David R. Henderson  

Erik Prince on Collective Punishment

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Co-blogger Bryan's post, "Desert versus Identity," has got me thinking.

Bryan writes:

War crimes are a stark example. Suppose a soldier from group X plainly murdered ten innocent civilians from group Y. What do the people of X say? "It was war." "He just lost his buddy a month earlier." "If you've never been in that situation, you can't judge." "He was just following orders." "His officer should have seen it coming."

On Wednesday of this week, I was flying home from Washington, D.C. to Monterey and was reading Civilian Warriors by Erik Prince. I had seen it on sale at Costco a while back and decided that rather than pre-judge the founder of Blackwater, I should see what he had to say.

The story starts off in a compelling way. I found myself admiring Prince, as I do most people when I see that they risk it all to start a business. My admiration was limited because the business he started was, as the title says, a civilian warrior business. I judge civilian warriors by the same standards that I judge military warriors: are they fighting a just war and are they fighting justly?

Where my admiration fell to zero was when I hit Chapter 8, "Fallujah." In it, Prince tells how 4 of his employees were massacred in the city of Fallujah, and then tells what happened next. He writes:

Operation Phantom Fury soon became one of the bloodiest single engagements of the Iraq War, as two armored Army battalions rolled heavy into the streets of Fallujah, rustling out insurgents for the four Marine battalions that swept in behind. U.S. forces carried out hundreds of additional air strikes; between the two assaults on Fallujah, they unloaded enough munitions to damage or destroy roughly half the city's thirty-nine thousand buildings. After two days of intense battle, military officials announced that U.S. forces controlled 70 percent of the city. The rest was secured just over a week later. More than ninety soldiers died and more than five hundred were wounded. In their wake, U.S. forces left a bombed-out wasteland of approximately 1,350 dead insurgents--and, if studies are correct, a level of unrelenting toxicity in the flattened city that appears to have led to a staggering rise in birth defects there today.
On Sunday, November 14, 2004, Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5h Marine Regiment rolled away the bundles of concertina wire that had been spread along on the shore of the Euphrates. They became the first Americans to walk across Fallujah's infamous bridge since two of my men had been strung up on it nearly eight months before. Back in the States, it was an emotional time for our staff. We printed eight hundred Blackwater shirts with "3/5" embroidered on the sleeve as a thank-you to the Marines. "It's symbolic because the insurgents closed the bridge, and we reopened it," Major Todd Desgrosseilliers, the battalion's executive officer, told reporters.
In black marker, one of the Marines left a message on one of the bridge's green trestles: "This is for the Americans of Blackwater that were murdered here in 2004. Semper Fidelis 3/5s."
"PS," it concluded. "F**k you."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Chris H writes:

Thinking about this as a signaling story what might this signal to potential future employees? That Blackwater is loyal to it's employees. I doubt someone who wants to sign up for a mercenary job is going to respect a mindset that views all people as equally, or even close to equally, worthy of moral consideration. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Prince shared that moral philosophy (he did decide to go into the war business) but even if he didn't I doubt he'd show much mourning over the Iraq deaths and destruction.

Jeff writes:

That kind of collective punishment is, I suppose, at least useful in raising the cost of insurgency, though, right? If it is clear to every insurgent or potential insurgent that the cost of killing Americans is half their town being destroyed by the Army and the Marines, maybe that makes joining the insurgency a less appealing proposition for young Iraqi men. It doesn't seem to have worked all that well, granted, because the killing continued, but in general, eschewing certain tactics in a war because they violate your personal moral code doesn't sound like a recipe for success, particularly if your enemy doesn't share that code.

War is inherently tribal. Faulting soldiers for being too tribalistic is a little like faulting race car drivers for driving too fast. Tribalism is what makes these men and women willing to fight and die on behalf of the U.S. in the first place. Don't get me wrong; I was no fan of the Iraq War, nor do I care for tribalism in everyday life. I found most of Bryan's points about its dangers are spot on, but if you're going to fight a war, fight to win. If that does or does not include the use of collective punishment, so be it. That's a question for Clausewitz to answer, not Kant.

John Cunningham writes:

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Brian writes:

"I judge civilian warriors by the same standards that I judge military warriors: are they fighting a just war and are they fighting justly?

Where my admiration fell to zero was when I hit Chapter 8, "Fallujah.""


I think your criteria for judging military actions is a good one. I'm confused, though, why your admiration for PRINCE fell to zero when it was the military warriors, not Blackwater, that leveled half of Fallujah. One can hardlt blame Prince for feeling gratitude that the Marines were inspired to fight on behalf of his lost employees. In the excerpt you give, Prince doesn't express a desire for revenge or a gloating over Iraqi deaths--only gratitude over the support from the Marines.

"We printed eight hundred Blackwater shirts with "3/5" embroidered on the sleeve as a thank-you to the Marines."

So why the complete loss of admiration?

David R. Henderson writes:

One can hardl[y] blame Prince for feeling gratitude that the Marines were inspired to fight on behalf of his lost employees.
Yes, I can. Let’s say I had 4 daughters (I have one) and someone murdered them. I would not feel gratitude if the Marines killed over 1,000 people who might include the murderers and destroyed the houses of hundreds of even thousands of people known to be innocent.
Or take another example. You have 4 relatives who are murdered in a tough area of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia cops single out a whole neighborhood for destruction and kill over 1,000 people. Do you feel gratitude?

Notorious B.O.B. writes:

I would if the neighborhood harbored, encouraged and supported the murderers....they were all in it together...neco eos omnes...Deus suos agnoscit

mike shupp writes:

David Henderson:

It's not often I find myself in total agreement with you. Even less often that I feel I should make the point publicly that I'm in agreement. But this is such a moment. I agree completely with your moral judgement -- and I thank you for putting it in print.

Dustin writes:

"I would not feel gratitude if the Marines killed over 1,000 people who might include the murderers"

Might include murderers?! US forces, led by USMC, enter Fallujah to get control of a city increasingly under the control of the enemy. US forces encounter heavy, sustained resistance throughout the city and suffer numerous casualties (~500) in doing so. Were injustices committed? Probably. Was the severity of the engagement a result of the enemy insurgency's resistance? You betcha. Who else do you suppose caused so many US casualties?

Might? Mostly.

David R. Henderson writes:

You misstated my point. I didn’t say “might include murderers.” I said, “might include the murderers.” Do you see the difference?

David R. Henderson writes:

@mike shupp,
Thanks, Mike.

Jeff writes:

If someone murdered your daughters in the streets of Philadelphia or wherever, that's a far different situation than them being killed, along with many other people's sons and daughters, in the middle of a war zone. In both cases, it is appropriate to take steps to bring the killers to justice and to prevent future killings of a similar nature. Even in inner city Philadelphia, this does not require an armored division. In a war zone, however, where an organized insurgency is moving among the civilian population, more drastic steps are likely needed.

Tom West writes:

more drastic steps are likely needed.

Jeff, would you care to give us more detail as to when you consider the use of force that will certainly result in civilian casualties is morally permissible?

If 4 deaths morally permits the destruction of a medium-size city, surely sending 100 heavily armed soldiers to flush a murderer out of an apartment building in the US (along with the casualties that would go with it) would also make the cut. Especially when in certain areas and circumstance, it's quite possible a murderer could have the support of many of those living in the building.

I do agree that tribalism is probably necessary to field an effective army. While there have been movements based around a shared philosophy, I suspect that even then, it's the tribe that forms around the philosophy that motivates the soldiers to kill and risk death.

I'd argue that this requirement of tribalism is one of the key points in favor of pacifism.

Dustin writes:


That is a clear distinction.

We didn't kill 1,000+ because of 4 deaths. We killed 1,000+ because there was heavy, deadly resistance against our occupation of the city. So the justness of our action was entirely independent of 'the murderers'.

Your analogy of Philly was off - I'll restate it:

You have 4 relatives who are murdered in a tough area of Philadelphia. To find the perpetrators, the Philadelphia cops enter the city after warning residents and requesting assistance in IDing the perpetrators as well as other serious criminals. After encountering heavy, deadly resistance while attempting to establish security and search for the perpetrators, Philly cops ultimately destroy a large section of the neighborhood and kill over 1,000 people in order to repel the attack.

Jeff writes:


War and peace are two different things, are they not? Surely there are more than a few murderers roaming about Philadelphia at any given time, but the difference with Fallujah is that Philly's killers aren't waging an armed insurrection against the Philly PD or the Pennsylvania National Guard. Surely dealing with one might require different tactics than the other, right? Non-uniformed combatants are counting on their ability to blend in with the civilian population to continue to wage a campaign of violence against a superior force which could otherwise quickly dispatch them. Again, if you eschew certain tactics which might be successful against them because they violate your ethical code, you are playing right into their hands. You are increasing your enemies' chance of victory while diminishing your own, and thereby endangering the lives of your fellow soldiers. You might occupy the moral high ground, but if there happen to be more car bombs and IEDs up there, well, it's time to start asking how much that ground is really worth.

Tom West writes:

I'll agree that war and peace are different. I responded because in your original phrasing implied to me a police action.

I do agree that fighting a war (especially a guerrilla action) inevitably leads to immoral acts in order to have a chance at victory. It does not, however, make those acts moral. The cost for having committed those acts will weigh on those soldiers for the rest of their lives.

Again, extremely good reasons for having a *very* high bar for war (I'm not a pacifist, I don't believe there's never any reason for war, but almost never, yes.)

I can see supporting policies that would compel others to risk their lives for my sake. But I have a really hard to supporting policies that would compel people to commit immoral acts (which, as you point out, are pretty much a necessity in war) for my benefit. The cost on their soul, and then on mine for compelling them, is too high.

Brian writes:


I haven't read the book and you have, so perhaps I'm missing some important context or information not given the excerpt, but what you present in the post seems to to suggest a different interpretation than you give it.

The Marines did not go into Fallujah because of what happened to Blackwater. They would have been going in anyway to control the territory, and the resulting destruction was a direct result of that campaign. It had nothing to do with Blackwater. Prince's description of a "bombed-out wasteland" and "unrelenting toxicity" does not suggest that he is reveling in that part of the campaign. The gratitude he expresses appears to relate mainly to the taking of the bridge and the nod of recognition the Marines gave to his Blackwater employees. Am I missing something?

Sean writes:

Dustin's analogy is the right one.

David, did you oppose the invasion of Afghanistan? It played out similar to your proposal: The US identified perpetrators of murder. The Taliban weren't eager to hand them over. It turned out differently: The US attacked the Taliban not only to capture Al Qaeda leaders, but to over throw a state which enables and defends those groups. To use your analogy, it would be as if the cops begin looking for the murderer, and the town declares themselves standing with the murderers.

Perhaps some thought of applying Clausewitz to the police force is in order. Force will need to be applied at some point, and it ought to be proportional. I think it's overkill to send SWAT for non-violent warrants. I think we shouldn't carpet-bomb cities. But turning a blind eye to the way the battle escalated in Falluja does not give you the moral high ground.

David R. Henderson writes:

David, did you oppose the invasion of Afghanistan?
Yes. For more on why, see this.

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