‘We were so big, we were selling $1 million worth of T-Shirts and other merchandise with our logo on it every year’ – Eric Prince, founder of the $2 billion Blackwater Security Consulting Inc.
March 31, 2004
By all accounts, Scott Helvenston, ex-Navy Seal and world class athlete, was well prepared for what he had signed up to do. At the same time, he was in debt and he was hoping that the $600 a day that the four-month contract promised to pay, would bring him out of the financial woods that he was in. He had told a friend that he expected to be guarding Paul Bremer, head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority. But he never got to meet Bremer. Instead he was assigned to a detail providing security to a Cypriot catering company, ESS, which kept the far-flung American bases in Iraq supplied. That was how Helvenston found himself in Fallujah, one of the numerous places dotting the earth that are hazardous for Americans.
6-foot 3-inch Croatian-American former US Army Ranger, Jerry Zovko, had joined the military in 1991. He was first assigned to Bosnia in 1995 to help keep the peace. In 1997, after failing to make the cut for the Green Berets, he left the army and went to work as a security contractor for the US security conglomerate, DynCorp, in Qatar and Dubai, where he took the trouble to learn Arabic. In the summer of 2003, he signed on with Vinnell to help train the new Iraqi army, telling his family it was important work because the Iraqis needed the chance to take charge of their own country. Three months later, he joined Helvenston, escorting frozen hamburgers through the Iraqi desert.
Michael Teague, 38, was dedicated to defending his country. A 12-year Army veteran who had received a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, Teague had returned home from his Iraq deployment the previous December. Unable to adjust to civilian life, he felt that he had more to accomplish in the military. Besides, like Helvenston, he too had a story – he needed funds to bankroll his son’s college education. All this was strong compulsion for Teague to sign up along with Helvenston and Zovko. There he was that morning, at the wheel of the unarmored Nissan Pathfinder SUV with Zovko by his side, riding shotgun through the blazing Iraqi sands toward Fallujah.
A native of Hawaii, Wesley Batalona was a former Ranger sergeant with a reputation for being tough. He had joined the Army in 1974 and taken part in the 1989 invasion of Panama, the first Gulf War and the 1993 humanitarian mission to Somalia. All those 20 years, he had had only one mantra drilled into his head – that he was there ‘to save American lives’. After 20 years, Batalona had retired and ended up as a hotel security guard, discarded, beginning to miss his ‘buddies’.
Like the others, he too had to have a story, an excuse, a reason to once again go out there and feel the adrenalin of raw violence. The usual ‘for God, Country & Family’ cliché had begun to wear thin even for folk of his ilk. Like the others, his story too had to be something tame that would make his friends and sisters and brothers go ‘awwwww’ when they heard of it. Batalona’s story was that he needed the money, to help his father whose property was facing foreclosure. Awwwww.
The real reason for going out there in the face of extreme peril, like the others, was that in civilian life, Batalona had turned out to be a misfit. It was not his or his buddies’ fault that they were misfits. Okay, they might have been dumb to be taken in by the George Bush/Donald Rumsfeld/Dick Cheney cabal and be sent off to a fight a fruitless, unwinnable war.
For Batalona and his buddies, there was only one way that things would go down – back with buddies inside a Humvee, in an outfit that looked and felt like the home he had known for 20 years, savoring the high that comes, not from fighting a conventional war, but from indiscriminate killing for – yes, you guessed it – for God, Country and Family.
The above four gentlemen had another thing in common – they were all employees of Moyock, NC-based Blackwater Security Consulting inc., and on the morning of March 31, 2004, they were in two Nissan Pathfinder SUVs, escorting empty US Army trucks that were being sent to the 82nd Airborne near Fallujah, to pick up and escort back kitchen equipment that needed to be replaced.
There had not been anything special about that morning. Like any foreign contractors working in Iraq, they knew the rules – keep your bulletproof vest and helmet on tight, the machine guns and side-arms ready, shoot to kill anyone who looks even remotely suspicious and never ever pull over, even if you have just run over an innocent Iraqi passerby while careening around the city like bulls in a china shop.
None of those cardinal rules however managed to save the convoy that morning. The four Americans were ripped apart by withering gunfire practically before they knew what hit them.
Exactly how the contractors’ convoy was stopped will probably never be clear. Some reports suggested it had made the fatal mistake of hitting the brakes when armed men suddenly appeared in front. Instead of flooring the accelerator in the hope of bludgeoning their way through, the convoy stopped. Others reports suggested the Blackwater men had already been dead from sniper fire, even before their vehicles rolled to a halt. Given what happened next, their grieving families probably hoped that it was the latter.
In an act of savagery shocking even by the blood-soaked standards of Iraq’s worst fanatics, the bodies of the four men inside the vehicles were beaten, burned, hacked at and then dragged through the streets of Fallujah, a stark reminder of similar events in Somalia a few years earlier (recall Black Hawk Down).
In what turned into a macabre celebration, locals cheered and danced as one corpse was attached to a car tow rope and dragged up and down the road in full view of a camera crew. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, two of the charred and mangled corpses were strung up from a green iron bridge across the Euphrates River.
“The people of Fallujah have hanged some of the bodies from the old bridge like slaughtered sheep,” resident Abdul Aziz Mohammed said gleefully.
As if determined to show no deference to the dead, a man standing near the corpses held up a printed sign with a skull and crossbones. “Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans,” it read. The killings of the Blackwater personnel reinforced Fallujah’s hard-won reputation as a place with an unquenchable hatred for American forces and those who work for them.
Eyewitnesses said the attack on the convoy, carried out by three insurgents, first using rocket-propelled grenades and then assault rifles, had been planned well in advance. Merchants and pedestrians had been warned to avoid the area that Wednesday morning.
But the explosion of savagery against the Americans by hundreds of ordinary townspeople was, in sheer bestiality, unprecedented. Unconfirmed accounts given to reporters indicated that some of the Americans were still alive when their disabled vehicles were doused with gasoline and set afire. One man told the Washington Post that one contractor who had been shot in the chest but survived the initial volley of gunfire was stomped to death by the mob and then dismembered.
I am not trying to provide a context but Fallujah’s virulent opposition to the presence of the coalition forces began the previous year, when a protest outside a school went out of control and U.S. forces shot dead 20 civilians, many of them women and children, unleashing a wave of hatred of Americans. It was an act of murder that even an American court had upheld as genocide.
Since then, no amount of carrot-or-stick efforts by the U.S. Army have been able to tame the town. The Americans tried everything – deploying of combat-hardened armored divisions, the “softly, softly approach” by civil affairs units, American taxpayers’ funds used as “blood money” payments to the families of the dead civilians – but things had gone just a bit too far for them to have worked. Add to that the generally intolerant Arab mindset that cannot live down even the mildest slight, let alone a turkey-shoot slaughter.
Less than nine months prior to this incident, the Americans had been hailed as liberators, in an invasion that had begun on a lie and a promise to bring democracy and improve the lives of the ordinary Iraqi people. Instead Iraq had thousands of burly, heavily armed private military contractors, accountable to no one, charging around cities and towns, running over pedestrians, shooting and killing indiscriminately, doing exactly the same things that Iraqis had all along faced under Saddam.
Oh yeah, instances of the misdeeds of the ‘buddies’ of the Scott Levenstons and the Jerry Zovkos of the PMSCs are legion.
An October 2007 report submitted to a US Congressional Committee investigating the conduct of private security agency employees has stated that they frequently shot innocent Iraqi civilians for reasons as inane as trying to cross a road on foot ahead of a convoy. They have then tried to cover up the incidents, with the active connivance of the US State Department. The report depicts the security contractors as being staffed with reckless, shoot-first guards who were not always sober and did not always stop to see who or what they were shooting at, sometimes with hard rock music playing inside the vehicle.
In one incident mentioned in the Congressional report, a Blackwater convoy travelling to and from the Iraqi Ministry of Oil for official meetings, slammed against 18 different vehicles on the road, driven by innocent Iraqis who were just going about their business.
The random shootings and the reckless road crashes led finally to a debate in the US State Department on how much compensation the US (or the PMSC) should pay to the victim’s family. For deaths, $100,000 was suggested, which a State Department official termed a ‘huge sum for an Iraqi’, that was ‘likely to make more Iraqis try to get killed so that their families could get ahead financially’.
Isn’t it a surprise that the world’s most brutal terrorist outfit, the ISIS, wasn’t born sooner?