Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

They call themselves private military contractors — or, amongst themselves, the Coalition of the Billing. Josh Manchester calls them an Al Qaeda for the Good Guys. Mark Hemingway calls them Warriors for Hire:

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, the company’s founder, “believes to his core that this is his life’s work,” says Taylor. “If you’re not willing to drink the Blackwater Kool-aid and be committed to supporting humane democracy around the world, then there’s probably a better place” to go work, “because that’s all we do.”

Though his military career was brief, as a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, Prince is no dilettante. He attended officer candidate school after finishing college in 1992, and the next year he joined SEAL Team 8 based out of Norfolk. Prince eventually deployed to Haiti, the Middle East, and Bosnia, among other assignments. He is blond, handsome, and ridiculously all-American looking. His posture is ramrod straight, and his clipped sentences are true to his martial roots. At only 37, he remains in impeccable shape and looks as ready to step onto the battlefield as into a boardroom.

He hardly fits the soldier of fortune archetype. He is a staunch Christian — his father helped James Dobson found Focus on the Family — and his politically conservative views are well known in Washington, where Prince supports a number of religious and right-leaning causes. He attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a font of conservative ideology, where he is remembered for being the first undergraduate at the small liberal arts school to serve on the local volunteer fire department. (The only book on the shelf in the boardroom of Blackwater’s Northern Virginia offices is a copy of the eminent conservative historian Paul Johnson’s A History Of The American People.)

Nobody can say Prince is in it for the money, either. His father Edgar started a small die-cast shop in Holland, Michigan, in 1965. Along the way he patented the now-ubiquitous lighted vanity mirror in automobile visors; a year after his 1995 death, the family company sold for over $1 billion, an enormous inheritance for Erik and his sisters.

The next year Erik left the Navy and founded Blackwater. It was the end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration and Congress had been eagerly downsizing military facilities and training — much to the consternation of many officers, Prince included. Prince knew there would be a market for the kind of training Blackwater would provide; his initial purchase of 6,000 acres in Moyock does not suggest his vision for the company was modest. (It’s currently 7,500 acres; the company has plans to relocate the Florida aviation division to North Carolina near its headquarters, as well as open training facilities in California and the Philippines.)

Regardless of his inheritance, Prince’s subsequent shepherding of Blackwater has proved him as adept a businessman as his father. And there you have it. Erik Prince — mercenary mogul and liberal America’s worst nightmare. Not only can he buy and sell you, he can kill you before you even know he’s in the room.

For a conservative like Prince, you can’t make the world a better place without harnessing the power of free markets. He sounds more like an MBA than a mercenary. Prince believes that an entrepreneurial spirit and the military go naturally together: “This goes back to our corporate mantra: We’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what Fed Ex did for the postal service,” Prince says. “They did many of the same services that the Postal Service did, better, cheaper, smarter, and faster by innovating, [which] the private sector can do much more effectively.”

Some of Blackwater’s capabilities:

  • A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.
  • A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.
  • The country’s largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.
  • A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.
  • A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.
  • A 1,200-yard-long firing range for sniper training.
  • A sizable private armory. The one gun locker I saw contained close to 100 9mm handguns — mostly military issue Beretta M9s, law enforcement favorite Austrian Glocks, and Sig Sauers.
  • An armored vehicle still in development called the Grizzly; the prototype’s angular steel plates are ferocious-looking. The suspension is being built by one of Black water’s North Carolina neighbors — Dennis Anderson, monster truck champion and the man responsible for the “Grave Digger” (the ne plus ultra of monster trucks).

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