Once upon a time, in Holland, Michigan, a man named Edgar Prince started up a small automotive parts supply business. In 1972, Prince came up with the idea for a Cadillac car visor with a lighted mirror. His company took off like a rocket, and he made millions and millions of dollars.
Prince was an ultra-conservative Republican and an ardent supporter of right-wing organizations and causes. He helped the Christian Right activist Gary Bauer develop the Family Research Council. The FRC, bankrolled by Prince and other like-minded Christian fundamentalists, has aggressively pursued its self-appointed mission of “defending Family, Faith, and Freedom.”
The Prince family also has strong ties to the highly secretive and select group of wealthy, politically powerful religious rightwingers who call themselves the Council for National Policy. Edgar Prince was at one time the organization’s vice president. The CNP’s membership roster, and when and where its closed-door meetings are held, are closely guarded secrets. The Council has been described as “the most influential gathering of conservatives in America.”
Prince and his wife Elsa had several children, including a daughter, Betsy, and a son, Erik. Both Betsy and Erik inherited their father’s passion for conservative Republican politics.
Betsy married Dick DeVos, son of Richard DeVos, Sr., founder of the Amway marketing empire. The elder DeVos amassed a $2.4 billion fortune by getting other people to sell soaps, cosmetics, and vitamins for him.
Betsy is a former two-time chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party, and a founder of the National Right to Life Committee. In an April 2004 interview with the Grand Rapids Press, she famously blamed “high wages” as the cause of Michigan’s economic woes. Betsy’s husband was the Republican candidate in Michigan’s 2006 governor’s race. He spent more than $35 million of his own money on the unsuccessful campaign.
Dick and Betsy DeVos were the nation’s largest individual campaign donors during the 2004 election cycle. In 2003-04, they contributed more than $2.3 million to Republican candidates and organizations, including the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. Top party officials and Bush-Cheney bigwigs were wined and dined on board the DeVos family yacht during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
Betsy DeVos has been one of the most aggressive and prolific of the “bundlers” toiling for George Bush. A bundler is a well-connected political insider who hits up wealthy friends and colleagues for contributions to a particular campaign. With individual donations limited by law to just $2,000 each, a good and loyal bundler is worth her weight in gold. Donors successfully wooed by a particular bundler put special tracking numbers on their checks so that the bundler can be duly credited and rewarded. Bush-Cheney 04 Inc. bestowed the honorary title of “Pioneer” on those bundlers, including Betsy DeVos, who raked in at least $100,000 for the campaign. The hard-working Betsy reached that same mark for George Bush in 2000 as well.
And what of Erik Prince? Unlike his sister, he shuns the limelight. He dislikes having his picture taken. Still, this much is known. He made his first contribution to the Republican Party, for $15,000, when he was just 19 years old. He interned at the Family Research Council, and also at the White House under President George H.W. Bush. The Bush I administration was not conservative enough for Prince, and he opted to campaign for Patrick Buchanan in 1992. Prince later joined the Navy SEALS and was trained as a commando. While not as prolific a fundraiser as his sister Betsy, Prince has still made a point of personally supporting conservative Republican organizations and candidates, including George Bush. During one month alone in 2000, Prince gave over $80,000 to the Republican Party.
In 1995, Edgar Prince stepped onto an elevator at work, suffered a heart attack, and died. Soon thereafter, the family sold off most of the Prince Company holdings for about $1.4 billion. In 1997, Erik Prince, just 27 years old but newly flush with unlimited cash, started his own private military company called Blackwater USA. The company would later rename itself Blackwater Worldwide.
Prince spared no expense in building his state-of-the-art mercenary training facility in the woods, swamps, and farmland near tiny Moyock, North Carolina. Blackwater bills itself as “a leading provider of creative solutions for the United States government." The company's vice chairman is Cofer Black, former director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center. Although the Blackwater compound was constructed in North Carolina, its parent company, The Prince Group, is headquartered in Mclean, Virginia, about a ten-minute drive from the CIA. Erik Prince serves as chairman and CEO of The Prince Group.
Blackwater is part of a rapidly growing trend toward the privatization of warfare. It is estimated that private military companies receive over $100 billion in annual global revenue. There is one private military contractor for every six U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
As the Iraq War raged on, Blackwater tapped former U.S. military personnel, Special Forces members, and law enforcement officers for service as mercenaries. Lured by the prospect of making as much as $600 a day on short-term contracts, new Blackwater recruits signed up for training in Moyock and were then shipped off to Iraq.
With big dollar government contracts pouring in, Blackwater also traveled to faraway lands in search of more soldiers of fortune. The company offered former Chilean commandos with ties to the brutal regime of deposed dictator Augusto Pinochet $4000 a month to work in Iraq. During Pinochet’s reign of terror, thousands of Chileans were tortured, executed, or simply disappeared. Blackwater brought dozens of the Chilean recruits to its North Carolina facility, then sent them on to Iraq. When questioned about hiring the Pinochet henchmen, Blackwater's president Gary Jackson defended the practice: “We scour the ends of the earth to find professionals – the Chilean commandos are very, very professional and they fit within the Blackwater system.”
The stream of money between the Prince/DeVos dynasty and the Bush administration flows in more than one direction. Blackwater has been the happy recipient of tens of millions of dollars in federal government contracts in recent years. In August 2003, Blackwater was handed a $21.3 million contract to guard L. Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. The lucrative contract was awarded on a no-bid basis.
By March 2004, Blackwater had at least 450 men on the ground in Iraq. They included Americans Scott Helvenston of California, Michael Teague from Tennessee, Wesley Batalona of Hawaii, and Jerry Zovko of Ohio. On March 31st these men were deployed in the city of Fallujah, about 43 miles west of Baghdad.
Fallujah is known in Iraq as the City of Mosques. During the 1991 Gulf War, it was one of the cities with the most civilian casualties. Two failed bombing attempts on Fallujah’s bridge over the Euphrates River during that war hit crowded markets instead, killing 200 civilians and provoking outrage among the inhabitants. Still, Fallujah was one of the most peaceful areas of the country just after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, with a new staunchly pro-American mayor selected by local tribal leaders. Against the wishes of city residents, however, U.S. forces entered and occupied Fallujah. A strict curfew was imposed. On the night of April 28, 2003, as a small crowd gathered outside a local school to protest the curfew, U.S. troops opened fire, killing 15 civilians. Resistance and insurgency grew in the following months.
On March 31, 2004, the Blackwater mercenaries drove their two unarmored Mitsubishi Pajero SUVs through the heart of the city. They were ambushed, shot, and killed. Both vehicles were torched, and the men’s charred corpses were ripped apart, stomped on, dragged through the streets, and hung from the Euphrates River bridge. Grisly images of the attack flashed across television screens and jumped out from newspaper front pages all around the world.
Back home in Mclean, Erik Prince, jarred by the unwelcome and unfamiliar public scrutiny of Blackwater’s operations generated by the incident, quickly tapped the Alexander Strategy Group, an influential Republican lobbying and public relations firm in Washington, to do damage control. Prince’s new handlers, headed up by the former chief of staff to Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, whisked him off to Capitol Hill for a round of closed-door meetings with then House Majority Leader DeLay and other supportive members of Congress.
The families of Helvenston, Teague, Batalona, and Zovko sued Blackwater, alleging that the company, in its quest to keep expenses down and maximize profits, cut corners and compromised the safety of the slain men. Blackwater responded with a ten million dollar counterclaim against the families of the slain men, contending that employment contracts signed by the men forbid any suit against the company. The litigation is still pending.
Blackwater protectee L. Paul Bremer publicly vowed that the killings would "not go unpunished," and the retaliatory response of the U.S. military was indeed swift and bloody. On April 4th, "Operation Vigilant Resolve" was launched in Fallujah. As troops invaded the city, helicopters and warplanes fired missiles and rockets into one of the city’s largest mosques, killing forty or more worshipers gathered for afternoon prayers. More than 1400 Iraqis were killed and wounded before U.S. forces retreated in the face of fierce resistance by insurgents.
Operation Vigilant Resolve was halted on April 10th, in the midst of a public outcry over the civilian casualties.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit collective punishment, indiscriminate destruction of property, and military reprisal against civilians. Nevertheless, a far more devastating assault on the people of Fallujah was soon to come.
The pre-war 2003 population of Fallujah was perhaps as high as 350,000 inhabitants. Tens of thousands of people fled the heavily bombed city as the war dragged on and airstrikes intensified. Some moved to squalid tent cities close by, with no place else to go. But many Fallujahns, at least 30,000 according to the lowest available estimate, remained in the city on November 7, 2004. On that day, the U.S. unleashed “Operation Phantom Fury”.
All exits out of the city were blocked, and the bridges secured. Fallujah’s main hospital was seized, and both doctors and patients were forced to lie manacled on the floor. Medical operations were interrupted, resulting in the death of one patient. Troops cut off all electricity and water service within the city, and prevented civilians from fleeing. Some tried to escape by swimming across the Euphrates while holding white flags or clothing above their heads. They were shot by soldiers posted with rifles on the river banks.
With an absolute curfew in place, medical personnel were unable to retrieve the wounded. Ambulance drivers who defied the curfew were killed by U.S. snipers. Aid workers from the Iraqi Red Crescent agency were barred from providing humanitarian aid to Fallujahns during Operation Phantom Fury. Food, blankets, medicine, and water purification tablets went undistributed as the Red Crescent doctors and nurses stood by helplessly at the city gates.
Thousands of civilians, many of them women and children, were killed and wounded during Operation Phantom Fury. Troops dumped bloated and decomposing corpses into the Euphrates River. Other unretrieved bodies were trampled by tanks and eaten by dogs roaming the streets.
The United States has admitted that it used incendiary white phosphorus during the November 2004 siege. White phosphorus causes deep and painful burns. It continues to flame until it consumes itself, and so cannot be otherwise extinguished. It often burns victims all the way to the bone.
By the time Operation Phantom Fury wound down on November 18th, 36,000 of Fallujah's 50,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines. In a scant eleven days, the City of Mosques had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
Fallujahns wanting to return to whatever was left of their homes were allowed back into the city only after undergoing mandatory retinal eye scans and biometric identification.
The United States has flatly refused to do “body counts” or otherwise monitor and record the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war. However, an in-depth statistical survey conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers and published in the authoritative and independent British medical journal The Lancet concluded that the Iraqi death toll associated with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was at least 100,000 people as of November 2004. Women and children account for more than half of the war dead.
Copyright 2006 - 2008 Russ Smith