"There seem to be an awful lot of realities running around." It's been a week since Blackwater Security mercenaries working for the US government opened fire in Nisoor Square. In that time, the story has changed repeatedly. Now they're saying that Blackwater opened fire when a small car refused to stop when Iraqi police waved it away from their diplomatic convoy, and 11 people died. This is, frankly, hogwash. We're going to find out what the truth is, too, in all likelihood, because it turns out that most of the incident was videotaped from a nearby Iraqi police station. No, it's the earliest account of the shooting where the Blackwater guys speaking anonymously and off the record came the closest to agreeing with what the other witnesses on the scene reported. The problem with that is, if they continued to stick with that story, they'd be in huge trouble.
You see, the earliest news stories quoted anonymous Blackwater sources as saying that they opened fire when their convoy was attacked by a car bomb. Had there been a car bomb, it wouldn't have been outside the rules of engagement to assume that anybody near their vehicles on foot was a potential gunman there to kill any survivors of the car bombing. But when investigators got to the scene, there was no bomb crater, no blown up car, therefore no car bomb. So instead we got this whole new story about them coming under attack by people on foot on the sidewalk. Except that that's something that basically never happens; who, even in an increasingly desperate insurgency, attacks a row of armored cars full of guys with guns while on foot? So the story changed again, and now the mythical compact car that failed to yield has been invented. Because here's what they're desperately trying to obfuscate: there was a car bomb. In the direction that they opened fire, no less. Over a mile away. Iraqi eyewitnesses unanimously say that they heard an explosion in the distance. Then the Blackwater mercenaries started screaming and waving people to move away from the convoy. But after less than a couple of seconds, they panicked at how many unarmed people were still close enough to scare them, so they sprayed down the entire crowd with machine gun fire, killing not 11 unarmed civilians but at least 28. (Including women and children. More ready-made recruiting video for al Qaeda, paid for by your tax dollars.)
Now I readily grant several reasons to doubt this story. For one, it's a war zone, and getting the truth out of a war zone is almost impossible. Rumors spread fast, get inflated with every retelling, and end up bearing no resemblance to what happened. What's more, Iraqi civilians in Baghdad are not exactly neutral witnesses; not a few of them have strongly held personal reasons to lie if need be to make American mercenaries look bad. Nonetheless, I believe the Iraqi eyewitnesses and not Blackwater or the US government, and I'll tell you why: people in New Orleans reported the same thing when they were occupied by Blackwater, too.
After Hurricane Katrina, the few rich people who'd stayed behind during the evacuation called in people from two heavily armed mercenary companies to ferry them around the flooded city; one of those two companies was Blackwater. And multiple groups of witnesses from New Orleans all said the same thing about Blackwater's convoys. If a Blackwater security guard heard a noise, any noise, that scared him then he and his whole convoy would empty their weapons in the direction of the noise, including at least one crowd of refugees camped on an overpass. The noises in question were, upon investigation, always innocuous: debris falling down, gas pressure relief valves popping, whatever. Nonetheless, Blackwater (as I'm sure they'd say) took their responsibility to protect their clients very seriously. What that means, whether they're on the streets of New Orleans or the streets of Baghdad, is not just shoot first, ask questions later. It's shoot first, acquire targets visually later -- if at all. The only reason fewer people died in New Orleans (if, in fact, fewer did die from being shot up by mercenaries, has this ever been adequately investigated?) is that in New Orleans, they were never shooting at such close range, and people being shot at by Blackwater had more things to hide behind.
The relatives of the deceased in Baghdad are demanding justice. Fat chance. If Blackwater didn't face justice for similar shootings on American soil, they're sure as heck not likely to be prosecuted for shooting helpless unarmed Iraqis, no matter what that videotape shows. As Jeremy Scahill, who wrote the book on Blackwater, has been pointing out as he made the rounds of the news shows last week, in all the five years of the occupation not one single mercenary in Iraq has yet been convicted of a crime. Is it, as he jokingly inquires, because they're all Boy Scouts? No, it's because it's official US doctrine that mercenaries working for the US government are neither subject to US law, nor to in-country law, nor to the UCMJ. Get used to the idea of this being the end of the UCMJ for most purposes, and all other rules of warfare. When Congress caves in next month and passes a budget with yet more money for Iraq, where is Bush going to keep finding the troops to pay with that money? Re-enlistment is down, and it's not as if the American public are swarming the recruiting stations to sign up. No, there is only one place they can find the troops to keep up the occupation: more mercenaries, from all over the world if necessary. That's already the under-reported truth of the "surge"; US-hired mercenaries already outnumber uniformed on-duty US soldiers in Iraq.
There may be all kinds of reasons why Blackwater has a reputation, confirmed by people in other mercenary companies working inside Iraq, for being the most "aggressive" (trigger-happy) force in the region. But I can't shake the suspicion that the easiest place to lay the blame is on Blackwater's hiring policy of preferring to hire retired US elite combat veterans. Spraying suppressive fire in the direction of any hostile-sounding noise, any time you're startled, any time you have reasonable grounds to believe there are no friendly units in that direction, is perfectly ordinary doctrine ... on a battlefield. Except that this isn't rural or mountainous Afghanistan. This is a crowded marketplace in one of the largest cities in the middle east. But unfortunately, that's not exactly a scenario that the US trains its combat troops to do their best work in. No, US combat doctrine for cities calls for surrounding the city or neighborhood, evacuating the civilians, and then shooting everything left that moves, as we did in the extremely successful battle of 2nd Fallujah. Not for the first time, I wish we could find some way to persuade the Canadians to take over the reconstruction security in Iraq, and persuade Washington to just pay the bills and let them do it. Not because I don't have any respect for our soldiers as a fighting force; as a fighting force, they're still the best in the world. But American combat troops make lousy peace-keepers, because unlike the Candians, who practically invented the science of military peace-keeping, we just have never taken it seriously. As this president said back when he was running for office, we don't do "nation-building."