Blackwater and the Iraq War Time Warp

A long conflict as seen through a long trial

An Iraqi policeman inspects the aftermath of the shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

War moves quickly: In less than an hour in Baghdad in the fall of 2007, American contractors working for Blackwater shot and killed 14 Iraqis, including children. Justice is slower, and it took until Monday for four of those contractors, who were convicted in August, to be sentenced to jail for 14 of those deaths. Three received 30-year sentences, while a fourth will spend his life in prison.

The name Blackwater sounds anachronistic at this moment. When the shooting happened, there was a raging debate within the United States over the use of contractors to perform the functions typically performed by the military, and the shooting in Nisour Square became a potent symbol for critics of the practice.

So much has changed since then: The debate has quieted, and the American occupation of Iraq has ended. The "surge," in progress at the time of the massacre, has come and gone. Blackwater has gone through two name changes in an attempt to distance itself from Nisour and other notorious incidents in Iraq, becoming first Xe Services and then Academi.* George W. Bush has largely left the public stage, even as his brother runs for president. No one had heard of ISIS at the time, but the group is now one of the greatest threats to regional stability.

The Blackwater trial can seem like a microcosm of the broader Iraq War. Just as the trial took years, the Iraq War has dragged on for an unexpectedly long time. Just as the war was marred by government fumbling, so was the Blackwater case—prosecutors couldn't muster the evidence to charge one contractor, and missed a deadline to charge another one for some crimes. And just as the major proponents of the Iraq War, men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, continue to insist the war was well-conceived and well-executed, the Blackwater defendants continue to assert their innocence:

“I know for a fact that I will be exonerated, in this life and the next,” said Paul A. Slough.

“I am very sorry for the loss of life,” Dustin L. Heard said. “But I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I believe I did anything wrong.”

“As God is my witness,” Evan S. Liberty said, he fired only at insurgents who were shooting at him.

“The verdict is wrong,” said Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Army sniper who was convicted of murder for starting the melee with a precision shot through the head of a young man stopped at an intersection. “You know I am innocent, sir.”

The contractors' defenders complained the men had faced extreme danger, and that they were heroes. The question of whether Blackwater contractors should have been hired to maintain security in a combat zone loomed over the court proceedings, though in the end it did not shield them from punishment. Iraqis told the court that Blackwater "had power like Saddam Hussein" and could kill with impunity. Yet as my colleague Kathy Gilsinan noted recently, the U.S. has continued to rely heavily on military contractors over the past decade. The Blackwater verdict proves that justice can be achieved in a single, egregious case, but it doesn't provide much insight into whether the U.S. has learned broader lessons.

It is a bleak coincidence that the sentences were handed down just as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Washington for meetings with President Obama. Just as in 2007, there are again predictions that Iraq has come apart and is perhaps irreparable. Yet another top-level failure of the Iraq War, the inability to train an effective Iraqi army capable of maintaining discipline, prepared to fight a serious opponent, and cleansed of corruption, has sucked the United States back into Mesopotamia. American airplanes are striking ISIS positions, and American soldiers have been deployed back to Iraq to train Iraqi troops in the fight against ISIS. Matt Bradley notes that many of the soldiers engaged in the training have been training Iraqi soldiers for years, but Iraqi forces deserted en masse as ISIS bore down on Mosul in the summer of 2014. (Sean McFate, a former contractor and current professor at the National Defense University, speculated that contractors might play a role in training.)

Like any murder trial, the Blackwater trial can't make the victims or their families whole. But it can provide a sense of justice. The government of Iraq was deeply skeptical about the process and wanted to try the contractors itself, worried that the American process would be a charade designed to let the perpetrators off. But Iraqis interviewed after the verdict seemed surprised but pleased with the result. Meanwhile, no matter the U.S. incentives to bring stability to Iraq as a whole, its capacity to do so remains in question.

* When the company became Academi, it also underwent a change in ownership and leadership. In June of 2014, it merged with another private security company; the combined entity is known as Constellis Holdings.