In skimming around the news today, I found several continued discussions of the controversial ruling favoring the infamous Blackwater military contractor in the case over the events of 16 September 2007. For those of you that haven’t followed this case that closely, a brief summary of it is as follows: In September, 2007, the private contractor, Blackwater, had been hired by the United States government to act as security personnel for a number of different institutions, areas and mobilizations in Iraq. On 16 September of that year, company personnel were acting under this mandate by overseeing security for a State Department convoy that was passing through Baghdad’s Nusour Square. However, during this movement, five of the guards on duty (Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, Donald Ball and Nicholas Slatten) claimed that the convoy came under attack by insurgents and they began to return fire. In the process, 17 Iraqi civilians were killed. In the aftermath, the events on that day were heavily disputed, and many, namely the Iraqi government, contend that the security guards acted in a manner outside of the rules of warfare, the attack they launched was unprovoked and that they fired indiscriminately at civilians, effectively committing murder.
That brings us to the trial that concluded this past week in the U.S. The prosecution, which based its case largely on the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation, was unsuccessful in its attempt to convict the five former Blackwater security guards on a variety of counts, including manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the case on the grounds that the evidence against the guards centered on testimonies which they gave under the pretense of a threat of job loss as well as the fact that these testimonies often provided inconsistent accounts of the day in question. Due to the questionable and limited evidence, the judge felt that he had no choice but to throw out the case.
Obviously, the Iraqi government displayed heavy disappointment over the ruling and has asked the Justice Department to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, a witch-hunt has been launched by the Iraqi government to pursue and expel any current and former employees of Blackwater, now known as Xe, still operating within their borders.
So that’s about where this story is at for the moment, but I couldn’t help but think of the potential consequences of it in the future. How, exactly, is this one going to end? Clearly, the appeal will be filed and the five guards will likely end up back on trial for what happened, whatever did happen, in Nusour Square. But if they are convicted the second time around, what will this mean for the newest trend in modern warfare, the employment of Private Military Contractors (PMCs)? Will someone question the use of companies who are arguably independent of the rules of conduct that control the state military machine? If they aren’t convicted, will the presence of PMCs become a permanent fixture in warfare in the years to come as a necessary supplement to armed forces of a nation, any nation, engaged in conflict? I don’t know, maybe those questions are a bit extreme and the realities of the situation are much more muted. But personally, I’ve always found PMCs, like any other mercenaries, to be inherently problematic as their independence tends to lead to issues of control. If the government wants to release thousands of guns-for-hire onto battlefields where the potential for civilian collateral damage is great, I would certainly hope that these are questions that are given their proper consideration before any deployment is initiated.