Erik Prince, the CEO of Blackwater, hates it when his soldiers-for-hire are called mercenaries. But the dictionaries I've consulted consistently define a mercenary as a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army. So certainly from the perspective of the Iraqis, Blackwater employees are mercenaries.
Still, Prince is sensitive about the term, poor guy, and has been known to break down sobbing whenever any of his gun-toting Iraqi-killing boys are designated by such an awful word. He much prefers to frame them as "contractors," a benign word that calls to mind the guys who come and put a new roof on your house or build you a new garage. Prince is so insistent on avoiding the M-word that, according to Naomi Klein (in The Shock Doctrine), he has directed lobbyists on Blackwater's behalf to ensure that any use of the term by politicians or the media is squelched.
Now it seems that the United Nations is more courageous and honest than U.S. politicians on this point:
Private security companies operate without supervision or accountability in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and represent a new form of mercenary activity, a United Nations report said on Tuesday.
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"They are new modalities of mercenarism," it said, likening them to the notion of "irregular combatants".
I think Prince's aversion to the honest and descriptive term "mercenary" has more to do with Blackwater's domestic operations than its foreign ones. Blackwater soldiers were dispatched to CONUS (in soldier-of-fortune-speak, the continental United States) to patrol the streets of New Orleans after Katrina. Some reports (again, cf. Klein) say that Blackwater was there ahead of FEMA, putting its boots on the ground before it even had a contract so that it would be in a superior bargaining position vis-a-vis competitors when the time came. I imagine that the notion that the federal government is sending a mercenary army into New Orleans would not go down very well with anyone, so the facts have to be reframed to make mercenaries look like a cross between Officer Friendly and Ralphie the Roofer.
[O]ur Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it."
In her most recent book (The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot), Naomi Wolf wonders what would happen if there was a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or civil unrest on American soil and the President sent in the National Guard "backed" by Blackwater mercenaries.
My answer would be: at that point, we will have ceased to keep Mr. Franklin's republic. In 1789, the framers of the constitution had just fought a war against an enemy that employed Hessian mercenaries to fight on its side. They would no doubt be horrified by the idea that such mercenaries would later be deployed to "keep order" in America. I would be too--and that's why the question of how Blackwater is framed is so vital to Erik Prince and the future of the American experiement.