Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

Sept 2007 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2007

Blackwater USA - Private War

We all fight a daily battle within ourselves as we negotiate a complex moral and ethical world in which conflicting values, practices and beliefs might otherwise send us stir crazy. Do we attempt to buy Australian only to find that our budget doesn’t stretch that far? Do we allow our teenage children to go to ‘that’ party even though we trust them? Do we vote for a party that will look after our individual interests or do we vote for one that advocates collective responsibility? 

Each of these small dilemmas is a privatised war zone that sees us do the most incredible ethical and moral gymnastics in order to survive each day. It’s nothing new. It’s part of the human condition. But what happens when the public realm is taken over and privatised? What are the potential consequences when moral and ethical considerations are handed over to unaccountable corporations who can hide behind “commercial in confidence” agreements? 

Blackwater USA is one of about 60 private companies operating in Iraq as part of the ‘war’ effort. These companies operate alongside the military and often engage in open warfare. Some companies provide more mundane services like running the McDonald’s, Domino’s or KFC franchises in the Green Zone. Some provide secretarial or logistic support that are ‘essential’ in supporting the military. Many of these companies, Blackwater USA included, are exempt from prosecution if they should commit ‘war crimes’. They are, in other words, powers unto themselves who operate outside the boundaries of moral and ethical behaviour the rest of us are compelled to adhere to. 

Like the largely privatised US military, the Australian military is being reshaped by the faceless, nameless individuals who represent the military industrial complex. While, to many, this term sounds old fashioned and ‘quaint’, one only has to look at the way our governments have been spending our money to see the links. For what other reason would our government buy ‘pre-loved’ Abrams tanks that don’t fit on our transporters and are useless in our northern deserts? Why else would they commit to buy a fleet of broken down helicopters that have never flown a mission and sit, largely, unused? Why else would our government buy second hand scrap in multibillion dollar deals? 

In 2003 the House of Representatives conducted an “Inquiry into the Privatisation of Regional Infrastructure and Government Business Enterprises in Regional and Rural Australia”. In a background paper prepared for this inquiry, the section titled “Industrial Manufacturing” notes that our defence development and supply industries were “… created as an endeavour to ensure self-sufficiency in the event of a new world-encompassing war…” They note that since the heady days of the Hawke government – when Kim Beasley was the Defence Minister – the manufacturing, testing and procurement facilities of the military were gradually privatised. The report notes that our military manufacturing capability is now, “…fully privatised and … jointly owned by Transfield Holdings and the European defence conglomerate, Thales”. 

The paper notes the major disadvantage with privatisation as being, “… the loss of organic manufacturing capacity within Australia”, which, when translated into plain English means loss of jobs, loss of the ability to tailor our equipment to our own defence needs and the ability to control costs. In short, the privatisation of the military means we become beholden to those who see themselves as the real masters of war: the private, for profit companies and mercenary armies managed, like Blackwater, not to bring peace, but to perpetuate war.  

A 2005 report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Defence Department funded think tank, concluded that our military should be privatised even more than it now is. Robert Hill, the then Defence Minister, revealed the true intent of his government’s moral and ethical code for war when he said, of the report’s recommendations, “The two tests we apply are operational effectiveness and cost effectiveness …” In other words, rather than ask the serious moral or ethical questions about whether a war is ‘just’ or ‘right’, Hill suggests governments should consider the cost before the consequences. We see this moral code in action if we reflect on the latest civilian deaths in Baghdad. 

Blackwater USA was involved in the killing of eleven and wounding of over a dozen innocent Iraqi civilians. Robert Young Pelton, an apologist for Blackwater, attempted to defend the killings by saying, “The Blackwater guys are not fools. If they were gunning down people it was because they felt it was the beginning of an ambush.” Pelton has said that Blackwater’s top consideration in all operations was keeping their ‘high value clients’ alive. This brings to the front of the argument why the privatisation of war is morally and ethically wrong. 

The argument against the privatisation of war rests on the fact that all people are of ‘high value’ regardless of their ability to pay. So whether it’s a civilian bystander in Iraq or a soldier in the enemy’s army, the ethical and moral duty of the soldier is to always follow the highest moral and ethical standards. Unlike the private, for profit mercenary armies, those ethics and moral obligations can never be sold to the highest bidder. 

Blackwater USA operates outside the moral and ethical codes that, agree with them or not, have been developed over millennia to guide so called ‘ethical’ warfare. These codes are enshrined in the various ‘rules of engagement’ that politicians are so keen to defend when a soldier commits an atrocity. Yet, companies like Blackwater USA are allowed to operate with complete impunity. When four of their men were killed in 2005 while crossing a bridge over the Tigris river in Fallujah we were supposed to feel pity for them. The resulting holocaust that was unleashed on that city saw up to 2,000 innocent men, women and children killed. Who wept their heart out for them? Who questioned the moral and ethical standards that allowed this atrocity to occur? I suggest only the so called ‘bleeding hearts” among us. 

Our moral and ethical compasses are not infallible. Each of us can recall times at which we have done something or not done something in the full knowledge that there would or might be an adverse outcome. Yet the vast majority of us do not live our lives as sociopaths, who have no ability to self correct when our compasses are off course. Yet, collectively, we allow the rise of governments who, in collusion with business, establish corporate sociopathic behaviour as a norm to which all should aspire. The inevitable outcome of this type of collective, unchallenged consent to be bullied leads to companies like Blackwater USA being able to commit unspeakable acts and not being held accountable for them. 

The private moral and ethical battles we face each day not only affect us and those closest to us, they also affect the lives of those on the other side of the world. Ultimately any war will be judged by history to be ‘just’ and ‘right’ or nothing more than a display of brute force. What I find confronting about the increased privatisation of war, in the absence of moral and ethical responsibility, is that its consequences must, over time, reach down into our social fabric and begin to stress it. The question is, “how long will it be before the fabric is irreparably torn?”

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