Note: This is the second of a two-part post on the “shadow army” of mercenary forces in Iraq. To see the first part, “Seeing the Enemy” go to BagnewsNotes.
“Build it and they will come.” Those are the words that Erik [the] Prince of Blackwater used in a recent interview with the Washington Post, referring to his 7,000 acres, “Blackwater Lodge and Training Center,” as a “Field of Dreams.” Field of Dreams, of course, is an endearing but not so subtle, surrealistic parable for the American dream cast in the mythic registers of Christian redemption and our national fascination with baseball. When Prince quotes from the movie he invites consideration of the darker side of the national mythos, rooted in the imperialistic pretensions of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. His firm, Blackwater, Worldwide, formerly Blackwater, USA—and the change of name is notable in an age of empire and globalization—is a “private contractor” with multi-billion dollar government contracts to train U.S. military and paramilitary personnel and to provide independent security forces who serve, in Prince’s words, as “gap fillers” with the “skills the U.S. government needs to operate domestically and abroad.”
“Gap fillers” is a euphemism for “private armies” or “mercenaries,” terms that Prince steadfastly rejects. But there can be little question as to what Blackwater imagines its continuing “mission” to be, as indicated in the poster titled “The MISSION Continues,” available for purchase at the Blackwater Proshop for $15.00 (along with a catalog of “Apparel,” [Tactical] “Accessories,” and “Gifts” for “that special person in your life”). Shot from a low angle that accentuates their presence, the “gap fillers” are decked out in generic military gear, accompanied by a German Shepherd (vaguely reminiscent of the dog in the infamous torture photographs from Abu Ghraib), and supported by an array of high-tech weaponry and equipment, including helicopters, jets, tanks, and armored vehicles. The Blackwater brand in the upper right hand corner makes it clear who the agents represent. And at the bottom the poster announces, “Coming Soon – Global Stability.” The claim is as arrogant as it is wrong.
But there is a bigger point to be made, which has less to do with Blackwater per se than with the fantasy world within which the ad/announcement operates and the way in which it contributes to the larger normalization of a war culture. Blackwater casts itself and the problems of global instability within the fictional world of hyper-masculine, shoot ‘em up action movies in which the “hero” has access to an endless supply of high tech weaponry that he uses with impunity to destroy terrorists, aliens, and other barbarians—in addition to anything else that happens to get in his way—by day and then returns to his home and family by night, leaving a smoldering world in his wake. The only thing missing in this “mock” movie poster is the star power of a Bruce Willis or Keifer Sutherland.
And there is more, for the appeal here is not just to an action narrative driven by an adolescent attraction to pyrotechnics, but to a visual aesthetic of color, angle of view, background and gesture that draws directly from the lucrative, fantasy world of single-shooter video games such as Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.
The visual analogy is both uncanny and frightening. But it should not surprise us. For we have seen this combination of militaristic fantasy and the realism of war over and again in recent times, whether it is with announcements of missions accomplished, government officials shooting weapons in high tech military simulators, or private citizens playing soldier at paintball parks. Erik Prince deserves our derision, there is no doubt about that, but what should really draw our attention is an increasingly normative culture of war that fuels and enables a world in which entities like Blackwater can prosper as they give new meaning to phrases like “Playground of Destruction,” or in which the fantasy that “global stability” can be accomplished by “gap fillers” is anything more than a surrealistic “field of dreams.” And that is something we all share a responsibility for.