Ted Koppel appeared on NPR earlier this week, where he is now a regular commentator, and again made a pitch for private contractors doing the nation's warring business in Iraq. He's been at this for some time now, He's been at this for some time now, having chummy conversations with the likes of former CIA spook Cofer Black and Chris Taylor at Blackwater USA, one of the many companies that supply over 15,000 security personel who run VIPs from the airport to the Green Zone, escort an Iraqi Minister or the U.S. Ambassador from point A to point B. Blackwater, which has a large training compound in North Carolina, is also featured in Robert Greenwald 's Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, a documentary film that takes a hard look at the public rip-off, fraud, and corruption of several private companies doing business in Iraq who employ over 100,000 men and woman to do what, often enough, was done by the U.S. military in past wars.
Back in May, 2006, Koppel argued in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that the increased use of private companies in wartime Iraq is "the inevitable response of a market economy to a host of seemingly intractable public policy and security problems." And just what are those problems? As Koppel would have it, some of these problems include a "growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq," "the prospect of an endless campaign against global terrorism" and "the expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious, and potentially hostile settings." These words could have come straight from the mouth of Eric Prince, Blackwater founder and major benefactor to extreme right-wing fundamentalist organizations. That they come merely from Blackwater press releases and policy statements, should still give one pause.
Anyone who stops to examine these statements might want to, at minimum, question Koppel's underlying premises. If, for example, the "problem" we have is a growing disenchantment with the war in Iraq, is the solution to that problem to hire what amounts to a private army, no matter how small, to in effect lessen the disenchantment of the American people? Do we really want a public and lively democratic debate about our foreign policy objectives sidelined by throwing men under private contract at the problem, a group of people who are unknown, untracked by the media, who don't show up on official body counts, and who now work under no reasonable and responsible chain of command or rule of law? I have always assumed that a disastrous war, based on ginned up rationale, and recklessly mismanaged would demand disenchantment from an informed public.
Is Koppel also suggesting that without a highly paid private force to accompany American corporate interests around the globe, it would be our armed forces that should take on that task? But isn't this a war for freedom and democracy, or should we amend the Bush doctrine to add a war for corporate trade as the causa belli?
And there is nothing about a market economy that requires a company like Blackwater, with "their own helicopters, their own aircraft, their own weapons" to do anything in particular in a "endless campaign against global terrorism." This latter formulation about where our nation is at the moment, repeated by Koppel without question or doubt, are the words of the state department, directly and courteously transmitted to an audience that has grown accustomed to thinking that Koppel is talking sense.
In the NPR piece, Koppel goes on to state that the relationship between the military and private security contractors is all hunky dory, quoting newly appointed commander in Iraq, General David H. Patraeus, to the effect that privateers are essential to the Iraqi mission.
In our research for Iraq For Sale, we found a different set of opinions concerning the behavior of what Koppel calls thee "latter-day Hessians." From soldiers on the ground, to officers who have observed these "relationships" first hand, the rent-an-army in Iraq is not so compelling. With little transparency, under no clear oversight or enforceable rules of engagement, the likes of Blackwater often cause more problems than they solve. Security personal are not in Iraq to win hearts and minds; they are in the business of getting a person from one place to another, often times by whatever means necessary. To date, no civilian security contractor has been prosecuted for any crime against an Iraqi citizen. And U.S. soldiers who saw security contractors in action on the streets of Iraq told us that for every Iraqi shot at, harassed or killed by a private contractor, it was the volunteer military who would suffer the repercussions.
Koppel, not seeming to know the literature on the use of private warriors in modern military conflicts, doesn't even give the impression of wanting to know. If he were actually serious about the subject, rather than a fly-in commentator for a national and "public" radio audience that is increasingly, like the rest of the country, besotted with celebrities of one stripe or another, Koppel might consider spending some quality time with the books of Peter Singer (Corporate Warriors) and Deborah Avant (The Market For Force), two scholars who actually know something about the perils of privatizing the military.
Koppel informs us that he's done a number of interviews with Blackwater executives, individuals he refers to as representing one of the largest and more reputable outfits doing security operations in Iraq. And they tell him, well, it's "one team, one fight," Blackwater and the military are tight, together, arms linked for the good fight. Ted seemed to be impressed with this bit of hokum, as if this kind of wind just quite settled the matter of doing war for profit. If we interrogated history this way we'd inquire only of the slaveholder about how life in the quarters was going for the slave, or put the question of prohibition only to the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. "Yes, indeed, Mr. Koppel, that demon rum is simply a curse and a pestilence. All agree, except that one lonely reprobate, H. L. Mencken." This kind of glad-handing, I suppose, is called balanced journalism these days. It certainly is not the kind of investigation we need to make intelligent decisions about how the public's money is dispensed in a war that will, according to Ted Koppel, never come to a conclusion. It's the quick interview he prefers--and has always preferred--not the lengthy study of a dense and challenging text.
But to keep things simple, Koppel continued in our paper of record, "so, if there are personnel shortages in the military,....then what's wrong with having civilian contractors? Expense is a possible issue; but a resumption of the draft would be significantly more controversial" He went on, private warriors "in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve us of an array of current political pressures." Here we have one of our supposed premier journalists wanting to avoid undue controversy, political pressure, over Iraq military policy. Has it really come to this?
It has been obvious for some time now that Ted Koppel not only enjoys the company of Blackwater executives and their like, but is also pushing their agenda, taking up the privatization of the U.S. military as one of his post-Nightline causes, although he sometimes couches his commentary in the "need for a conversation" gambit. But that conversation is only a journalistic feint, coming as it does after he's pressed the case hard for the private security crowd's right to government largesse, and a critical role in matters of state power around the globe. Had he encountered, and taken seriously, the literature on privatizing war before going public with this low and superficial commentary, Koppel might not have given his audience the distinct impression that he is coasting through his anchorman retirement and, at 67, ready to settle for the role of elder statesman for the corporate consensus on privatizing just about everything.
Addressing the Catholic University's graduating class in 1994, Ted Koppel, in a both a witless jab at his own profession, and an unadorned plea to be recognized as, really folks, outside the mainstream media consensus, noted that "we have reconstructed the Tower of Babel, and it is a television antenna." "We ["We," Kimosabe?] now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing." Well said, Ted. But next time you "cover" the topic of a privatized military, please step outside the confines of the Blackwater redoubt--where the bullets and bluster on behalf of corporate interests never stop firing--and say something compelling, interesting, and useful in the crucial public debate over Iraq now raging around us.
Kerry Candaele is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Venice, California. He was a producer for Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, the most recent documentary from Brave New Films.