in Houston, for instance, might face the same criminal penalties as a soldier under the UCMJ, including the death penalty, along with civil liability that a soldier probably wouldn’t face.

    We’re investing all this effort to help Iraq become “civilized.” I’m not suggesting that the Iraqi justice system now in place would yet be as effective as that in Houston (and there are those around the world who’d argue with me about Houston’s criminal justice system!). I’m sure there are gray areas in present-day Iraq that are likely to generate controversies during the transition process. But if there’s a factual case to be made to support the assumption that private security contractors in Iraq are above or outside all law, I haven’t seen it made yet.

  4. Beldar says:

    Whoops. “Blackwater,” not “Blackfive.” Although I’ll bet the latter would agree.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Beldar–Yes, they’re presumably subject to civil law, which isn’t really all that comforting in a place still controlled by Muslim extremists. I meant for their own protection, not because they’re likely to be rogues. Soldiers are protected by international law in ways that mercenaries and even non-military government employeees aren’t.

  6. Beldar says:

    Whoops. “Blackwater,” not “Blackfive.” Although I’ll bet the latter would agree.

  7. capt joe says:

    This piece of the article is most instructive:

    “With their ammunition nearly gone, a wounded and badly bleeding Marine on the rooftop, and no reinforcement by the U.S. military in the immediate offing, the company sent in helicopters to drop ammunition and pick up the Marine.”

    I guess blackwater wasn’t going to let their people die like last time and sent a helicopter resupply. I applaud their taking actions on behalf of their people without thinking of “plociy and appearance”.

    I was thinking about blackwater and they don’t really fall under the limited protections of art. 47 about mercenaries. Maybe we should bring back privateers and start issuing letters of marque and reprisal. It seemed to work for the founding fathers. This is said “tongue in cheek”. 😉

  8. Barrel says:

    The free speaking one despises those who maintain his right to speak freely…and they do so VOLUNTARILY.

    You may freely cease and apologize, or spit upon those who spilled lifeblood for you and piss upon them as you spew.

    Sleep and be well.

  9. Barrel says:


  10. hsd says:

    As the sister of one of the men involved in that fight let me assure you that he is ethical, well trained, effective and disciplined. He is also a decorated veteran of war as I am sure many of his colleges may be and is worthy of the respect and pride of this nation. I am sure that I do not have to say he already has mine.

  11. M says:

    I work for Blackwater and I can assure you that we take international law and rights of non combatants very seriously. We are not mercenaries. Simply Americans who heeded the call to assist our brothers and sisters in uniform. To become involved in the best manner to serve our nation and it’s cause.

  12. john says:

    Lets protect and serve with our brothers in uniform, let no man bring arms againts us with out an answer repel the enemy and conserve ammo one shot one kill.

  13. officer painless says:

    i now no helvenston was a fagget