Thursday, 3 June 2010

Blackwater and Tiger Force - Book reviews

I didnt read these books in order with a particular aim in mind, but found myself drawing comparisons between the two. They both address armed forces and how men cope in high stress/low accountability situations, and I thought it was interesting how the authors dealt with their subject matter.

Its also worth noting that both books draw heavily on the work on war journalists, people putting themselves literally in the firing line to find a story. In an age where embedded journalists hide so far from the enemy they are often in another country, then patronise us by donning military fatigues and bullet proof vests, its worth remembering that there are true journalists risking their lives just to find nuggets of information. On a personal note, I live in absolute awe of journalists who take these risks.

But, to return to the subject matter...

Tiger Force, by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, is a fascinating piece of investigative work, looking at a group of soldiers, known as, unsurprisingly, Tiger Force.

In essence this was a relatively small group of elite soldiers, who were routinely deployed into unwinnable and unrelentingly violent situations, and asked to achieve almost impossible objectives.

One of the themes of the book is the sheer lack of oversight which went on during the campaign. Even when casual violence against civilians was epidemic amongst the unit, senior commanders turned a blind eye, convinced the value of the soldiers outweighed their descent into madness.

There is something of the story Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, to this tale. Except in this case these men were put into a hell not of their own making, and were forced to survive. They did this in the most brutal of ways, executing civilians, and committing war crimes on a routine basis.

I dont want to dwell too much on the subject matter as I think its frankly, deeply disturbing. Suffice it to say that the worst excesses of wartime are represented amongst this group.

What I personally found good about this book is that it is not unfair to the soldiers themselves. At no time are they portrayed as gibbering monsters, or comic book villians. They are normal men, who are placed into a situation so insane the only response is to go insane. The book also deals in depth with what happened to them all after the war. All the surviving members struggled to cope with life, and several killed themselves, or turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the mental illnesses they had earned from their service.

A tragic tale of what war can do to men, and the horror that can be inflicted by one human on another, Tiger Force is horrific in a most visceral way, but deeply readable. I personally think there's a case to be made that books like this should be required reading for all officers in all armed forces.

Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill, on the other hand, is a very different animal.

For those who arent aware, Blackwater is, in essence, a highly organised and semi official (certainly state supported) mercenary company, operating under the aegis of providing 'security'.

The book charts the rise and further rise of this organisation throughout the late 90's almost to the present day, and I dont deny it appears to be a very comprehensive history of a largely mysterious company.

Blackwater is in the business of providing trained soldiers, on private contracts, to serve in roles traditionally held by the regular armed forces. The purpose of this is, in principle, to free up soldiers from the need to guard buildings, or move supplies, in favour of more front line duties.

The book is entirely too agenda focussed however. There is a curious obsesson with attacking the Bush Government, despite Blackwater cutting its teeth under a Democratic president. There is a clear desire to directly link the Bush, and his senior staff, to the rise of this organisation. Although there are clear links between the two, I think Blackwater's power has come more from the law of unintended consequences than a sincere desire to unleash unregulated soldiers on the world.

Blackwater has been at the center of a multitude of scandals in its history, precipitating amongst other things, the dramatic events in Falluja throughout the Iraq occupation. And it is clear the the companies owners intend to make as much money as humanly possible with little regard to their employees or the impact their employees can have on the lives of others.

Ironically, in its emotional attempts to portray the human victims of Blackwater operatives, the author forgets that Blackwater operatives are humans too. It is clear from some of the quotes that many of the employees are deeply scarred by their experiences, and some clearly want to atone for their actions. Yet this is swiftly glossed over in an attempt to point score.

There is also a slight derth of information for some of the claims made in the book. Several points are repeated time and again, a couple of times in every chapter, which I personally found frustrating. If you don't have the sources, write a shorter book.

Because it doesnt embrace the human element of the story, I didnt find the book as interesting as it could have been. I wanted to know more about the people on the ground working for Blackwater, rather than re-reading information about the evils of the companies owner.

Blackwater is a fascinating history, but a lazy one. With the lack of an emotional component beyond the author's own feelings, it's a weaker book.

I'd recommend both books, since they address a range of issues which we are not exposed to on a day to day basis and do so well. Tiger Force is by far and away the better text, less wrapped up in its own self importance, more confident in its style, it is simply a superior read. But Blackwater is, as far as I can tell, the best history on the topic of the modern mercenary.

Of course I'm happy to have other people make some recommendations.

Next on my reading list The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai and I'm finally going to finish Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajif Chandrasekaran. I imagine I'll have a review of each up in time.
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