Someone is making a killing in Iraq, but it's not our brave soldiers. As I listened Wednesday night to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill rattle off a litany of frightening facts associated with the growing influence of military security contractor Blackwater USA, I couldn't help but think of the dozens of members of military families who sacrifice so much while their loved ones are off fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of The New York Times bestseller "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," Scahill was a featured speaker on the Henderson campus of the College of Southern Nevada.
While Blackwater enjoys remarkable business success and unprecedented influence at the highest levels of our government, our service personnel and their families struggle to fight a war and feed their loved ones.
Family members worry almost constantly - and they should. Many American soldiers have entered battle with inferior equipment and have been forced to endure extended tours of duty. From the National Guard and reserve units to our elite forces, the American military is under stress.
Adding to the pressure is the fact the troops' marching orders have been muddled from the start as the so-called experts scurried to get their military intelligence right. The game plan that soldiers have been asked to carry out has been rewritten more than once as the measure of the enemy and the scope of the greater mission have been reassessed.
Family members struggle to make ends meet on military pay. They're hit especially hard by rising fuel and grocery prices, surging unemployment, and the fracturing of the home mortgage market.
And heaven help our soldiers if they make a mistake in battle. American military personnel are subject to intensive rules of conduct and engagement.
Meanwhile, Blackwater personnel receive superior pay and benefits with much less important duty. They often have better equipment at their disposal.
And then there are the rules. There really are none, Scahill convincingly argues.
Given Blackwater's success and remarkable lack of public scrutiny, it makes a skeptic wonder whether those soldiers and their families aren't eventually going to start feeling like carnival rubes.
Scahill makes a compelling point in his book. As he sees it, Blackwater and its ilk undermine our national security while taking taxpayers for an expensive ride. The author gets hung up on silly things like the Constitution, public corruption in high places, the rules of engagement, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice - or justice at any level, for that matter.
Short of actually taking action and reclaiming the military security function from the private sector - an unlikely proposition, Scahill argues, given the incredibly tight relationship between the Bush administration and the corporation's officials - it might be smarter to take the low road and let Blackwater run the military. I'm only half-joking.
Given Blackwater's business model, we'll likely be in a constant state of war and we'll continue to slouch toward a corporate fascist state in which the word "democracy" is marketed like the latest laundry detergent. Hey, there's always a downside to these things.
But at least our soldiers will finally have the political juice on their side. They'll enjoy the contacts it apparently takes to earn a decent living, receive superior benefits and health care, and have access to the best armor and equipment.
And don't forget they'll essentially be free from the irritating constraints of the rules of engagement. No more courts-martial for our brave men and women. Just "go Blackwater" and leave the cleanup to someone else.
Scahill's book captures Blackwater's eerie vision in the words of key members of its inner circle.
He writes, former CIA official "Cofer Black has advised others in the mercenary industry to 'be opportunistic' - a quality that has come naturally to Blackwater. 'We have a dynamic business plan that is 20 years long,' bragged Blackwater president Gary Jackson in the summer of 2006. 'We're not going anywhere.' "
No matter who wins the White House.
If a free pass is good enough for Blackwater, it ought to be good enough for average G.I. Joes and Janes. Once cleansed of conscience, our front-line military personnel will finally make a killing for killing.
That's the message Blackwater's influence sends to our nation and its military.
• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (702) 383-0295.