By Peter McHugh
Ever since a September firefight in Baghdad, the American private security firm Blackwater USA has been under intense scrutiny. Since then, too, the rhetoric directed against the company has grown increasingly heated -- with pundits and politicians hurling often unfounded verbal "grenades" at the firm.
Critics describe the Blackwater contractors pejoratively as "cowboys," attempting to attribute recklessness, or worse, to their motives or actions.
But "cowboy" hasn't always been a slur, and it needn't be one today. Indeed, there was a time, not too long ago, when cowboys were uniquely American heroes.
When I was a kid, cowboys were the "good guys." It was the cowboy ethos -- hard work, respect, individual responsibility -- that helped America settle and tame the West. They could be trusted for protection and fair treatment. Cowboy history was perpetuated in the Saturday matinees I shared with Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Hoppalong Cassidy, where the cowboy's place in history was honored by society, and where their company made me feel safe.
That's my memory of "cowboy," and a label Blackwater deserves. I know, because I've seen Blackwater work up close and personal (and spent a fair amount of time in those early matinees!). I was safe in their company.
In 2005 and 2006, I was the Transportation Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, working with Iraqis to get their roads, bridges, tunnels, and airports up and running.
My job would have been impossible without Blackwater. In my dealings, I found Blackwater staff to be thorough, competent, and professional. It is widely known that most are former military personnel, but that they are patriots and honorable men and women who see their employment as continued service to their country, is never reported.
Potential for a deadly attack lay beyond every Baghdad corner, on every highway, and at every meeting location -- During my riskier travels, when the radio crackled with yet another report of a nearby attack, I remember thinking of Roy and Dale, Gene and Hoppalong, those cowboy heroes of my youth. But in Iraq it wasn't cowboys, but Blackwater's men that kept me safe. And, though 30 Blackwater contractors have been killed protecting American diplomats in Iraq, not a single diplomat under Blackwater's protection has died.
One Marine Colonel, assigned to my office in Baghdad, survived an attack while under Blackwater's guard. He told me that the security forces took out five of the attackers, but one of the Blackwater detachment members took a bullet in the leg. The Colonel claims he lives today because of Blackwater, and that defender's sacrifice! Without the security they provided, it would have been impossible for my team, and other American officials to effectively help bring stability to Iraq's government, infrastructure, and people.
This performance of duty wasn't recklessness. It was bravery!
Incidents like these serve as reminders of how much the streets of Baghdad can seem like the rougher parts of the Old West -- and how glad I was that the "cowboys" were on my side.
So next time I hear someone call Blackwater's contractors "cowboys," I'm going to nod in agreement and say, "Yup! And they should be damn proud of it."
(Peter McHugh is Interagency Chair at the National Defense University, Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. Previously, he was Transportation Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.)
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