So I wanted to take a moment to talk about Blackwater some more; I actually mean to do two posts on it – this one about the organization and some of the politics around it, and other about an idea about society and people that being there gave me.
Blackfive, Uncle Jimbo, and NZ Bear all wrote about the logistics and posted pictures and video, so let me refer to some of their pictures and cites:
…and of course they talked smack (and some compliments) about me…
Ok, so who taught you that you carry your weapon like some bag from Prada? MKH might get away with it.. but guys, c’mon. REAL dudes know better.
Someone tell A-L he’s carrying it LIKE a typical ‘liberal’- ”eww, someone take this!”
And, as much as we kid Marc Danziger (the best dressed range trainee I’ve ever seen – Italian shoes, even) about the huge money he has spent on training, we ate some humble pie as he demonstrated that his investment was worth it.
Yeah – a little anxiety shooting in front of those guys – and since United lost my suitcase, I was shooting in dress shoes (interesting shooting in leather soles) and suit pants from one of my favorite suits (hence the ‘don’t get gun lube on the gabardine’ that got me smack-talked on B5)
But enough about the trip, let me take a moment and talk about Blackwater.
My impression, as of Monday of last week, was that they had built essentially a body shop (placement service) for skilled trigger-pullers. I believed that they had levels of skill – from people who were basically somewhat more trained than I am up to the most elite operators. As of Friday night, my impression was very different.
I’m a big believer that people give you ‘tells’ about who they are and how they operate. The first thing I noticed was how buttoned-down the whole place was. Every building was neat, every building and door numbered, every vehicle had an ID on it. We walked into the vehicle shop where the Grizzlies (and the new secret vehicle) were being built and two minutes later a nice lady came around and offered us safety glasses.
When we did our hot laps (did I mention how fun they were? Did you see the videos?) course control – something I’m sensitized to from roadracing and motorcycle track days – was watertight.
The AR15 ‘sampler’ we did was absolutely great – they built skills with care to conceptually explain what we were doing and to carefully ‘pyramid’ skills. The tests they gave us were pretty easy – but they were sound, well managed, and at every moment they carefully managed us in terms of safety, attention, and action. And I’ll note that the conceptual points they made about what they were doing were simple, smart and even somewhat novel to me.
So every detail I saw wasn’t one indicating a loosely run placement agency for retired cops and operators, but an organization that proceeds with more than a little care in everything it does.
Look, I know about the accusations – of overaggressive fire at vehicles, of the shooting and deaths at Nisour Square. I honestly don’t know enough to have a real personal opinion on those events and others like them. I will suggest that in reality in any situation where people walk around with loaded guns the potential for tragic incident is there, and in any organization that ramps up as fast as they did they will get some losers and make some mistakes.
Overall, for me to judge them on those kinds of grounds, I’d want to compare them with a realistic standard – one with some grounding in history and fact – not one based on a kind of artificial notion of behavior. So I won’t judge or condemn them for those actions until I have facts that take my views one way or the other.
I also can’t comment in detail on their ‘profiteering’ except to suggest that you watch the clip from the Aviator where Howard Hughes confronts Senator Brewster. Large things need to get done quickly in wartime, and that means there will be large checks written and sometimes wasted. Anyone who can improve the procurement process – by saving the public money while still getting results – will have my support. But meanwhile, I’d suggest you read the CBO study on the costs of contracting in Iraq (pdf).
One of the things that impressed me the most about them was their ability to rapidly shift ground and innovate. Price – a wealthy former SEAL – started Blackwater as a training facility, intending to compete with Gunsite and Thunder Ranch, both schools I’ve attended. He put his school in North Carolina thinking that the population density and surrounding government facilities would give him an advantage over the remote Prescott, Arizona and Mountain Home, Texas locations of those schools.
They were approached by the Navy to train up sailors after the USS Cole, given that they could act in 30 days. Their response – “sure!” – and they created a huge training capability that became the basis of their business.
They have pivoted on a dime multiple times in order to respond to opportunities – and to create opportunities where they see them. Armored vehicles, energy, airships…that entrepreneurial “why not?” and “why not right now?” kind of attitude appears to drive the company.
I do think there are some interesting questions about the appropriate role for companies like this – and all the other contractors who support our military (see the CBO report, seriously). And I touched a nerve when I asked if they really believed that they had no impact on retention of highly trained operators (for the record, they strongly argued “no” and pointed me to Congressional studies that back them up – I’m still a bit cynical).
But I think it’s critical somehow to create space in the defense ecology for the kind of dynamic, responsive organization that Blackwater represents. I’d love to see more and more of our defense spending channeled to companies like this and less to the large multi-megabuck multi-decade projects (the Crusader, anyone?). I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion with Joe about this issue.
Blackwater is a Defense 2.0 company – finding half-million dollar solutions to what have traditionally been ten-million dollar problems. That’s something we need a lot more of, not less.