When Washington Pleads Weakness

Why the U.S. won't crack down on reckless military contractors


The U.S. government must not have much power, because no one seems able to figure out how to bring American security contractors to justice for violent crimes committed in Iraq. In September 2007, Blackwater employees opened fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square, allegedly killing 17 civilians. That shooting is the subject of an FBI criminal investigation, complicated just a bit by the fact that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has offered criminal immunity to everyone involved.

In May 2007, a Blackwater employee shot an Iraqi he thought was driving too close to a security detail, causing further tension without legal or contractual consequence. Wait a few months, and you can read the same story with a new date and place name. Expect as many Blackwater shooters to be prosecuted in the coming months as have been prosecuted in recent years: none.

But the inaction is the action. Watch closely when government finds things it can't do, because that's precisely where you'll see what government is really doing.

Reading late-18th-century frontier newspapers, the historian Cynthia Cumfer noticed a recurring phenomenon: White settlers repeatedly told dramatic stories about killing Indians in self-defense. As evidence, they presented clothing riddled with bullet holes. In 1792 a settler in what would become eastern Tennessee reported that he'd been attacked while hunting. "Four balls passed through his clothes and shattered his powder horn without injuring him," Cumfer writes. The whole implausible performance was intended for federal officials, who had threatened to prosecute whites for killing Indians over the control of land. The miraculous artifact of bullet-riddled shirts on uninjured bodies allowed government officers to pretend they believed the stories about self-defense.

In the decades before the Civil War, private armies known as "filibusters" waged a long series of slapdash wars against America's neighbors, trying to annex places like Cuba. Congress passed strict laws against such ad hoc invasions, but the authorities rarely bothered to enforce them. Had the filibusters succeeded, unchecked by the government, the primary benefits would have flowed to—hold on a second—the government.

"If army officers expected to convict, punish, or otherwise discourage filibusters," writes the historian Robert May in Manifest Destiny's Underworld, "they left no evidence of it in their private correspondence." Well, yeah. When a group of filibusters washed ashore in Florida from a failed attack on Cuba in 1850, an army captain drank with the would-be invaders for a while before mentioning politely that he was supposed to arrest them. He sent them on their way, drunk and free, to Tampa, where the captain's superior offered the men three days' rations before mumbling something about how he was supposed to put them in jail, so maybe they should be going, cough cough.

In Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, the political scientist Michael Rogin summed up the whole history of government efforts against paramilitary violence during the first 80 years of the republic. "The assertions of helplessness were policy," he writes, "aimed at pressuring the Indians to move west." Weakness worked for the federal government. Officials notionally lacked the power to stop activity they did not wish to stop.

In Iraq the Coalition Provisional Authority granted blanket immunity from Iraqi criminal law to security contractors several years ago, and—I'm just guessing—did so on purpose. Since then, Congress and the State Department have been really meaning to stick it to the companies that provide war zone security for State Department officials and members of Congress.

But somehow no one has managed to do very much. Either all those years of impotence were an accident, or the U.S. government finds it useful to have a force of armed men beyond the reach of the law in a country it is occupying.

Chris Bray
served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.