Blackwater contractors: mercenaries or reckless cowboys?

Five guards from US private military firm Blackwater were charged Monday with the killing of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last year. As the group faces growing criticism on several fronts, an audio transcript from the cockpit tape of one of the company's planes, which crashed in November 2007, as well as amateur video footage, reveal that the contractor's reckless behaviour can have sometimes disastrous consequences.


Photo by Steve Gubin

Five guards from US private military firm Blackwater were charged Monday with the killing of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last year. As the group faces growing criticism on several fronts, amateur video footage published by The Observers gives a concrete example of  the contractor's reckless approach to combat, as if it was just one big video game.

Critics have repeatedly accused Blackwater combatants of displaying a "cowboy" mentality, conducting security operations on a "shoot first, ask questions later" basis. Some also accuse the company of harbouring obscure links with the Bush administration and Republican members of the US Senate.

As for the Iraqi government, it has pressed the state department to completely withdraw Blackwater from the country after last year's incident, but the security firm's contract was renewed earlier this year.

The contractor insists that its men were acting in self defence, even if a joint FBI and Iraqi police investigation shows that apparently the mercenaries opened fire without provocation. As the trial unfolds, video and audio footage of previous reckless behaviour on the part of Blackwater has further raised doubts on the professionalism of its men in the field.

"I swear to God they wouldn't pay me if they knew how much fun this was"

Blackwater is also present in Afghanistan, on a lesser scale than in Iraq. One of its regular activities there is to shuttle troops and materiel back and forth by air between Kabul and outer provinces that are hard to reach. On November 27, 2004, one of the company's double-turboprop transport planes set off for its early-morning taxi toward the runway at Bagram Air Base. Only that day, the plane's six passengers, including one high-ranking military officer, never made it to their destination: 20 minutes into the trip, the aircraft crashed in a canyon over the Bamian Valley.

Extracts of an edited transcript from the cockpit voice recorder, first published in the Seattle Weekly, clearly show that the crew's poor knowledge of the mountainous Afghan landscape, as well as their obvious recklessness, were probably responsible for the crash:

Capt. Joel English: I hope I'm goin' in the right valley.

First Officer Lauren Hammer: That one or this one?

English: I'm just gonna go up this one... We'll just see where this leads.

The fun continued as the plane swung through a canyon. English fiddled with his MP3 player to get appropriate mood music.

English: I swear to God they wouldn't pay me if they knew how much fun this was.

But within minutes, the happy chatter turned to urgent pleas. They suddenly realized they were boxed into the canyon and the plane was dangerously low. The pilots began an emergency climb.

English: Come on baby, come on baby, you can make it.

Mechanic Mel Rowe: Okay, you guys are gonna make this, right?

English: Yeah-h-h, I'm hopin'.


Hammer: Yeah, let's turn around.

Hammer: You got ninety-five. Ninety-five.

English: Oh God!

English: Oh (expletive)!

Rowe: We're goin' down."

"Blackwater's founder also happens to be a major Bush donor"

Ernesto Haibi is a medic in the US army. He has worked alongside Backwater contractors in Iraq.

It makes me sick that my army is broke when these contractors are making an excess of millions each year. I believe — and every military personnel I know shares this view — that civilians have no business in the war zone. If you want to fight for your country, sign up for the army or the navy or whatever. But whoring yourself out for 100,000 dollars a year is not fighting for your country, it's just despicable.

Some Blackwater employees are genuine professionals who actually help out in important missions. But many act like cowboys and get themselves into trouble. I've personally been sent on a mission in which we had to save the butts of Blackwater guys who weren't careful and got into trouble.

I've heard that we spend more in three weeks in Iraq that in one year in Afghanistan. And I've also heard, but this is just a rumour, that there are more contractors in Iraq in combat than there are military personnel in combat. That makes me so angry. I want to see army guards at checkpoints, not private security. I want to see US Black Hawk helicopters flying over combat zones, not Blackwater planes.

There are two schools of thought as to why the administration has chosen to hire the services of private security contractors. The first is a fact: the army is low on personnel; it's not meeting recruiting goals. The second is speculation: Blackwater was a tiny security company who out of nowhere grew into a gargantuan private army. Its founder, millionaire Erik Prince, also happens to be a major Bush donor. It's not hard to connect the dots."

Helicopter cowboys

On this undated video, a Blackwater helicopter zooms under Baghdad's triumphal arch. It then hovers over the former Rachid hotel, now a military base near the green zone.

Contacted by France 24, Blackwater's director of public relations, Anne Tyrell, gave the following explanation for the videos: "This video compilation was not assembled or sanctioned by Blackwater. It shows brief snippets of training exercises conducted by Blackwater teams several years ago. Due to the constant threat of fire from insurgents on the ground, aviation teams must be accomplished in flying close to the ground, using evasive flight patterns to elude enemy fire and, if necessary, must be able to accurately respond to enemy fire. This kind of regular training was required at the time to prepare pilots and security professionals for possible attacks by enemy fire, and the portions of the video that appear authentic depict training scenarios designed to prepare personnel who might come under hostile attack."